HYPE CHECK: Mayer Hawthorne

Words and Photos by Andrew Parks

The Artist and Their Latest Album: Mayer Hawthorne, A Strange Arrangement (Stones Throw)

What’s Been Said: “Mr. Hawthorne is deadly serious. He’s an able singer, a gifted mimic and an arranger of astonishing precision. Working largely alone in his Los Angeles studio, he’s pieced together some stunning simulacra–not just in lyric and sound, which are unremittingly loyal to the classic soul that serves as his template, but also in tone. Most songs here emerge through fog, slightly distant and slightly obscured.” – The New York Times

“Hawthorne (né Andrew Cohen) is trapped in a time-stop circa 1976, and his immaculate debut is replica music, constructed and buffed to a high sheen. Drawing on Holland-Dozier- Holland’s crisp, 180-second soul classics, the Michigan-born Hawthorne gorgeously apes the Temptations on ‘I Wish It Would Rain’ and ‘Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out.’ There’s hardly an original thought here, but with arrangements so expertly composed, who’s complaining?” – SPIN

“They call it neo-soul these days, and for once, the label is exactly right. Neo-soul is exactly what Cohen does. And he does it in stunning style. His debut album as Mayer Hawthorne, A Strange Arrangement, is a wonderful, joyous delight from start to finish, managing to be both a nostalgic-sounding soul facsimile and a fresh urban retro dance listen all in one package.” – Allmusic.com

“It’s Tuesday: You are feeling tranquil and a little bit loose. You’re looking for a song that reminds you of 1950s soul on Sundays appropriate for cooking waffles with strawberries with the fam (or friends you consider family.) Even if that never really happened. The perfect song? Mayer Hawthorne–’Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out.'” – Justin Timberlake

Our Take: We were shocked when self-titled‘s very own J. Bennett–the writer of this award-winning Jay Reatard story–proclaimed his passion for Mayer Hawthorne‘s R&B revivalism. “I listen to his album everyday, twice a day, while singing along.” Here’s the thing: J. looks like Jesus and really likes shooting ranges and Norwegian black metal. In other words, he’s a scary motherfucker. Mayer Hawthorne is not a scary motherfucker. He’s a smooth operator version of Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bell-Air, a DJ/producer/MC who decided to give the soul singer thing a shot after moving from Michigan to L.A. And since he spent years digging for dusty samples like his hero J Dilla, he already had an ear for arrangements that’s lacking in the more streamlined work of, say, Jamie Lidell.

That said, we were obsessed with Lidell’s sudden Motown Philly direction on Multiply; Hawthorne’s A Strange Arrangement, on the other hand, came off corny the first couple times we spun it on the office stereo. One detail tickled our ears, though: Hawthorne’s love of oldies music, the very same radio stations we grew up absorbing back home in Buffalo, a blue-collar city much like Hawthorne’s hometown of Ann Arbor, MI. Maybe this guy’s onto something after all…

Hypeworthy? Slight cheese factor aside, it’s hard to hate on Mayer Hawthorne’s live show. Backed by “the baddest band in the whole land”–the County, a groove-riding quartet that barely misses a beat in what are essentially solo songs–Hawthorne immediately establishes himself as an entertainer, not just an ‘artist’ who’s reprising their buzz bin record from intro to out. More importantly, he’s a natural onstage, an incredibly confident frontman who sees nothing wrong with saying that “tonight’s all about the love because love’s all right.” Or wearing an argyle sweater Kanye wouldn’t be caught dead in. Or telling us all to “put some L’s in the air for love.”

Gag me, right? Not really, actually. While we could do without Hawthorne’s “baby-making” material–we’ll take the xx in that department–Hawthorne’s position as a hopeful romantic and hip-hop-schooled retro act is a refreshing, welcome break from the dire times we’re currently living in.