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Mayer Hawthorne - A Strange Arrangement

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Artist: Mayer Hawthorne

Album: A Strange Arrangement

Label: Stones Throw

Review date: Sep. 9, 2009

It’s gotta be tough to be Mayer Hawthorne. Any blue-eyed soul singer struggles to answer certain lines of questioning about why they play their music and whether they’re mere imitators of another time and of another people’s culture. But Hawthorne has an extra set of biases working against him. Not only must he deal with the racial dynamics of being a white man performing black music, he has to differentiate himself from the other retro-soul revivalists who have been propelled up the charts. It’s difficult enough ducking claims about parroting African-American pop – but having to then best the likes of Amy Winehouse, Mark Ronson, and the Daptone Records ensembles? As Hawthorne himself might say, I’m sorry, but that just ain’t gonna work out.

These twin dilemmas on A Strange Arrangement, Hawthorne’s debut album, are sharp and not easily evaded. First, in his ingratiating allusions to the high-flying tenors of groups such as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Stylistics, and the Delfonics, Hawthorne risks oversimplifying the richness of those artists’ earlier music. This is perhaps the greatest flaw critics might identify in Hawthorne’s interpretations: that by nailing a few conventions of soul music – the muted guitar holding the beat, the reedy snares and cymbals, the falsetto harmonies, the witty lyrical timing – he will appeal to a popular audience invested not in the marvels of the cited originals but only in the nostalgia of those familiar reproduced elements. Hawthorne, one frets, has written away the density of soul’s history in flimsy shorthand, getting rid of the genre’s intricacies to achieve a sound more golden than the oldies themselves.

This criticism probably goes too far in describing all of A Strange Arrangement. For sure, there are some cheap knockoffs on the album. “Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’” immediately registers as a charade in its stretching, grammatically unsound title. (All those apostrophes aside, shouldn’t the last word be “No One”?) And for those willing to venture a listen, they will find a brazen facsimile of The Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love,” a song that needs neither revisiting nor renovation. “One Track Mind,” a lukewarm riff on a girlfriend’s conspicuous consumption, is equally lame.

But despite these small clunkers, there are many moments on A Strange Arrangement that show careful attention to soul’s craft and demonstrate a full immersion in the genre and its subtleties. “Shiny and New” is terrific, a moody vamp that recalls the Temptations’ later material but in a manner far woozier than Berry Gordy would have tolerated. Similarly, “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” successfully affixes R&B’s lullaby to a mellow hip-hop drum loop, a combination that, though logical on paper, has vexed many a producer over the last two decades. And “The Ills” is a decent enough rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s more energetic efforts, albeit without the unparalleled hook of, say, “Move On Up.”

These highlights reveal more than opportunistic borrowing from soul music of yore. Hawthorne is a thorough student of the musicians he references so plainly. And this is where he gets inextricably trapped. Hawthorne may be a connoisseur of ‘60s and ‘70s soul. But there’s not much more to say about him than that. His peers who have taken the same direction have brought something else – some other piece of showmanship or artistry – that makes them more than just inventive cover bands. Gabriel Roth’s Dap-Kings play a live show that is tighter, better rehearsed, and, in the end, superior to most large ensembles you’re likely to find on the college and mainstream-indie circuits. And Amy Winehouse, graced with an otherworldly voice that swoops in tones of coyness and sorrow that seem impossible for a woman her age to muster, has held audiences’ attentions for reasons other than her train-wreck of a personal life.

And Hawthorne? He’s a versatile musician who plays all of the instruments on A Strange Arrangment, which is no small feat. But otherwise, he’s little more than a good genre songwriter. That’s nothing to scoff at, of course, but it’s also not the tallest leg to stand on when competing for attention against all the other retro-soul acts.

Which, for Hawthorne, is too bad. Given the options of listening to the canon that underlies his repertoire and exploring the other soul-nouveau musicians who expand upon that foundation, it’s hard to compliment his music as anything more than satisfactory. For the talented Mr. Hawthorne, that’s a strange arrangement, truly.

By Ben Yaster

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