DEFINING AT LAST
Mark Ronson has had a career of notorious swings and roundabouts, and the musical heir apparent (his stepfather was Foreigner’s Mick Jones) hasn’t exactly come out with a defining sound of his own whether as a producer or a solo artiste over the course of his career. Sure, as a producer, he’s known for his horn-driven soul sections with Amy Winehouse, his mellow, melancholic focus on melody with Adele, and all around pop sorcery with Bruno Mars’ Unorthodox Jukebox. But even those never screamed Mark Ronson unlike the way that Nile Rodgers’ and Rick Rubin’s works do, even across multifarious genres.
Now, at the ripe old age of 39, he’s finally put something together that he has got a right to be proud of, even if his lead single ‘Uptown Funk’ (with Bruno Mars in tow) reads like a copy of a copy. Billboard named nine songs that it’s imitated in some way or other (and we can think of two or three more), but you could make the argument that without that tune, there’s no way that this album would have stamped its mark on the charts like it has and would probably have gone the way of Ronson’s previous effort, Record Collection.
The album is bookended with harmonica solos by Stevie Wonder (the opener over an electronic nu-jazz progression, and the latter over a more familiar classic funk arrangement), and properly begins with the Latin-inspired performance of ‘Summer’s Breaking’ by Ronson and co. with the iconic Kevin Parker doing a fantastic job on vocals – we’d never have thought of Tame Impala-style vocals on anything remotely un-psychedelic. Parker guests again twice on this record, with a couple of his tunes debatably the hallmark tracks of the entire album. ‘Daffodils’ sees him going back to his roots (not surprising, considering he first performed a version of this song almost two years ago), with Ronson adding some of his production magic to polish it up the driving groove that’s grown on us considerably. ‘Leaving Los Feliz’ however, sounds like a boring filler track added on just to make up the numbers, and is one of those regrettable tunes that nobody’s going to remember after a couple of months.
While the most well-connected man in music does predictably have an all-star line-up to work with on this album (not everybody gets to work with Stevie, Mars, and Pulitzer-prize winning Michael Chabon in a single record), the song with relative unknown Keyone Starr has got to be one of the best surprises of 2015 to date. Clocking in right after ‘Uptown Funk’, frequent Kanye collaborator Jeff Bhasker and Ronson listened to hundreds of singers before settling on Keyone Starr, a church reject out of Mississippi, and her vocals on this single track alone explains why they did. It’s a feel-good dancehall buster with a synth-driven lead that wouldn’t have been out of place in the ‘80s, and echoes shades of Ronson’s former protégé Winehouse. ‘Feel Right’ caters to Ronson’s roots in hip hop, with Mystikal spitting fire over a straight-up funk flow, and his work with Miike Snow’s vocalist Andrew Wyatt explores a more progressive side of his musical conscience in ‘Crack in the Pearl’ and the creamy ‘Heavy And Rolling’ before the album closes up.
Uptown Special is special indeed, and mostly for the right reasons. The ludicrous production levels and musical standards that Ronson prides himself by have not gone amiss with this effort, and the sheer star power involved in the making of this record ensures that it won’t be a failure. Sure, at times it seems more like a superficial portfolio of Mark Ronson’s qualities, but Uptown Special isn’t without its gems, which by themselves already elevate this album above your run-of-the-mill Top 40 pegs.