Prior to listening to Uptown Special, I always felt Mark Ronson’s music contributions fell into two categories: A-list producer versus solo artist who makes experimental but uneven albums. The former has always been the greater of the pair (look no further than Amy Winehouse’s sophomore album, Back To Black, production for Lily Allen and Adele, plus his protégé, Daniel Merriweather).
With his previous three solo efforts, Ronson stuck to his vein of pop and experimentation — constant themes of his music. His debut, Here Comes The Fuzz, mainly comprised of hip-hop collaborations sprinkled with a few vocalists over alternative production. The result was cute but panned by critics. Version, his sophomore album, consisted of cover songs reworked as ’60s and ’70s tunes. It enjoyed success and gave us that fantastic Zutons cover by Amy Winehouse in “Valerie.” Ronson followed that up with Record Collection a few years later, which sonically bordered indie rock, pop and alternative, but again it was largely forgettable.
Five years and numerous production credits later, Ronson returns with Uptown Special. Having already produced on Bruno Mars last album, Unorthodox Jukebox, Ronson was wise to enlist him to return the favor. Bruno Mars is featured on “Uptown Funk,” which will undoubtedly remain a pop fixture for the rest of the year. It’s infectious, with disco and funk influences down to the chord progressions resembling “Ladies Night” by Kool & The Gang. Mystikal shows up to the party to add his New Orleans bounce on “Feel Right,” which is more or less a tamer Mystikal song thanks to the pop production. The horn section and percussion provide the funk.
On “I Can’t Lose,” Ronson enlists a relative unknown in vocalist Keyone Star, who really shines. She sounds great, even though parts of the song do sound like a slight re-purposing of Nate Dogg’s “Ain’t No Fun” feature off Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle. For all the obvious funk leanings with Mystikal and Bruno Mars, Kevin Parker’s three appearances are arguably the highlights of the album. Maybe because I really just want a new Tame Impala record. But besides that, all three songs work perfectly to highlight his vocals, especially on the standout single “Daffodils,” along with “Summer Breaking.” On “Daffodils,” Parker’s typical psychedelic pop is replaced with a dance/funk sound bed slightly reminiscent of Jamiroquai, and the results are impressive. The notion that Kevin Parker may actually have a radio hit with” Daffodils” is unexpected but welcomed.
Andrew Wyatt of Miike Snow also contributes to the album with three songs, the most notable being “Heavy and Rolling.” I have to say, Stevie Wonder being featured on two songs without contributing any new vocals is definitely the biggest cock-tease (much like Drake’s “Doing It Wrong”). I’m certainly appreciative of his harmonica skills, but getting new vocals would’ve been the real gift. And that’s my most vocal gripe with Uptown Special.
Mark Ronson managed to craft an album with Mystikal, Bruno Mars, Kevin Parker, Jeff Bhasker and Stevie Wonder’s harmonica, with the majority written by Michael Chabon of Wonder Boys movie fame, and all the moving parts seem to fit his vision within a 40-minute running time. Where Ronson may have failed in the past with solo efforts, he’s managed to reduce the clutter for a more cohesive listening experience on Uptown Special while sticking to his experimental and pop roots.
4 out of 5
You can purchase Uptown Special on iTunes.