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Record > Music

Postmod modern
Mining Motown and coming up with nuggets

Mayer Hawthorne: A Strange Arrangement

Label:Stones Throw
Format:Album
Media:CD
Genre:Rock/Pop

 

Published 9/23/2009

Well, it sounds like the guy must have grown up with or around one helluva record collection. And it's nice to see someone put history to such ambitious use in these modern times. But first things first: Mayer Hawthorne is probably the biggest grassroots buzz to hit the music mainstream since Nirvana's Nevermind and Beck's debut album well over a decade ago. Not going to say Hawthorne will be as big as the former or ultimately as forgettable as the latter eventually became. Though he's indeed big at the moment; not only was he above both Jay-Z and Kings of Leon on the iTunes chart last time I checked, but A Strange Arrangement was the No. 1 pick in the Esquire magazine I glanced at today, above Radiohead's Thom Yorke. But Eminem notwithstanding, Hawthorne is certainly the first phenomenon since then in which such a diverse mixture of music aficionados — ranging, in this case, from hip-hop heads to pop geeks to neo-soul lovers to indie rockers — were singing the same artist's praises and creating a buzz before the album was even released. Seriously.

But even though there's certainly something postmodern — possibly even "ironic" — about the Mayer Hawthorne shtick, it still doesn't come off hokey or tongue-in-cheek the way the aforementioned Beck's brief onstage fascination with the James Brown Revue did. In other words, the project may have originated as a "joke" intended for a few friends, but the music here never sounds like an actual joke, at least after an initial listen or two. The sound has been frequently described as "doo-wop," even, in a recent interview, by Hawthorne (aka Drew Cohen) himself. But when push comes to shove, it's got nothing, really, to do with that form of music.

Sure, the brief "Prelude," which opens the album, is damn close to the Beach Boys in the vocal harmony department. In fact, it sounds like nothing so much as "One for the Boys," on which Brian Wilson also harmonized with himself on his eponymous first solo album. But aside from that short diversion, the majority of the album owes its biggest debt to pure Philly and other classic soul. Hell, "Make Her Mine" lifts the riff from the Impressions' "People Get Ready" for its intro and then repeats it as a melodic piano line throughout the song. "Just Ain't Gonna Work Out" has a romantic spoken intro straight out of the Chi-Lites' book of love. And "I Wish It Would Rain" may have taken its title from Detroit's own Temptations but it has a guitar run that's certainly Philadelphia-based. As a song (after opening with a piano riff that will make old-timers think of Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me"!), it may even remind the listener of Eddie Holman's "Hey, There, Lonely Girl"... but in a very lo-fi, postmodern sort of way.

Not that Hawthorne doesn't also visit Motown, which, after all, is closer to his Ann Arbor roots. "One Track Mind" is sorta like the Temptations meeting up with Mary Wells; it may be the best track on the album. Definitely the most poppy. "Your Easy Lovin' Ain't Pleasin' Nothin'," meanwhile, is nothing but pure Supremes, very reminiscent of "You Can't Hurry Love" in its structure ... only in a very lo-fi, postmodern sort of way — even if, ultimately, it lacks Holland-Dozier-Holland's superhooks. In fact, it's probably closer to one of those Hall & Oates or early J. Geils Motown pastiches ... but in a very lo-fi ... well, you get the idea.

Actually, at the beginning of the disc, there could be some apprehension that the lack of hooks in music this classic sounding might be a problem. The title track, for instance, approaches smooth jazz as much as it does Philly soul; it's as close to something like, say, Al Jarreau as it is to the Stylistics. Hawthorne's lyrics aren't exactly in the league of Smokey Robinson, either (but then, Dylan once termed Smokey "America's greatest poet" so comparisons may not exactly be fair in that case). And another problem — at least occasionally — is the kid's voice. It's said Cohen actually learned to sing in order to perform this material, and that's admirable, especially when you're aiming for something as high on the scale and perhaps totally unobtainable as Curtis Mayfield (even in a very lo-fi, postmodern sort of way). In that sense, Mayor Hawthorne may lead a savvy listener to think of nothing so much as Jamiroquai (even if those Brits apparently wanted to be Stevie Wonder, not Curtis) or maybe the Detroit-connected New Radicals of "You Get What You Give" fame. Perhaps the comment an anonymous poster recently left at amazon.com is most apt. To paraphrase: Vocally, sometimes Mayer Hawthorne succeeds; sometimes he just doesn't. The latter is especially most notable on the track "Shiny & New."

But, fortunately, it seems — at least to this listener — that Hawthorne begins to really hit his stride midway through the album. Not just on the aforementioned "One Track Mind" and the Impressions' rip ... but also on the percussive and brass-heavy "The Ills," truly an ace of a tune and a total ass shaker. It's a great song, reminiscent of a slew of summer soul singles that used to sound absolutely wonderful blaring from mono AM stations like Windsor's CKLW ... and we're not just saying that because — full disclosure — the bongo player on the track is related to someone in the Metro Times family.

Perhaps best of all, though, is "Let Me Know," which is drastically different from anything else on the album. It's like a hybrid of the great Arthur Alexander, certain aspects of mid-'60s Merseybeat and British pop bands (which is almost redundant in the same sentence as Arthur Alexander) and really cool countryish-rock-pop music from that same era (ditto on the Alexander/Merseybeat redundancy tip). Hawthorne sings in a much lower register than he does anywhere else here, leaving one to wonder if this is closer to the real Mayer Hawthorne/Drew Cohen. Whatever the case, it'll leave you wanting to hear even more of this side of Mr. Hawthorne.

Yep. The kid seems to have a future.

Bill Holdship is the music editor of Metro Times Send comments to bholdship@metrotimes.com.

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