If you’re going to do ’60s- and ’70s-style soul in 2012, you’d better be good. More than that, you need to sing soul like you mean it. For that reason, I was not won over by Mayer Hawthorne when I first heard him.
Mayer Hawthorne is the stage name of Andrew Cohen, an Ann Arbor, Michigan, hip-hop DJ and producer who started recording his own slow jams as a joke. He played all the instruments and sang all the parts himself in a voice that sounded like he could have been a Temptation. The performance was impressive enough that Chris “Peanut Butter Wolf” Manak, founder of the influential label Stone’s Throw Records, signed Mayer Hawthorne after hearing just two songs. But it was hard to look past the jokiness of songs such as the single “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out,” from his 2009 debut A Strange Arrangement, where he alternated between spoken word and falsetto singing against a minimal backing. It was too easy to see this as something like Har Mar Superstar — a geeky white guy getting laughs by pretending to sing “baby-making music” like a soul star.
The jokiness is still there on last year’s How Do You Do?, but now that he’s backed by his touring band the County, the music is strong enough to make up for it. On “The Walk,” he sings, “From the moment that I met you I thought you were fine, so fine/ But your shitty fucking attitude’s got me changin’ my mind.” That’s, um, not up to the standards of Smokey Robinson. But when it’s buoyed along by horns and a bouncy beat, it sounds close enough to the real thing.
MAYER HAWTHORNE: Belly Up, Wednesday, June 13, 8 p.m. 858-481-8140. $20 presale; $22 door.