It seems like every few years, some smooth-voiced new star becomes a temporary next-big-thing in soul, the same way the music press always seems eager to proclaim the next ‘saviors” of rock.
Often, these newcomers get hyped for their eager-to-please serenading and their obvious echoing of legends (Gaye, Mayfield, Wonder take your pick) and not so much for creativity. But hey, you never know what these artists could grow into: D’Angelo started off imitating his idols and just one album later went on to join them with 2000’s ‘Voodoo,” one of the best albums released by an artist in any genre.
At a glance, Mayer Hawthorne doesn’t exactly seem destined to be a serious soul man. A former DJ and rapper, he looks more suited to be in a Weezer tribute band than to become a reputable crooner, and the gaudy novelty vibe given off by the cover of his debut album, ‘A Strange Arrangement,” doesn’t help his case.
But Hawthorne whose real name is Andrew Cohen is a pleasant surprise: He not only makes better soul music than any unsexy, Jewish white guy would ever rightfully be expected to, but sounds like an old pro at the stuff.
It’s not as if Hawthorne is doing anything too unique ‘A Strange Arrangement” is mostly an unabashed homage to early Motown and to the more recent neo-soul movement. But Hawthorne here also serving as his own producer and playing most instruments himself doesn’t let himself get boxed in so easily. Arrangement does enough cherry-picking from familiar soul and R’B sounds to satisfy casual nostalgia, but Hawthorne surveys the classics more than he directly emulates them, giving his debut a wider and fresher array of tricks than many of his like-minded contemporaries can boast.
‘Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin'” and ‘One Track Mind” are the most obvious Motown homages; ‘The Ills” backs regal horns with a funky drum loop, sounding the closest to anything modern; ‘A Strange Arrangement” and ‘I Wish It Would Rain” channel the swooning, melancholy arrangements of Sinatra’s ‘In The Wee Small Hours.” ‘Rain” is the album’s finest moment, by the way: Lyrically, it’s like a humorless take on ‘Not Crying” by Flight of the Conchords (‘I wish that it would rain/Heavy rain down from the sky/Maybe then you wouldn’t see the teardrops in my eyes”), but this song is no joke. Hawthorne’s vocals capture the song’s sadness without reaching too hard, and the dusky piano backdrop is a perfect complement to the rainstorm he begs for. The title is directly lifted from the Temptations, but no other song proves Hawthorne’s own talents like this one.
Sure, at times ‘A Strange Arrangement” runs out of steam: ‘Shiny ‘ New” and ‘Green Eyed Love” are snoozefests that rely on sweet falsettos and schmaltzy instrumentation to cover up the lack of any sufficient melodies.
Hawthorne’s songwriting could use some growth, and his persona definitely needs a little more cultivating. But what makes ‘A Strange Arrangement” so wondrous is that he’s started off as a fantastic performer: Grounded in his approach, he is completely assured in his delivery and clearly educated on the finer points of crafting soul music.
He now has to work on coming into his own, but he’s certainly proved himself capable of greatness. Even when riffing off old thunder, it’s his own gusto that leads the way.
Silverstein is a member of
the class of 2013.

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