For a man who has spent the majority of his career in the shadows of his collaborators, Mark Ronson has managed to create quite the buzz in lead up to his fourth studio album Uptown Special. This said buzz can be solely credited to his breakout pop single ‘Uptown Funk’, featuring the soppy teen heartthrob-come-funky-1970s-pop-revivalist Bruno Mars. The lead single from this highly anticipated record has broken the mould of the “pop banger” we have come to dread over the past three or four years with its incredible sense of musicality and groove. However, if you are expecting a full album of pop hits such as ‘Uptown Funk’ then you may need to reevaluate how you listen to this record. Uptown Special is musically innovating, interesting, textured and stimulating from start to finish.
The album kicks off on the best note possible with ‘Uptown’s First Finale’. It’s an early reprise (or pre-prise?) from one of the album’s later tracks featuring none other than Stevie Wonder on harmonica. It was only a matter of time before Ronson collaborated with the pop genius, and it goes down magically. The deep and flowing electronic bass tones mixed with Wonder’s signature harmonica (a la ‘Isn’t She Lovely’) are a match made in heaven. The opener sets the tone for the rest of the album; constituting the first glimpse of the seamless montage of 70s nostalgia that is Uptown Special.
The second track on the album, ‘Summer Breaking’, is also a standout – it is the first of the LP’s three collaborations between Ronson and Kevin Parker of Tame Impala. More or less a musical flirtini, the song could have gone in a completely different direction given Parker’s extensive association to the psychedelic side of pop music. However, Ronson seems to have brought out a different side of Parker’s songwriting on this track. Not only does ‘Summer Breaking’ toy with the smooth sound of 1970s Bossa Nova pop, but all the while it somehow continues to exude Ronson’s signature Motown touch. An outstanding song on all accounts.
The record gets a bit funkier after the smoothness of ‘Summer Breaking’ as it charges into a James Brown-esque jam featuring underground New Orleans poet and rapper Mystical. Following a simple, horn-navigated groove, Mystikal steals the show with his near-pentecostal vocals, likely making any white boy from the suburbs (like me) feel way cooler they ever should. It’s the perfect intro to the next track on the album, the world-wide smash hit ‘Uptown Funk’ featuring Bruno Mars. Easily one of the most perfect pop songs released in living memory, it’s hard to believe that Prince hasn’t already sung it. This song will hopefully change the way pop music is received on the radio given its vast difference to most things that ever make the top 40. Heck, it doesn’t even have a chorus.
‘Uptown Funk’ is an incredibly hard song to follow, but somehow, ‘I Can’t Lose’ holds to its own surprisingly well; featuring unknown 23 year old vocalist Keyone Starr, whom Ronson and co-producer Jeff Bhasker discovered when visiting a gospel church in Mississippi. Expectedly, the tune is full of groove. It hits all the spots for a dance-floor filler as Keyone’s vocals hit the power-pop aura Ronson was searching for. Hopefully this is the start of a well deserved career for the perviously unknown vocalist.
The next bracket of Uptown Special includes the final two collaborations from Kevin Parker. First up is the infectious disco groove of ‘Daffodils’ – originally written by Parker for his side project titled Kevin Spacey. Thankfully, the right decisions were made and this beast of a song was handed to Ronson to put his magic touch on. The cheesy disco vocals, i.e. “Step out on the patio, follow where your daddio’s leading”, are totally backed up the the Nile Rodgers-esque guitar tone and rhythm – with the array of synthersisers orchestrated to create a particularly dense-sounding piece of music.
The final collaboration of Ronson and Parker on Uptown Special is ‘Leaving Los Feliz’, a song that grows on you substantially the more you listen to it. Kevin Parker uses a wonderful guitar tone throughout this groove-driven pop fantasia, which sounds eerily similar that used by George Harrison on Abbey Road. Ronson’s production shines through in this song as all of the many instruments are all given their space to shine; a skill often overlooked by pop producers. ‘Leaving Los Feliz’ is garnished with a gorgeous outro – one that is reminding of Tame Impala’s more ethereal moments before fading into a harpsichord jingle in the song’s final moments.
The ballad of Uptown Special comes from ‘Crack In The Pearl’ which features vocals from Ronson’s long time collaborator Andrew Wyatt (Of Miike Snow). Wyatt’s clean, distinct, and soulful vocals cut through the layers of tastefully subtle synthesisers and guitars curated by Ronson to emulate an incredible sense of emotion and pain. Wyatt’s other vocal performance on the album is a complete contrast with his second contribution ‘Heavy And Rolling’, a 1970’s piano-driven, laid-back disco groove.
The final masterpiece of the album is a reprise of the ballad sung by Wyatt, this time sung by producer Jeff Bhasker and Stevie Wonder. ‘Crack In The Pearl Part II’ somehow touches on all of the styles and sounds used through out the record; a perfect way to wrap up Ronson’s seemingly perfect creation. Stevie’s presence is appreciated but not overdone, serving as a testament to Ronson’s ability to shy away from indulgence even when the opportunity presents.
Uptown Special is the highlight of Mark Ronson’s extensive career both as a songwriter and a producer. The album from start to finish is original yet nostalgic, innovating yet accessible, and most of all, catchy as hell. Ronson’s choice of collaborators is outstanding, as instead of selecting the world’s biggest superstars to sell records, he has selected musicians who bring the best ideas to the table. This album is perfect.
Uptown Special will be released on January 30th via RCA.