"A Strange Arrangement" by Mayer Hawthorne

Mayer Hawthorne
A Strange Arrangement

Stones Throw Records
2010

Review

This album has to be the closest thing to a new set of Lowrider Oldies or songs that Art Laboe would be happy to spin on a Sunday afternoon and all from a guy who could be Rivers Cuomo's stunt double! Color me surprised and intrigued and maybe a little confused. So while Mayer Hawthorne proudly wears all of his Soul music influences on his sleeve (sometimes to a fault) there is no denying that he's got good taste. And where the formula worked before, it can continue to work here - it just works better when Mayer is branching out on his own.

I was really surprised when I first heard snippets of this album on the Stones Throw website. Surprised because I was hearing brand new Lowrider Oldies from someone who sort of breaks the mold a bit in terms of personal expectation of classic Soul singers. But I was way into the music. It was "Maybe So, Maybe No" that really grabbed me. So naturally I had to pre-order the album. Well, it's here, it's had many a spin, and I'm here to talk it up.

If you are at all familiar with Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, or the Isley Brothers (to name a few) then you should be well acquainted with Mayer Hawthrone's influences. From the production and musical arrangements and even the lyrics and delivery, this is very much a an album grounded in the spirit of classic Motown. In fact, in nearly every song on the album you can probably think of an old Soul song that it sounds like. Sometimes this can be a bit distracting when it seems really blatant ("Your Easy Lovin' Aint' Easy" sounds ALOT like "You Can't Hurry Love" and the titular "Strange Arrangment" seems very reminiscent of Blue Magic's Slideshow which is probably what got me thinking of Art Laboe). So, you know, most of the album jives pretty well in the headphones for fans of that era of Soul music. You're gonna get all the accouterments of that music as well like the "talk it out" intro that preceeds "Just Ain't Gonna Work Out", lots and lots of horns, and lyrics about love and loss like the following nugget from the title track, "Strange Arrangment"

We took the long and steady road
And from the start you had a heart of gold
You broke the mold
I never thought you would decide
The grass was greener on the other side
Of love's divide

...you know, mushy stuff like that (grin). This is one example where the influence is duly noted and yet the song is sincere enough to make you like it. Many of the other songs are great, great Soul songs but the influence hangs over them so heavy that it makes it hard for them to stand out.

Now on the moments where Mayer Hawthrone is stepping out of the shadows of Motown and building on what he loves so much, he really shines. For me the crown jewel of the album is "Maybe So, Maybe No". There's such a great vibe and energy to that song (not to mention the video). It's the moment where Mayer's voice fits perfectly with the Soul singers in the background and the horns that dress up the infectious back beat to make this perfect little gem of a song from the opening piano tickles all the way through the "woah woah woahs" at the end. Another standout for me is "The Ills" where Mayer gets all "Midnight Vultures" on us and serves up a great dose of psychedelic (shagadelic?) Soul with a healthy dose of "pick yourself up and get to livin, child!" (amen).

Overall, this is a very solid Soul record heavily influenced some very large giants. I can appreciate that Mayer is trying to spin something new from that well and he always succeeds in recreating the feeling you get from listening to classic Soul. For me though, the moments where he tries to put a new spin on it are the highlights of the album and I look forward to his future original creations.

4.100 out of 5

Track Ratings

1. A Strange Arrangement (04:15)
2. Just Ain't Gonna Work Out (02:29) 5
3. Maybe So, Maybe No (02:57) 4
4. Your Easy Lovin' Ain't Pleasin' Nothin' (03:01) 5
5. I Wish It Would Rain (03:56) 3
6. Make Her Mine (02:39) 3
7. One Track Mind (02:03) 4
8. The Ills (02:48) 5
9. Shiny & New (03:00) 5
10. Let Me Know (03:02) 3
11. Green Eyed Love (03:49) 4