While there are plenty of reasons to question his sincerity (considering that he first began recording his soul sides as a slightly ironic for-friends-and-family-only diversion when not working as a DJ and producer for Athletic Mic League and Now One), there’s no denying that Mayer Hawthorne, the chosen moniker of Ann Arbor’s Andrew Cohen, knows his way around the conventions of vintage R&B songs and production styles. And on his debut, A Strange Arrangement, Hawthorne crafts a retro groove that’s never less than convincing.
With his refreshingly light hand in producing the record, Hawthorne gives his slinky rhythm sections, piano licks, and occasional brass flourishes room to breathe. It’s all the more impressive that they’re his instrumental breaks, since Hawthorne performed the majority of the instruments on the record. His songwriting shows an equally impressive ear for the subtleties of vintage R&B, focusing on straightforward narratives that alternate between love-gone-wrong and wide-eyed optimism. The result is that cuts like “Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’,” “One Track Mind,” and “Let Me Know” sound like they were just dusted off from the vaults at Motown and Stax.
In fact, these songs could pass for unearthed, classic soul records if not for Hawthorne’s one serious liability: While the likes of Taylor Swift and T-Pain have lowered the bar for what passes as competent singing in popular music, Arrangement is often a difficult listen because of Hawthorne’s inferior vocal performances. He simply doesn’t have the vocal chops to carry the Smokey Robinson- and Al Green- style crooning he attempts throughout the album. His falsetto on “I Wish It Would Rain” is asthmatic and thin, and he’s at least a quarter-pitch flat on the entirety of “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out,” ruining what would otherwise be a terrific modern soul cut. With acts like Sharon Jones & the DAP Kings, Jamie Lidell, and Eli “Paperboy” Reed taking a similar retro fetish and transforming it into scintillating, contemporary R&B, Hawthorne simply can’t compete with the stronger singers in his chosen scene. Arrangement proves that he has the skill to make for a phenomenal writer and producer, but he may not be cut out for a solo career.