Mayer Hawthorne Comes Up Short In This Retro-Revivalist Effort
Published: Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
With artists like Adele, Bruno Mars, and Mark Ronson topping the charts regularly, the verdict is in: the retro music revival is stronger than ever. Strong horn sections, harmonizing vocals, and lilting melodies have come full circle, characterizing the sound of both the '60s and '70s and today. The latest entry in the cannon comes from Ann Arbor-native Mayer Hawthorne, and while the music industry currently lives by the motto "Everything old is new again," the album is still unsettlingly old-fashioned.
An unfamiliar name to even indie-savvy music lovers, Hawthorne's career has taken quite an interesting trajectory. He moved to Los Angeles from Michigan and signed to Stones Throw Records under the guidance of label head Peanut Butter Wolf. Originally a low priority artist, Peanut Butter Wolf found his work so impressive that he bumped him up to high priority. Having already released two demos and submitted a song to Kanye West for his short film with Spike Jonze. With all this potential, Hawthorne had high stakes with his debut album.
Unfortunately his first effort is mixed at best. While Hawthorne stays true to his soul-inspired style, the album lacks the spark and originality that makes it stand out from the rest of the revival players. Hawthorne and fellow producers from Stones Throw Records seemingly forgot to modernize the backtrack, leaving a majority of the tracks sounding unexciting and old-fashioned. That's not to say the band doesn't do an excellent job supporting Hawthorne. The horn sections and percussion particularly excel in this genre and give each track a classic feel.
What the album lacks is any sort of edge. The songs feel stuck in between elevator music and the feeling of being Rick Rolled for the most part, and there's little to distinguish the effort from a strong wedding band. Songs like "Dreaming" with its thumping piano and soaring string section sound like a cross between Perry Como and The Turtles, but it lacks any energy that makes it something memorable. It's the intersection of two separately interesting sounds resulting in something wooden and generic. How that comes about is rather discerning.
Another flaw in the album involves how Hawthorne uses his vocals. In a number of tracks, he utilizes a falsetto, but it has no redeemable strength. An artist like Justin Timberlake works his falsetto as a high-pitched croon, but Hawthorne's simply thins his voice and takes the power out of it, sapping the vocals of any emotion and adding to the seeming lack of force behind the tracks. The majority of the album feels uninspired.
A few tracks, however, deliver on the potential that Peanut Butter Wolf first saw. The track titled "The Walk" is a shining spot on a boring CD. It's a rather somber kiss off to an ex-girlfriend, filled with both surety and regret. Hawthorne works with his lower register wonderfully, and the subtle guitar riff roughens everything up a bit. It's the lone shining moment, but it shines brightly, as anyone who had to break up with a lover can say, "And you can walk your long legs baby right out of my life / So long you did me wrong." The dichotomy is beautiful.
The album never measures up to this high point, though. In a world where Fitz and the Tantrums and Best Coast are using similar doo-wop sounds to create innovative music, Mayer Hawthorne simply does not meet the cut. If he works toward the strength of "The Walk," however, there's hope for another strong edition to this revival movement.