Mayer Hawthorne: Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’
From A Strange Arrangement (Stones Throw, 2009)

When he came onto the scene nary a year ago with his falsetto classic “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out,” I thought, “Yeah, this is really nice – but can he deliver more than just a catchy single?” (Let’s not forget the B-side “When I Said Goodbye” wasn’t too shabby either.) Here we are in September with his highly anticipated album on the horizon (both ?uestlove and Justin Timberlake have sent out Twitter blasts about him) and the first single is no fluke, folks.

What’s impressive is the fact that not only has he written all the songs (aside from “Maybe So, Maybe No”), but he plays nearly all the instruments as well. The ballads are a thick, syrupy elixir to cure any love malady, or at the very least provide you company in wallowing in your heartbreak. “I Wish It Would Rain” (not a Temptations remake) comes in starkly with its striking bass clef chords but has, once again, a tender falsetto lead with doo-wop backdrops.

However, he does more than just ballads. The previously-mentioned “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” is upbeat, completely opposite of its breakup message. He abandons the falsetto for “Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’.” As I mentioned a few weeks ago, coming out of the break after the first hook I expect it to morph into “You Can’t Hurry Love.” The sax solo is brief, yet so well-timed and not overstated, it’s pure genius. When people say they don’t make music like they used to, Hawthorne proves ’em wrong.

What’s more is that he sings with such sincerity and charm that he’s believable. He might not win a singing contest in acapella, but more importantly he knows how to use that sincerity and charm to his advantage by being able to structure such a catchy hook and a compelling story to go with it. In “The Ills,” a social commentary piece that doesn’t get overtly political, he tackles a bit on New Orleans with a Curtis Mayfield-inspired backing track. The hook sings, “You know the ills of the world/they can get you down,” before a slight pause and then finishing with, “But then you get back up.” It’s so simple, yet so catchy.

The album ends with a song, “Green Eyed Love,” that sounds like no other on the album. With its west coast funk and staccato keys that would’ve even made a nice Dre beat, Hawthorne sings an ode to the green stuff. It even has a stoner guitar solo that smokes. It could be the cruising song to end the summer of 2009 and is supposed to be the next single. Can the Stones Throw team capitalize on the G-funk beat and get a Snoopified cameo for the video? It would fit perfectly.

Some early reviews have said some of the music itself sounds like a ’60s Motown ripoff. People will say what they will say, but it’s the best album I’ve heard this year – bar none.

Oliver’s view: I’m not going to offer a contrarian view here but I didn’t like the album as much as I hoped I would.

Part of the trick to albums in this retro/classic soul vein is that you have to be derivative to a certain extent; the whole point of the style is to tap into a particular aesthetic that’s marked by certain musical signatures you can recognize. As Eric writes above about one song, you “expect it to morph into” a song you already know or expect.

The problem is that you’re taking a risk here – if you’re too derivative, then it just seems like you’re doing an impression. A well-produced impression perhaps, but an impression nonetheless. As a genre, Northern Soul was influenced by Motown but that doesn’t mean every great Northern Soul song sounds like it was recorded at Studio “A”.

So with Mayer’s album, his uptempo songs, for the most part, felt too derivative. “Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin'” is, in my opinion, far too close to the Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love.” “Make Her Mine” opens by interpolating “People Get Ready” but then goes into a fairly competent take on a Smokey Robinson and the Miracles song. “The Ills” was just too damn close to an Impressions song. “One Track Mind” = total Motown flavor.

And like I said, it can be a very thin line between close and too close. Nicole Willis and Raphael Sadeeq also played with similar styles on their respective albums and in some cases, I felt like it tipped over too far, in other cases, I was totally happy to hear them riff (but not replicate) on these classics. With Mayer, for his faster songs, I just couldn’t get it. Yet – and I admit, I don’t have a clear rationale here – I’m a big, big fan of his ballads even though one could argue they’re not that much different, stylistically, from the faster tracks. And sure, that’s probably true – “Green Eyed Love,” for example has The Moments’ stamp all over it. “Shiny and New” could be a Teddy Pendergress or Tyrone Davis slow jam. But these just work for me – call it some X factor (or H factor if you prefer).

When it comes to ballds, I think Mayer’s stuff is as enjoyable as anything I’ve heard from anyone, including Lee Fields (who lays down a mean slow groover). “I Wish It Would Rain” is easily a top 10 of the year in my book. Once Mayer gets above 100bpms though, I think other artists like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings or Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators have been more successful in developing a sound all their own. Given that this is Mayer’s first album – and an accidental opportunity in many ways – I think he has the potential to really blossom as his career matures. It can’t be emphasized enough – this album is almost all Mayer, building each song one block at a time, playing the instruments and then editing it all together. That’s pretty extraordinary – and it makes you respect not only the level of talent that went into this album but how challenging it must have been. (On this note, I also wanted to acknowledge that Miles Tackett of Breakestra crafts that “group’s” songs the same way.)

PS: This has nothing to do with the music but I am very curious how the sales on this will do compared to the last Sharon Jones/DK album.