If artists like Sharon Jones, Budos Band and Amy Winehouse provided an affectionate scratch behind the ears for longtime fans of vintage soul, Mayer Hawthorne gives them the kind of intense attention that only comes from true love – and of course, gets their hind legs shaking. While those retro-soul artists took up residence in a sweet spot that went unoccupied for decades as digital recording took over the organic sounds of the 1960s and ‘70s, Hawthorne manages to turn his special blend of rhythm and blues into a genre-smashing shakedown. And on his terrific new album How Do You Do, Hawthorne adds AM-radio idiosyncrasy, ‘80s pop and plenty of modern-day attitude to his multi-era Motown aesthetic, creating a unique and cohesive collection of timeless songs that celebrates old and new-school sensibilities at the same time.
Needless to say, one man’s “inspired” is another man’s “derivative.” But the songs Hawthorne wrote and produced for How Do You Do feel familiar for more reasons than their musical resemblance to past classics. For example, “The Walk,” the album’s first single, doesn’t merely evoke Friends of Distinction’s “Grazing in the Grass,” it taps into nostalgia for an old record and an old relationship, even when Hawthorne refers to an ex’s “sh*tty f*cking attitude” as one of many reasons she’s not right for him. Similarly, the album opener, “Get To Know You,” crackles with the sexual energy of a Barry White love jam, but somehow pairs the sentiment with something more meaningful, as if a lothario stumbled unexpectedly into the out-of-control feelings of Bloodstone’s “Natural High.”
At the same time, “A Long Time” and “Finally Falling” bear the wholesome, blue-eyed imprint of vintage Hall & Oates, “Dreaming” could serve as a worthy stand-in for Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky,” and “Stick Around” could be a musical mashup of 70s radio hits like Edison Lighthouse’s “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes” and The Foundations’ “Build Me Up Buttercup,” suggesting if nothing else that Hawthorne is cutting a wider swath as he cherry-picks from pop’s history. But no matter how similar his songs may seem to older ones, Hawthorne gives each of them something new that elevates them beyond the limits of genre navelgazing. It’s not just Snoop Dogg’s guest spot on “Can’t Stop” that distinguishes his seduction song from what might otherwise be some Curtis Mayfield knockoff, it’s that he enlisted the rapper just to sing – and that the two of them successfully construct an epic, intense love jam that could stand up just as well three decades ago as it does today.
That said, if such comparisons serve to some as evidence that modern music is truly lacking in any new ideas, then at the very least those ideas should be well-executed, and Hawthorne’s songwriting and production is undeniably, and consistently, top-notch. Of course, whether his music is a continuation of the aesthetic of soul’s standard-bearers, or just a celebration of it, comes down to one’s appetite for his modern-classic sound. But there are worse ways to contemplate the state of contemporary music than by seeing how far it’s come while simultaneously celebrating where it’s been. How Do You Do? In Hawthorne’s capable hands, very well, indeed.