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On Second Listen: Mayer Hawthorne – A Strange Arrangement

on March 24, 2010, 2:45pm

Andrew Cohen coined his stage name, Mayer Hawthorne, by blending his middle name with that of the street he grew up on. This pastiche approach also informs the 30-year-old’s music, a mix of Motown and Philly soul with a side of lightweight hip-hop beats.

On his debut release, A Strange Arrangement, Cohen – who also records straight ahead hip-hop under the Haircut moniker – sports a soulful falsetto and earnest, lovelorn lyrics. For a man who began recording classic soul music as a joke, his performance of it on his debut sounds completely sincere, if derivative. Cohen has clearly been influenced by such soul greats as Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, and The Temptations. In fact, if there’s a knock on his work, it’s that it’s too easy to spot his influences. Listeners find themselves reacting to every song, not on its own terms, but based on what song or artist it recalls (“Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’” reminds of The Supremes’ “Can’t Hurry Love”; “I Wish It Would Rain” recalls “Tears of a Clown”; etc.).

Cohen had been performing as part of the groups AthleticMic and Now On when he decided to record songs in the Motown mold for his family and friends. Before long, however, his recordings found the ears of Peanut Butter Wolf, head of LA-based indie hip-hop label Stones Throw Records. Wolf thought he was hearing the unreleased work of some 70s soul legend, not tunes created by a preppy, bespectacled white kid from Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Soon Cohen was signed to Stones Throw, and releasing his debut single, the blue-eyed soul confection “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” in late 2008. Featuring sweet, soulful harmonies, the song sounds like it could have come out of 1969. His full-length debut followed in September of 2009. Over the 12-song set, Cohen creates a breezy, nostalgic mood. At times, though, it feels as if we’re just getting to know the songs before they end; the average song length is just three minutes.

The album begins with a 30-second barbershop quartet-style harmony that segues into the piano-driven title track. The shuffling rhythm recalls The Stylistics and other 70’s soul groups. Standout track “Maybe So, Maybe No” contains elements of classic Philly soul (lively trumpets and searing harmonies), as well as a beat that bridges old school soul with the skittering, unexpected rhythms of hip-hop.

Elsewhere, the opening riff of “Make Her Mine” blatantly rips off, not one, but two soul classics: The Impressions’ 1965 hit “People Get Ready” and William DeVaughn’s “Be Thankful for What You’ve Got.” The rest of the album continues in much the same vein, until the songs become indistinguishable from one another. The exception is the sultry “Green Eyed Love,” whose smoky groove becomes palpable as the song unfolds over its four minutes.

At just over a half hour in length, Arrangement provides a perfect, if ephemeral introduction to Cohen’s work. He wrote all but one of the songs and played most of the instruments heard on the album. And Cohen’s voice is sincere and earnest enough to pull off his brand of neo-soul. The album concludes with the sweet ballad “Shiny and New” (and yes, it’s very reminiscent of The Stylistics’ “You Make Me Feel Brand New”). It’s a fitting end to such an easy-going album. But as the final notes play, one can’t help wishing the album had a bit more heft.

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