When Mayer Hawthorne (real name: Andrew Mayer Cohen) handed the owner of the Stones Throw label a couple of demos, Hawthorne was hoping he'd get a response. He wasn't expecting an interrogation.
The owner heard Hawthorne's straight-out-of-Motown songs -- including the addictively catchy kiss-off "Just Ain't Gonna Work Out" -- and he wanted to know, " 'Whose tracks are these? What is this?' " says Hawthorne in an interview.
And therein lies the big shortcoming with Hawthorne's album, "A Strange Arrangement."
So straightly played are its renditions of '60s soul that they're impossible to discern from the real thing. One can't help but wonder: Why listen to Hawthorne when you could just listen to Smokey Robinson?
Hawthorne, a former hip-hop DJ and multi-instrumentalist raised in the Detroit suburbs, can certainly claim some connection to that city's classic sound. But where Brit Amy Winehouse managed to give it a winningly raunchy, contemporary spin, Hawthorne is content to merely rehash.
"Just Ain't Gonna Work Out" is the album's standout track, delivering simple but caddish lyrics so sweetly that any woman would happily overlook the message. Slow jam "I Wish It Would Rain" is another winner.
"A Strange Arrangement" isn't just Hawthorne's first album as a soul singer, it's his first album as a singer, which is hard to believe when you hear his superb, honeyed falsetto. And it suggests that even if he hasn't yet found his own niche, at least he's off to a promising start.
-- Lavanya Ramanathan, Weekend (Oct. 2009)