Saturday, March 15, 2014

Charlotte group delivers original, eclectic debut

It’s not easy being different in a musical community as rich and diverse as Charlotte. No, Charlotte’s not considered a music city, but it - like North Carolina - is actually teaming with musical talent. Even with such a busy music scene, Charlotte rock quartet the Hawthornes manages to come across as original. 

On its debut album, "More Than Eyes Can See," the Hawthornes draws from a deep well of influences while creating a cohesive sound all its own. Guitarist Mike Prescott's busy, lyrical playing gives the group a foundation in classic rock, but the rhythm section of bassist Christopher Freeman and drummer drummer Rob Bowser add a funk and jazz backbeat that's as much a part of the sound as Prescott's fluid finger work. Vocalist Walter Charles adds another layer with a versatile voice that channels elements of Seal (most notably), Peter Gabriel, a hint of a more restrained Michael McDonald, and even Sade. Like the world music R&B singer, the Hawthornes are nothing if not smooth. 

The Hawthornes cover a lot of stylistic ground in eight tracks. The album kicks off with funk-rock riffs worthy of Lenny Kravitz. “Imagination” combines Charles’ Seal-like croon with a sort of late `70s/early `80s ELO/Alan Parsons Project vibe. There’s a touch of yacht rock in the harmonies and the flowery guitar solo as the song sails into a meaty finale that might make Prince proud. While indie hipsters may wave the yacht rock flag with a wink, there’s no irony here. 

During “Runaway” most of the band drops out for a rhythmic breakdown that builds tension before easing back into the smooth, gorgeous melodies of Prescott's guitar and Charles’ vocals. It’s a bit like prog Peter Gabriel. The woven layers of jazz, prog-rock, classic rock, R&B and funk - all genres that were finding footing in popular music and, better yet, through fusion projects in the `70s - come through as genuine. You get a sense that these musicians have been absorbing disparate music and honing their chops for years. How else could they segue from the soulful beauty of “Man Down” to a dark, wah-heavy, psychedelic rocker like “Drums of War.” The latter track in particular links Hendrix and Rush and a touch of Thin Lizzy.  

I can’t think of anyone else who could draw even thin comparisons to Thin Lizzy and Sade on the same album and do it well. The stylistic span really illustrates the group’s range. “More Than Eyes Can See” doesn’t sound like a mishmash either. Even with the versatility and diversity it all sounds like its coming from the same band, which is really one of the biggest challenges for a group - finding its own sound. The Hawthornes have done so here.