Stop me if you think you've heard this one before: A successful pop producer with ties to Bruno Mars assembles an unlikely crew of guest stars to make his own album of classically minded songs.
No, it's not Mark Ronson, who enlisted rapper Mystikal and novelist Michael Chabon to explore old-school funk and Steely Dan-style rock on the just-released "Uptown Special."
Instead, meet Emile Haynie, one of Ronson's creative partners on Mars' 2012 hit "Locked Out of Heaven."
A well-connected studio whiz known for his hollowed-out beats and woozy synth textures, Haynie has become a go-to collaborator for artists like Eminem, Lana Del Rey and Kanye West. In 2013 he even dabbled in country, co-writing "Compass" for Lady Antebellum. Now the 34-year-old is stepping out on his own with his '60s-flavored, cameo-packed debut, "We Fall."
Haynie and Ronson aren't the only ones moving out from behind the scenes. Right now pop is full of top-tier producers making plays for the spotlight – think of Pharrell Williams or the musician known as Boots, who oversaw much of Beyoncé's latest.
Yet Haynie has a story to set "We Fall" apart. He recorded the album over six months in a room at L.A.'s Chateau Marmont, where he'd retreated to recover from a painful breakup.
"I don't know what made you so heartless," he moans over a tolling guitar figure in "Dirty World," "But all your hurt fought my love."
Though Haynie takes lead vocals in "Dirty World" – he sounds a bit like Mick Jagger – the producer mostly channels his desperation through other singers. And though stunt casting is all the rage at the moment, Haynie really doubles down here, putting pals such as Del Rey and Andrew Wyatt (of the band Miike Snow) next to veterans like Brian Wilson and Colin Blunstone.
Wilson lends his signature vocal harmonies to the bouncy "Falling Apart," softening Wyatt's accusations as the latter wonders, "How did you get so cold?" Blunstone serves a similar function in "Nobody Believes You," a bitter kiss-off (with a lyrical quote from Del Rey's "Video Games") that the Zombies singer gives a warming shot of whimsy.
Del Rey herself sounds as forlorn as usual in "Wait for Life," but "Fool Me Too," featuring Nate Ruess of Fun., breaks from the album's bleary psych-pop sound for a crisp march-tempo anthem not unlike Ruess' new solo single "Nothing Without Love" (which Haynie co-produced).
Other appearances by Sampha, in the spacey "A Kiss Goodbye," and Rufus Wainwright, in the stately "Little Ballerina," bring out additional qualities in the music even as they advance Haynie's love-gone-wrong narrative.
But then there's "Who to Blame," which corrals the inimitable Randy Newman for a jaunty piano ditty that feels like little more than an outtake from one of Newman's records.
What's the takeaway from this one? That Haynie wrote a song to which only Newman could do justice? Or that he, unlike his peers, was able to get Newman on the phone?