Critical Voices: Mayer Hawthorne, How Do You Do

October 12, 2011

After making an electric debut with 2009’s A Strange Arrangement, Mayer Hawthorne has been moving up in the world. From a collaboration with retro-rap duo The Cool Kids to a Snoop Dogg feature, his sophomore effort, How Do You Do, finds Hawthorne moving outward from the purely soulful sound that dominated his debut into hip-hop, jazz, funk, and pop.

Hawthorne wastes no time reestablishing his Motown cred with the soulful groove of opener “Get to Know You.” It gets more adventurous from there. “A Long Time” finds him in a funky falsetto, and “Can’t Stop,” the Snoop Dogg track, is deeper and more menacing than anything he’s done previously. Not to suggest that Hawthorne has forgotten his roots—“The Walk” crackles and oozes out the vinyl spirit of inspirations Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye and features the most bumping bassline never released on Stax records.
The album aims for the same approximation of classic soul records that A Strange Arrangement did, but this time around it feels more like a modern update than a dedicated tribute. Contemporary rock, rap, and R&B influences abound, most likely a product of Hawthorne’s producer and DJ background. He played all the instruments on the album, and from tinkling piano backdrops to tasteful synths and drum programming, the depth of his musical influences and range is apparent.
All of which says nothing of the charm that makes any Mayer Hawthorne song so pleasant to the ears. His voice is sweet, syrupy soul layered over luscious horns and comfortably swinging drums. It’s baby- making music you can play for your mother.
The biggest criticism you can lob at How Do You Do is its lyrical inconsistency. One moment, Hawthorne is pining over lost love, the next, searching desperately for a no-strings-attached one-night stand. All of it is about love, one way or another. Call him one-dimensional, but he’s just sticking to the tropes of the genres he’s covering.
Despite the straightforward songwriting, How Do You Do is an impressive follow-up for an artist who seemed like his shtick (rebooting vintage soul) might get stale after one album. But Hawthorne still croons with almost the same amount of passion as his idols, and his instincts as a producer are rock-solid. Play it in front of your crotchety old uncle and see if he doesn’t mistake “You Called Me” for something off of a Motown compilation from 1974.


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