Anyone who has heard Mayer Hawthorne’s 2009 album, A Strange Arrangement, already knows what to expect with his newest release: more Motown-influenced retro soul delivered in falsetto. And while Hawthorne certainly delivers that, How Do You Do contains a few surprises, including one track featuring Snoop Dogg as you’ve never heard him before.
Hawthorne is a Michigan-native, and though he no longer lives there, his love for Detroit and the music that has come from there shines through in the music, from the rhythm to the instrumentation and vocals, and even to the narrative in “A Long Time,” one of the highlights of the album. “A Long Time” tells an abbreviated version of the rise and fall of Detroit and promotes the resurrection tale, as the bridge claims, “We’ll return it to its former glory / But it just takes so long.” The song mentions two important figures in the city’s history—Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company, and Berry Gordy, founder of the Motown record label—and it includes a Supremes-like vocal melody on the bridge. And while the song has more of a 1970s feel, the fantastic video features what appears to be footage from a Detroit public access channel in the 1980s.
The bonus track “Henny & Gingerale,” a clear party track, is another song that has a strong seventies’ feel. One of the things that is so great about these tracks is the texture, which is something often lacking in today’s mainstream music. The richness is a testimony to Hawthorne’s abilities, since he has writing credits on all tracks and recorded much of the instrumentation himself. One of the surprises on the album is “Can’t Stop,” which features a crooning Snoop Dogg. Hawthorn forgoes the falsetto on this track, and Snoop comes across as the better singer here.
Whether it’s The Supremes, The Temptations, or the Four Tops, influences from Motown can be heard throughout the album. However, Hawthorne isn’t simply imitating what’s been done before. He’s taking it somewhere new, and with one of the Funk Brothers, Dennis Coffey, playing guitar on two tracks, Hawthorne appears to have earned his place in the Motown lineage.
Hawthorne also shows his versatility, proving he’s capable of branching out from Motown. Another surprise track is “Dreaming,” whose opening is somewhat reminiscent of Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks.” The track itself sounds more like the Beach Boys. When searching for a video of this song online, I came across a live performance where Hawthorne starts out with “Dreaming” but then goes into Hall & Oates’s “You Make My Dreams Come True.” The diversity of influences reveals Hawthorne’s years of digging in the crates of record stores. Before he was Mayer Hawthorne, he was DJ Haircut, and before that he was an obsessive music fan. The joy that comes through in much of his music gets at this simple love of music.
Another standout on the album is “The Walk,” which features Tommy James-style backing vocals and offers a modern day update to blue-eyed soul. While much of the album sounds like the records and cassettes my dad played when I was growing up, it’s songs like this that remind me this isn’t my father’s Motown. The song, which is about the end of a relationship, includes lines like “Baby, what you’re doing now you’re pissing me off” and “From the moment that I met you I thought you were fine, so fine / But your shitty fucking attitude has got me changing my mind.” The Mr. & Mrs. Smith-like video is surprisingly violent.
Even though How Do You Do is a strong follow-up to A Strange Arrangement, the album is not without its faults. Perhaps one of the weaker tracks on the album is the opener, “Get To Know You,” which starts off with a Barry White-style intro that’s hard to take seriously in Mayer’s voice—not that it would be easy to take seriously in Barry’s voice either. Much like the rest of the album, the Motown vibe runs deep on this track. With echoes of The Temptations, it’s hard not to wonder what this song would be like in the hands of Eddie Kendricks. With the number of upbeat and uptempo songs on How Do You Do, it’s odd to start off with this slow jam.
It’s always refreshing to encounter people who truly love music making music. Mayer Hawthorne fits alongside Raphael Saadiq, Eli Paperboy Reed, Ryan Shaw, and Cee Lo Green, all contemporary artists offering new takes on a classic sound. And while some people may choose to dismiss Hawthorne and his cohorts as simply being imitations, that would be a mistake. They’re all versatile artists offering something new and vital. How Do You Do leaves me looking forward to what Hawthorne will do next.
Gina Myers is the author of A Model Year (Coconut Books, 2009) and a frequent contributor to Frontier Psychiatrist. Her last piece for the site was a review of Raphael Saadiq’s Stone Rollin’. The Michigan-native now resides in Atlanta, GA.