In jumping from the dusty-crate beat-geek aegis of Stones Throw to the polished expectations of a major label on How Do You Do, Mayer Hawthorne has set out to prove that his own contributions to an increasingly crowded retro-soul niche can stand on their own two feet. Maybe most engaging is Hawthorne’s sense of scope — he’s not just pulling from classic ’60s and ’70s Motown and Philadelphia International sides, but also from the rock and pop records they shared the charts with. “Dreaming” fits on a power-pop continuum somewhere between solo McCartney and peak ELO, “A Long Time” and “Finally Falling” divide Steely Dan by Hall & Oates to sleek effect, and closer “No Strings” plays out like Miami-borne, TK Records-style disco run through a Stevie filter. But while there’s still some fine nods to classic soul sounds — “The Walk” in particular nails Detroit ’66 to a T, albeit with a ton more comedic profanity — this isn’t an ossified, stuck-in-the-past affair. The only thing more unconventionally modern than the digital strings and g-funk pulsebeat that run through “Can’t Stop” is the startling guest spot from Snoop Dogg, who, it turns out, ain’t a bad singer.
Hawthorne thrives on the power of stylistic juxtaposition, which is pretty fortunate since he occupies a few different planes of neo-soul existence. He’s the kind of R&B scholar who can slip into some evocative and familiar vintage vocal modes when the situation calls for it — self-overdubbed to invoke the satiny, euphoric harmonies of the Delfonics, or riding the high tide of a Stax-caliber horn section with a carefully measured cool. His voice isn’t always up to the insurmountable task of matching the peaks of Nixon-age soul; he’s always veered a little closer to Todd Rundgren than Teddy Pendergrass in the chops department. Fortunately, Hawthorne also skews Rundgren when it comes to a self-sufficient knack for letting his genre-savvy production and arrangement skills fill in what few blanks there are.