Mayer Hawthorne ‘Where Does This Door Go' (Universal Republic)
After putting in time with Ann Arbor, Mich., hip-hop groups, Mayer Hawthorne came to the classic soul sounds of 2009's “A Strange Arrangement” as kind of a side experiment and stuck around for awhile. His homages to Motown, the Delfonics and the Stylistics were sonically precise and lovingly rendered, but Hawthorne seemed like a performer with an impulse to time travel, and with “Where Does This Door Go,” he visits the sun-drenched, perfectionist pop-jazz of Steely Dan.
That Donald Fagen/Walter Becker simulation is at its most vivid on the luxuriously yacht-rocking “Back Seat Lover” and the wry shuffle “The Stars Are Ours,” which even manages to evoke Michael McDonald's smoky blue-eyed soul contributions to “Aja” and “Gaucho.”
These are all grand illusions, and faking Fagen comes with a steep difficulty curve, but Hawthorne has the variable pipes that can carry it off, and “Robot Love” even projects Fagen's characteristically misanthropic view of romance.
When he's not buying a thrill or pulling off a royal scam on “Where Does This Door Go,” Hawthorne is exploring the same kind of classicist 1970s pop-soul that informs Justin Timberlake's recent work.
But straightforward up-tempo R&B ballads like “Corsican Rose” don't carry the weight of Hawthorne's Steely Dan simulations, and his modernist collaboration with Kendrick Lamar, “Crime,” feels out of place among the throwbacks. It's hard to tell whether Hawthorne's genre exercises are built to endure, but “Where Does This Door Go” shows he is moving forward through the past.
— George Lang