Mayer Hawthorne, A Strange Arrangement
By Alyce Gilligan
September 17, 2009
The first thing you should know about up-and-coming artist Mayer Hawthorne is that the name “Mayer Hawthorne” is a title referring to the musical act itself, and not its sole member. So what’s the real name for the guy behind the thick-rimmed glasses and slick, parted hair? Meet Drew Cohen. And just to confuse you more, this sweater-vested young man is perhaps one of the more soulful new artists to emerge in recent years.
After spending his time in the turntable crowds of Detroit and L.A. masquerading as “D.J. Haircut”, Cohen got down to business and began creating his own music with a Motown twist, under the preferred identity of Mayer Hawthorne. On September 8, he released his debut album, A Strange Arrangement—an appropriate title for the freshest and most unexpected product of essential urban label Stones Throw Records.
The past few years have brought a “retro-lution”, if you will, to the music industry, with throwback artists becoming highly successful. Nostalgic listeners are more than ready for the smooth tunes of Hawthorne. Positive buzz was already building when another well-known Mayer (John) famously announced on his Twitter that this was the record of the year, exclaiming, “To preview it is to buy it. Holy shnikes.”
A Strange Arrangement plays through in just over half an hour, making it even more reminiscent of the bite-size soul music of days gone by … short and sweet. Cohen also croons with a conviction that has people comparing him to Smokey Robinson, or Marvin Gaye. But while Hawthorne’s style certainly alludes to the R&B greats, he still manages to be original. Smokey may have had The Miracles, but Hawthorne is a crisp, one-man band armed with lilting falsettos in an age where auto tune anthems and warbling folk singers are a dime a dozen.
Hawthorne’s lyrics are often just as refreshingly old-fashioned as his musical style, implying an assured chivalry rather than the far less romantic approaches of most current music. On “Let Me Know”, Hawthorne laments being “a logical man, don’t wanna play games.” Even some of the phrases Hawthorne uses make one wonder when they can next work that expression into conversation. For example, “The Ills” is a peppy pick-me-up in which we are reminded that, “the ills of the world, they can get you down, but then we get back up.” Almost all of the songs, even the more bluesy ones, portray a similar resilience and cool confidence.
“Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’”, “Maybe So, Maybe No” and “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” are a few of the more upbeat tracks on the album, full of “ooh-ah” back-up vocals, enthusiastic clapping, and punchy trumpets. When Hawthorne brings it down (and brings up the bass) on slower songs like “Shiny and New”, or the title track, “A Strange Arrangement,” one can’t help but listen to his pleading high-pitched passion and think of Earth Wind and Fire’s “Reasons”.
There’s nothing truly life-changing here. It’s all pretty simple, really. And perhaps that’s Hawthorne’s main appeal. Today, music can often become a vehicle for an image, a social message, or a commercial product. But Mayer Hawthorne is here to remind us of the good old days (for which many of us weren’t even alive for, Hawthorne included). He’s buttoned up his cardigan and brought back the suave urgency of soul music, where songs are for the sake of singing. A Strange Arrangement might sound, well, strange to ears attuned to the sounds of radio ... but that's not such a bad thing, is it?
Alyce Gilligan is an editorial intern at RELEVANT.