Mayer Hawthorne

A Strange Arrangement

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The story goes that Ann Arbor native Andrew Cohen, a DJ/producer and member of Athletic Mic League and Now On, began recording neo-soul tunes as a little side project for friends and family, layering in all the instruments himself, then singing all the vocal parts, and then mixing the tracks with a spare and lightly funky breakbeat sensibility. The result of all this was a simply stunning re-imagining of the classic soul and Motown sounds of the late '60s and early '70s, so well executed that Peanut Butter Wolf, head of the L.A. hip-hop label Stones Throw, initially thought he was listening to remixes of obscure old soul singles when he first heard Cohen's demos. Wolf signed Cohen, who was now billing himself as Mayer Hawthorne (combining his middle name and the name of his hometown street), to a recording contract on the strength of songs like "Just Ain't Gonna Work Out," which sounds like a long-lost Al Green track lightly reassembled for the 21st century -- and all this from a sort of nerdy looking white kid from Ann Arbor. It makes for a great story, but it makes for an even better story when you hear this stuff. They call it neo-soul these days, and for once, the label is exactly right. Neo-soul is exactly what Cohen does. And he does it in stunning style. His debut album as Mayer Hawthorne, A Strange Arrangement, is a wonderful, joyous delight from start to finish, managing to be both a nostalgic-sounding soul facsimile and a fresh urban retro dance listen all in one package. "Just Ain't Gonna Work Out" is here, along with other jaw-dropping gems like the Motown-like "Your Easy Lovin' Ain't Pleasin' Nothin'" (it's hard to believe it isn't the Temptations doing this song), the quiet storm-like "One Track Mind" (with its aching echoes of Smokey Robinson) and "The Ills" (which sounds like a haunting, wry, and simply gorgeous lost Curtis Mayfield track). Cohen wrote all but one song here, played most of the instruments, and then mixed everything with an ear to delivering a refreshingly spare sound, with even the horn arrangements stripped to the bone, giving these tracks an odd, muted sharpness. Then there are the vocals. They're extraordinary, as if Cohen were channeling Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, David Ruffin, Smokey Robinson, et al., through his own middle to high tenor. It's all really quite astounding. Neo-soul. Yep. That's what this is. And it's damn good. Soul, neo or not, is soul, and this guy has it.

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