What’s wrong with a little blue-eyed soul? What’s wrong with a little Stevie Winwood? Maybe some Robert Palmer? A tad bit of Michael McDonald? A dusting of Robin Thicke or Remy Shand? And, of course, don’t forget the poster boys for such a movement, Hall & Oates. Really. What’s wrong with them? Can you honestly say that you don’t genuinely (i.e. non-ironically) perk up whenever you hear “You Make My Dreams” or “Rich Girl” come through on the radio or an iPod mix? You’d be lying through your white suit if you argued the greatness or the amount of fun blue-eyed soul provides. The horns. The keyboards. The tempos. The harmonies. The groove. What’s not wrong with a little blue-eyed soul is a harder question to answer, actually.
It’s a style that takes time to master. You can’t merely run a drum machine, sing in a few falsettos and hope for the best. You have to think about what you’re doing. The hooks need to fit perfectly in between the heartbroken choruses or alliterated verses. The performance needs to have just the right amount of emotion – don’t even think about coming up short, though be sure not to over-do it. And arguably most of all, you have to provide a rhythm that anyone from any walk of life could mindlessly tap a toe to.
That’s right. Blue-eyed soul isn’t easy to pull off, regardless of how natural those four-part harmonies and vintage suits may seem. Just ask Mayer Hawthorne. Sure, his first album, 2009’s A Strange Arrangement, wasn’t a bad debut effort by any stretch of the imagination. And yeah, the grooves were there, and the hooks stayed in your head long after you pressed the stop button. But something about it felt a little off. There was something that simply felt out of place – it was as though the album itself wasn’t a complete reflection of the potential Hawthorne let peek through from time to time. It wasn’t good enough to garner much acclaim, yet it piqued your interest enough to make sure you checked out whatever it was he was going to do next.
Enter How Do You Do. The Michigan DJ’s second proper full-length release leaves no questions unanswered and no ignored potential this time around. Gone are the reservations about what the singer/songwriter can do and welcome are the ideas of what he may do next. There is no sophomore slump, no digression of talent or tricks. How Do You Do is the exact reason he tricked soul music fans into giving him a shot in the first place. And for those who did, the dividends have now proven to pay handsomely.
“Get to Know You” and “You’re Not Ready” are updates on the ballad style Hawthorne dipped into too often on A Strange Arrangement. Though this time around, the grooves are heavier and the feel seems less processed. “Can’t Stop” is the best the crooner has ever been when slowed down. The hip-hop feel provides a nice backdrop for Snoop Dogg’s somewhat unexpected cameo, and for once we see Hawthorne lean on his lower octaves, a move that does him well. The track could easily be confused with a b-side from John Legend’s Get Lifted.
What makes How Do You Do so much better than the singer’s debut, though, is his foray into up-tempo groove-happy soul music. “Finally Falling” goes head to head with anything that appears on any Hall & Oates record, simple drums and infectious hook included. It’s also the first time in Hawthorne’s career that he lets pop override the R&B influence. The result is a shockingly fantastic 3:20 of pop soul that would have fit perfectly on any radio station in 1986. That candy-coated sensibility appears again on “Dreaming”, a song more equipped for a Beach Boys comparison than anything else. The harmonies are pure sunshine and the scat keyboard line only adds more light and warmth to this California beach party.
That said, Hawthorne is at his best when he gets back to his bread and butter. “The Walk” and “Hooked” are the album’s two best songs. The former is a hilarious kiss off to a wrong-doing lover all set behind some 1960s R&B backing vocals and quirky horns that both suggest choreography could be applied at any moment. The latter, meanwhile, would make Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland proud with its Motown stomp and powerful brass section. The song transcends the idea of “neo” soul to the point that you have to check the copyright date to be sure what year the track was recorded.
How Do You Do is Mayer Hawthorne’s masterpiece to date. It’s the album you begged Raphael Saadiq to craft when he opted for the rockier nature of Stone Rollin’ over the brilliantly constructed retro soul influence of The Way I See It. With two albums behind him, this Michigan soul man now has the R&B world at his fingertips, waiting to see where he decides to go next.
So, again: What’s wrong with a little bit of blue-eyed soul music? Nothing, of course. Just ask Mayer Hawthorne. He seems to know a thing or two about how great it can be.
// Notes from the Road
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