Saturday, January 17, 2015

Album Review: Uptown Special by Mark Ronson

Mark Ronson's ever star-studded albums just got a new little brother in the form of Uptown Special, an album which has already seen a great deal more success here in the states than anything Ronson has performed on in the past. "Uptown Funk" became Ronson's first American #1 as a performer last week (previously he was one of the producers on Bruno Mars' #1 "Locked Out of Heaven").

Uptown Special kicks off with an introduction piece, the short "Uptown's First Finale," which features not only Stevie Wonder himself, but the classic Stevie Wonder sound circa the early 70s. "Uptown's First Finale" gives way to "Summer Breaking." The lyrics (as with many songs on the album) are by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Michael Chabon. As terrific as the collaboration is on "Summer Breaking," which paints a fantastic picture of a heart-hardened girl and her summer exploits, one has to wonder if this will become a recurring partnership between Chabon and Ronson, much like the one between Ben Folds and author Nick Hornby.

"Feel Right," of course, is completely different from the soft, floating sound of the first two tracks. The seventies sound is still present, but the drums and wind instruments bring to mind Version more than Record Collection. Mystikal provides an aggressive yet playful rap on this track for which Bruno Mars is credited as one of the many writers.

Of course, what can be said about "Uptown Funk" that hasn't already been covered?

The feminine voice on the album, "I Can't Lose" features the vocals of brand new artist Keyonne Starr, whose voice is completely on par with the rest of the seasoned musical veterans. It's a shame to see so many fewer women working on this album, since Ronson's work generally features women much more heavily.

One of the standout tracks is "Daffodils," which features vocals by Kevin Parker of Tame Impala. The mesh of funk and psychedelia with poetic lyrics makes the piece a dreamy dance tune. Andrew Wyatt of Miike Snow comes to the forefront for "Crack in the Pearl," which also offers a lyrical reprise of "Uptown's First Finale."

"In Case of Fire" is a smooth, falsetto-laden track with vocals by Jeff Bhasker. Chabon's lyrics give the song an incredible flow that may have been missing on the tracks of Record Collection.

"Leaving Los Feliz" is the Beatles-esque track on the album. The first eleven seconds bring to mind Paul McCartney's "We All Stand Together," while the rest of the song, including Parker's vocals and the echo production seems to channel the solo work of John Lennon. Los Feliz is the so-called hipster area of Los Angeles, and the track is about a hipster who realizes he may be getting too old to continue partying in Los Feliz. It's definitely a track that's worth a listen.

And of course, the album is bookended with "Crack in the Pearl, Pt II," another song on which Stevie Wonder guests, reprising the Wonder sound and "Las Vegas" lyrics.

The entirety of Uptown Special has a seventies throwback sound. Inclusions of things like the harmonica and Stevie Wonder vocals merely cement the core sound, which, oddly, isn't disturbed by the album's sole rap track, "Feel Right," which sounds as though it's rapped over a James Brown song. As with any Ronson work, there are many styles of music represented, yet much like Record Collection, no song is the lonely kid standing in the corner. Somehow, all of the styles come together in a cohesive manner, not only because of the central sound style, but because they have a flow that only a good DJ like Ronson could provide for an album with so many varying tempos and styles. As wonderful as Record Collection was, Uptown Special does not disappoint. In fact, there are fewer "weak" tracks on Uptown Special, making it quite an exciting album.

Mark Ronson is a producer and DJ.

Uptown Special can be purchased here.

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