Mark Ronson - Uptown Special (2015)

Mark Ronson
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In case you didn’t get the memo the first time, producer Mark Ronson is a fan of nostalgia. It’s what made him the go-to guy in the music biz. He was the brains behind the Motown-sounding throwback soul of Amy Winehouse’s records. He gave Duran Duran their ‘80s comeback sound on All You Need Is Now, creating a hip time warp back to the tidal waves of ‘80s  New Wave and synthpop. On his own 2010 solo record, Record Collection, Ronson paid homage to everything ‘80s, creating a linear canvas of synthpop-meets-soul art. But, after producing some of Bruno Mars’s biggest hits on Unorthodox Jukebox (“Locked Out of Heaven,” “Gorilla”), Ronson is exploring newer avenues of retro on Uptown Special. On this eleven-track road trip, Ronson digs mostly into the land of funk.

In case you didn’t get the memo the first time, producer Mark Ronson is a fan of nostalgia. It’s what made him the go-to guy in the music biz. He was the brains behind the Motown-sounding throwback soul of Amy Winehouse’s records. He gave Duran Duran their ‘80s comeback sound on All You Need Is Now, creating a hip time warp back to the tidal waves of ‘80s  New Wave and synthpop. On his own 2010 solo record, Record Collection, Ronson paid homage to everything ‘80s, creating a linear canvas of synthpop-meets-soul art. But, after producing some of Bruno Mars’s biggest hits on Unorthodox Jukebox (“Locked Out of Heaven,” “Gorilla”), Ronson is exploring newer avenues of retro on Uptown Special. On this eleven-track road trip, Ronson digs mostly into the land of funk. With the James Brown-influenced “Feel Right,” Southern-bred rapper Mystikal spits adult fun into a horn-blazed jam session fit for “Get Up Offa That Thing.” Mars acts as club emcee while Mystikal sets off a firestorm of lyrics, giving him enough motivation for a new millennium comeback: “Still rapping, slapping kittens and grabbing my crotch/I’m the artist, the Godfather still hard as a rock.” Things fast forward into Minneapolis funk on “Uptown Funk” with Mars up front and Prince-hued synths and catchy ad-libs (“Uptown funk ya’ up”) not far behind.

Technically speaking, Uptown Special isn’t as star-studded as Record Collection – unless you want to factor in Stevie Wonder’s spot on the intro and outro of the record. Even though those are simply short admissions, they still play with the genius of Wonder’s fingers: the intro sounding like leftover adventures from Songs in the Key of Life; the outro more In Square Circle. But, Ronson doesn’t need star power to pull off a collection that displays an earful of delectable charm. The Chaka Khan spunk of “I Can’t Lose,” and brilliantly otherworldly grooves of “Daffodils” are just as rewarding as the attention-getting Ronson/Mars collaboration.

Not everything on Uptown Special caters to funk aficionados, which might be a bit of a slump for those expecting a complete house party rollercoaster. The breezy West Coast rock of “Summer Breaking,” featuring the Tame Impala frontman, Kevin Parker, sounds like it is on cruise control drifting into Eagles/Steely Dan territory. His calm falsetto can also be heard on the Lenny Kravtiz’s rock-funk of “Leaving Los Feliz." It is these inclusions that will halt other critics from labeling this as a total fantastic voyage into Funkytown.

However, like most Stevie Wonder records or just about any collection of groundbreaking listening, you’re going to easily find genre fusion growing in the rear. That too happens here. Ronson is building up his catalog, exploring dimensions untapped on his previous records. Maybe after hearing the ear candy of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories and D’Angelo’s awe-inspiring Black Messiah, Ronson has had a mountaintop epiphany and felt it was best to put his love for nostalgia to the test. Though Uptown Special isn’t as thorough as those aforementioned records, it sounds like his most cohesive record to-date. Recommended.

By J Matthew Cobb

 

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