A diligent student of Philadelphia soul, Tamla Motown and
Curtis Mayfield sits his finals. Your invigilator, Geoff Brown.

A STRANGE ARRANGEMENT **** (4/5 stars)


Anyone embarking on a grand
musical adventure will take
inspiration from whatever appeals.
This has held true since Elvis Presley, The Beatles,
Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones feasted on a
staple diet of black American classic forms –
blues, gospel, R&B, rock'n'roll and soul. Mayer
Hawthorne’s perceptive ears have likewise
identified what made areas of '60s and '70s soul
work and has nibbled at a bit of melody from here
and grazed on a touch of arrangement from there
to give his solo debut, A Strange Arrangement, the
pacing, tone, feel and catchy connection of an
unexpectedly infectious old soul delight.

The album will, I suppose, carry the ugly tag
of 'retro-soul'. Yet Hawthorne’s relationship
with his inspirations is not as a sampler, more as
a man getting beneath the skin of a style, helped
by A Strange Arrangement’s steadfastly lo-fi
production values compared, say, to the shiny,
sheeny preferences of today’s marketplace.

The album opens with
Prelude, a fragment whose
Four Freshmen via Beach
Boys harmonies are a pop
deception as Hawthorne slips
seamlessly into a groove on
the title track that is nothing
less than a Thom Bell Philly
soul arrangement for The
Stylistics, Hawthorne’s easy
light tenor taking a subtler
path than Russell Thompkins'
falsetto might have. It gets better with a gently
funky rhythm behind the gossamer falsetto of
just Ain't Gonna Work Out, wherein Mayer
tries to let his girlfriend down easy. The cad.

He’s just as fluent in Detroit styles using
Motown hooks to construct Your Easy Lovin'
Ain't Pleasin' Nothin’ – an innocently barefaced
amalgam of several Holland-Dozier-Holland
hits, starting with I'm Ready For Love, and a
Hitsville baritone sax solo – while he takes the
title of the late Norman Whitfield’s Temptations
hit I Wish It Would Rain, and over it sprinkles
more Thom Bell ballad-dust to Phillyfy the
arrangement as synths shadow Bell’s trademark
French horn filigrees in a nod to The Delfonics.

So, that track ends and the melody to Curtis
Mayfield’s People Get Ready takes over in the
shape of Hawthorne’s Make Her Mine, another
really pretty '70s soft soul pleaser, this time written and sung in the style of Smokey
Robinson (his girl lives on the other side of
town, her dad disapproves – “I may not he a
rich attorney/But I'll win my girl’s heart in the
trial of love”) with a decent stab at a James
Jamerson bass line for good measure.
Mayer stays with Smokey as the clear
inspiration behind One Track Mind, in which
I Hawthorne grapples with a spendthrift
shopaholic girlfriend (“Only crème brûlée, if she
gets her way”). Robinson might have written it
for a Temptations single circa 1964.

Attention swerves hack to Curtis Mayfield
(solo this time, he’s left The Impressions
behind) on The ills, which against chattering
congas catches Mayfield’s knack of reciting
social woes but ending on a positive ‘Move On
Up’ note: “You know the ills of the world they
can get you down, but then we get back up.”
Next, Mayer turns Shiny & New. “You make me
feel shiny and new,” he pipes, and what you hear
in your head is Russell Thompkins tweeting:
"You make me feel brand new."

It comes as a small seismic jolt when
Hawthorne breaks into a soft soul tenor for the
plain country-soul storytelling delivery of say,
Arthur Alexander on Let Me Know, laced
together with Southern soul Steve Cropper
guitar chording and an effective certain/flirtin'/
hurtin' rhyme.

Normally, homage and pastiche send me into
an apoplectic rage of indignation on behalf of
the subjects. But the pop-soul of Hawthorne’s A
Strange Arrangement sounds and feels genuinely
convincing, not yet as well subsumed into the
fabric as the great lost Amy Winehouse’s best or
Raphael Saadiq’s, perhaps, but the work of a fan
who has the chops and intuition to understand
and care for the root music. He does it proud.


related artists Mayer Hawthorne