Retro-based music, even when it is as lovingly created and truly heartfelt as the rash of nu-soul releases of the past ten or so years, is nonetheless a tightrope walk. The balance of ‘nu’ to old school is a fine one –Amy Winehouse could do it beautifully (especially under the style-eye of Mark Ronson), Adele can do it just fine with her great big heart – but too often, the old school looms too big in the mix, and the thing falls flat, sliding into nostalgic pastiche. Why is this? One theory is that it is easy to cherry-pick from the extant past which lies below one’s fingertips in racks upon racks of Motown and Stax vinyl, but much harder to create ‘nu’ ideas.

Andrew Mayer Cohen’s second album How Do You Do? under the nom-du-Soul ofMayer Hawthorne (a portmanteau of his middle name and the Michigan street of his childhood) is a release that has got me thinking on this nu/old school thing again. The album sails so close to the wind most of the time – pureTemptations here, spot-onSmokey Robinson there, a little too Isaac Hayes here again – that it is all too easy to sniff and go back to the ‘real stuff’, the original Soul sides that echo endlessly on this record.

But – and this is a big BUT – How Do You Do? is so damn good that it knocks my over-thought critique flat on its tweedy ass. Impeccably constructed, smartly arranged and played with real juicy groove (the Funk Brothers smile down from the golden-brown Motown sunset upon these righteous tracks), it is irresistible.

Yet it is the vocal that makes one really sit up (it is always the vocal that makes one sit up!). Hawthorne’s voice can stand up to anything these twelve neat tracks (12 x 3min tracks – just like they used to do on 70s vinyl) ask of it. From smoky Smokey Robinson falsetto to David Ruffin-style urgency to Teddy Pendergrasslove-man come-on, the vocals are a treat. Even the mirrorball dappled spoken-word intro (“So here we are, at the end of the night… “) to opener ‘Get To Know You’ is cool, not corn.

They call it blue-eyed soul, but like so many odd loops in popular music, it is the music of white artists emulating the black artists who emulated white artists – indeed, mighty Motown aimed directly for the 60s white teen market under the banner ‘The Sound of Young America’ with cool, stylish acts such as theMiracles and the Supremes. This Groovy sound was heavy on the pop, hardly breaking a sweat (that was left to the hardcore soul labels such as Stax and Atlantic) as it chewed up the charts, turning on bands like the Beatles and the Beach Boys.

Much of How Do You Do? harks back to that Motown sound – ‘The Walk’ and the driving ‘Hooked’ are pure Detroit pop-soul gems – with much of it also reminding me of the slick Hall & Oates 70s take on soul. But even more than that, tracks like ‘Dreaming’ or the finger-popping ‘Stick Around’ bring to mind the almost forgotten 1967 Beach Boys ‘soul album’ Wild Honey. Perfect sunkissed harmonies and an innocence in the lyrics make this all very pretty music – even a guest spot on ‘Can’t Stop’ by the wry Snoop Dogg doesn’t dent its white-gleam sheen. Nothing wrong with pretty; pretty never did the Supremes or Muhammed Aliany harm.

Mayer Hawthorne is undoubtedly one of the real kool kidz – his talent and cool is beyond doubt; to realise this grew out of a side project encouraged into the studio by his label boss, Peanut Butter Wolf (yep, that’s what it says) indicates how easy it all is for former-rapper Hawthorne. 

Is it all an ironic pose? Doesn’t seem to be, even though Hawthorne’s hipster credentials had me forensically searching How Do You Do? for signs of post-modern fuck-off. When he says “I have found my own unique sound on this album” I think he must be kidding – beautifully rendered, yes; unique, no. This is the man who issued his debut single (‘Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out’) on a red, heartshaped 7” vinyl single.

Whatever. How Do You Do? is a groovelicious, party-starting, gooey-romantic gas. I am going to spin it again now – I am getting to quite enjoy being knocked flat on my tweedy critic’s ass.

Published February 2012 on theorangepress.net

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