Monday, October 20, 2014

Changing fortunes of Messrs Aloe Blacc and Mayer Hawthorne

Aloe Blacc and Mayer Hawthorne both blew up in 2010, off the back of great albums (Good Things, and A Strange Arrangement, respectively) for the Stonesthrow label, an indie outfit run out of Los Angeles. Both artists played well received live shows here in NZ following that, cementing their popularity in this neck of the woods. So what happened since then?

In short, both made the jump to the major labels, and Aloe Blacc ended up getting songwriting tips from Dr Dre and a hugely successful single ('The man', as featured in a Beats By Dre TV ad aired during the 2014 Superbowl, with a hook via Elton John).

Mayer dropped two albums that had pretty much zero visibility down here, despite his ongoing popular live shows. Switching from an indie to a major label is not always an easy transition.

When I heard Hawthorne's follow up album "How do you do" in 2011, it sounded like he was mining the exact same styles as his previous album, but without any of the hooks that made those songs stay with you. He was repeating himself. It was an easy option, but didn't make for a great record, or even a memorable one.

Hawthorne's latest album, according to Stonethrow's site "Where Does This Door Go (2013, Universal Republic), features production work from Pharrell Williams, Greg Wells [Adele], Jack Splash, John Hill, and Oak (of Oak & Pop)."

Aloe Blacc took a while longer to follow up his breakthrough album "Good things", dropping "Lift your spirit" in Europe in late 2013, with a major US release happening off the back of the single's success post-Superbowl in March 2014.

The album got released here around the same time, with big promo posters going up around Auckland city, plugging the album and a show at the Auckland Town Hall, on October 21. The current posters for that show now say 'new venue', as the show has downsized to The Powerstation. Same for the Wellington show, now at James Cabaret, Oct 23.

On first listen, while "Lift your spirit' has Blacc's distinctive soul croon, the production is leaden, unimaginative, and lacks all the charm that made 'Good things' such a  great listen. That was thanks to the restrained musical contributions of the Truth and Soul team, who added tasteful flourishes from their horn section, and kept the rhythm section tight.

What else? Pharrell Williams contributed production to both Blacc's and Hawthorne's latest albums. Unlike his first two albums, Hawthorne gives up the producer's seat.

This seems to have been a sharp move on his part, as his A&R/label folk have hooked him up with some sympathetic producers, much like the pairing of Aloe Blacc and Truth & Soul for his Good Things effort. [sidenote: Truth & Soul are currently working on the new Aaradhna album. Can't wait to hear that!]

Where Does This Door Go makes for a satisfying listen. Hawthorne has pushed his blue eyed soul into encompassing styles like Hall & Oates, and Steely Dan, and it works. Would love to see Hawthorne back down here to play these songs live!

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