Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Blue Eyed Soul, Mayer Hawthorn, and... James Taylor?

Mayer Hawthorne's picking up some steam with the new album, How Do You Do?, which adds some slick and gloss to his previous efforts. I first came across Hawthorne's work a year or two ago by reading excellent sites like Soul Sides and Mixtape Riot. Now more than ever he's being compared to blue-eyed soul acts because he's white and he does retro-soul. Critics are putting him in the same sentence with Michael McDonald (I can see it), but also with Black soul acts, mostly from the Stax era and region.

My question is: what about the Delfonics, Smokey Robinson, Shuggie Otis? It seems like a lot of times when we get these new, usually white, retro-soul acts, people always make the comparison to Southern Soul, most likely because it's seen as the definition of authentic soul music. But Hawthorne's music has way more pop than blues. It is certainly influenced by Motown. (Nathan S. at DJ Booth does mention the Smokey influence, and, by the way, I agree with him on the Snoop feature.) And some of those chunky bass lines and keyboard swirls could have fit perfectly on Inspiration Information. Take a listen.

Band Rehearsal from MayerHawthorne on Vimeo.

Anyway, not to jump too many musical waters at once, but why does Hawthorne even have to be put in the blue-eyed soul camp at all? Besides the obvious, I mean. If the opening track sounds exactly like Philly soul, then let that be the comparison. I'm into criticism over racial authenticity -- especially as it pertains to African diasporic music -- but maybe Hawthorne's being white is NOT the most crucial feature. Truth is, when I think about the word "soul" I think not just of the genre that fused R&B and gospel, but of music carrying deep and genuine expression. Music that is heartfelt, sincere, passionate. So when I think of all that PLUS blue eyes I think of this performance from 1992. James Taylor may look like your high school principal but just listen to this other kind of (white) "soul" music and try not to be convinced.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Magic Sam's "West Side Soul"

Magic Sam was born in Mississippi and later moved to Chicago to become one of the true local legends of electric blues. Shame I hadn't heard of him til I found a copy of West Side Soul (1967) at the Harold Washington Library downtown. What an incredible singer and guitarist. Interesting that the first track, "That's All I Need", is a pop R&B number that highlights his upper vocal range in a Motown kind of melody, but on the rest of the album his blues guitar steals the show. Listen to this album. As an introduction, there's some great live footage below.