Mayer Hawthorne’s middling debut album, A Strange Arrangement, garnered some high-profile celebrity fans, among them Justin Timberlake and Kanye West, and that friends-in-high-places platform contributed to a major-label contract with Universal for his follow-up, How Do You Do. Hawthorne puts a bigger recording budget to fairly good use over the course of the album: The musicianship is simply flawless in recreating a ‘70s-era R&B groove, but the slick production sounds contemporary. Hawthorne’s jump to the big leagues gives him new ways to highlight the things he does well, but unfortunately, it doesn’t keep the same problems that marred A Strange Arrangement from doing the same to How Do You Do.
Hawthorne clearly understands the nuances of the vintage R&B sides from which he draws his primary influences. On songs like “Dreaming” and “Hooked,” he’s able to strike the same balance singers like Isaac Hayes and Al Green did, between playing a hard-up lothario and guy-next-door approachability. It’s a matter of tone, and Hawthorne’s songwriting and persona on How Do You Do consistently draw favorable comparisons to the great soul singers of the past rather than coming off like a vile, aggressive misogynist the way modern R&B singers like Chris Brown and Mike Posner so often do.
That isn’t to say that Hawthorne is exclusively a throwback. His point of view is decidedly modern. “The Walk” sounds like a gentle, Smokey Robinson-style come-on, but Hawthorne cleverly subverts expectations by turning the song into a effective kiss-off, and “The News” takes a similar approach, using a deceptively upbeat arrangement that includes a catchy bassline, a toy piano, and a jaunty horn section to announce a breakup. Though it’s clear that his affection for this style of R&B is sincere, Hawthorne is also willing to incorporate a substantial degree of irony into his production. To that end, How Do You Do works as more than just a rote exercise in genre history. The vintage influence on songs like “You’re Not Ready” is obvious, but it’s not like Hawthorne’s modern POV is limited to Snoop Dogg’s awful guest verse on “Can’t Stop.”
Like on A Strange Arrangement, the songs and the production on How Do You Do rival those of any contemporary R&B album. But Hawthorne’s technically poor voice too often makes it a difficult listen. Though he doesn’t sound as consistently off-key as he did on his debut, Hawthorne’s shaky sense of pitch is a serious liability. He’s noticeably flat for the entirety of “Can’t Stop,” and he misses the high notes that would otherwise distinguish the melody of “Hooked.” His wafer-thin falsetto isn’t strong enough to carry the backing vocals on “Dreaming,” let alone the lead vocal track on a song like “Get to Know You.” It’s a shame, really, that Hawthorne just doesn’t have the vocal chops to pull off an otherwise solid album. Next time out, he may want to make use of Auto-Tune.