If soul is a sound, Mayer Hawthorne has got it down pat. A Strange Arrangement, his debut album, on Stones Throw Records, is a collection of retro-leaning R&B so perfectly reproduced that Hawthorne’s label’s head honcho, Peanut Butter Wolf, famously mistook the first single for a remix of some lost classic soul side. It’s evident from the performances on A Strange Arrangement that Hawthorne (neé Andrew Mayer Cohen) has spent enough time around classic Motown to fully understand the very anatomy of the stuff. Motown’s trademarks — the close harmonies, the syrupy arrangements and the frayed earnestness of the lyrics — all find their way into Hawthorne’s songcraft. But these songs are more than just rote exercises in genre. Hawthorne’s way with melody rescues them from that plight.
Hawthorne claims to have recorded A Strange Arrangement in its entirety in his bedroom on a shoestring budget. It hardly shows, though; he’s turned out some pretty stellar material. The title track highlights Hawthorne’s knack for writing a muted, mournful ballad. “I Wish It Would Rain” revolves around the arresting, if timeworn, image of rain masking the singer’s tears after a bad breakup. His newest single, a sprightly cover of the New Holidays’ “Maybe So, Maybe No,” is a tighter and funkier take on the song than the original. Hawthorne is a preternaturally gifted arranger and producer. His skills on the microphone, however, are another matter.
Mayer Hawthorne sings in an unapologetic falsetto, in the tradition of the Stylistics and Curtis Mayfield. He does not yet have the level of control over his instrument that this kind of music requires. Granted, Hawthorne has only been singing professionally for a year or so now, and he never really intended to make a career of it. But in a decade that has seen brilliant soulful outings from the likes of Jamie Lidell, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Raphael Saadiq and countless others, Mayer Hawthorne is going to have to step his game up to keep pace with the competition.
Soul isn’t just a sound. It’s the indescribable feeling conveyed by a singer with the vocal chops to appeal to listeners’ ears and the relatable life experience to appeal to listeners’ hearts. Mayer, for all his sonic genius and scrappy underdog charm, just isn’t quite there yet. There’s enough awesome worthwhile here to warrant multiple listens, though. By all accounts, A Strange Arrangement is a potentially star-making turn from a completely unlikely source. Here’s hoping time will sand down the rough edges and mold Hawthorne into a better performer.