Mark Ronson renowned and prolific producer has released his fourth “Solo” release Uptown Special The first single Uptown Funk has already hit number one in both the UK and America charts. Ronson is perhaps better known for his production discography which looks like a who’s who of contemporary Pop music than for his solo work. As per his standard practice Ronson has brought in numerous heavy hitters and newly discovery contributors to this effort. Ronson is always the master of the soundboard or as someone once said, the man who works the faders. As with his earlier releases this recording is a homage to his personal record collection.
Listeners coming from an indie/alt background will find Uptown Special is like garlic to a vampire. The release is as distant from garage, indie alternative as you can get. That doesn't mean it is without worthy moments, it is just not for those seeking something groundbreaking or original. It is a party album, so don't come looking for insight or introspection.
Ronson’s biggest greatest claim to fame has been his work with Amy Winehouse. On his own recordings there is no one true signature style. His wheelhouse is smooth, detailed modern pop that hits the spot, new without a cutting edge. He is an expert in mixing and repurposing sounds. Almost every song on Uptown Special is somewhat derivative. And all things considered that is fine, very few songs today do not owe a little something to someone or something that has gone before. After taking into consideration the necessary tight rope act that is required between good derivative and bad derivative one has to weigh whether something worthy has actually been created hence the purpose of the review.
On Uptown Special, Ronson is clearly recreating R&B from the 80’s for new listeners. The songs could facilitate a party game of guess that 80’s R&B performer. There is a little here for most everyone; low brow, high brow, silly, classy and it veers from beat poetry finger snapping jazz fusion to disco and
In the production booth beside Ronson were Jeff Bhasker, Emile Haynie, Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford, DJ Zinc and Stevie Wonder who also played harmonica on two tracks. American author Michael Chabon was asked to contribute lyrics to the effort. Chabon provided about ½ of the lyrics on the songs. Kevin Parker of Tame Impala, Bruno Mars, Andrew Wyatt of Miike Snow, Mystikal and new discovery Keyone Starr provide the vocals on various tracks. The disc was written and produced over a year and a half in London, Memphis and NY, NY.
The song Uptown’s First Finale starts off the disc, it is a marriage of glitchy studio effects with Jazz and Stevie Wonder’s always identifiable harmonica. It is a forlorn track but for Wonder’s beam of joyful playing. Summer Breaking has a Kevin Parker vocal, and a very Earth, Wind and Fire late seventies smooth R&B pop sound. It is reminiscent of a sunny summer day and is a feel good track. The first release off the album Uptown Funk features “flavor of the decade”, Bruno Mars providing vocals. The song recalls Cool and the Gang, Gap Band and Michael Jackson prior to Thriller. It is a happy party tune.
My favorite of the release is Feel Right, which features Mystikal channeling his inner James Brown to perfection and I love James Brown. Funk, funk and more funk, bring on Soul Train and flashbacks of Don Cornelius. The song sounds like what would result if Mr. Brown and Parliament had a baby. Unfortunately you will probably not hear this song on the radio because there is a lot of explicit language and it is not for play around young kids. Make a point to appreciate the fantastic horns when listening.
Also praiseworthy is I Can’t Lose. This song introduces Keyone Starr, who has great vocal talent and her skills alone make this a “don't miss” track. The song reminds me of the very early eighties R&B tunes that ruled the pop airways, add in today’s sequencing and programming advances and this is your outcome. I Can’t Lose brought back memories of Janet Jackson, Lisa Lisa, and Stephanie Stills. Daffodils features Kevin Parker, and sounds like distilled Chic a very danceable hit. Crack in the Pearl starts off very psychedelic and then slowly grooves into a passable R&B song.
The release was somewhat enjoyable until, In Case of Fire. At best it is a mediocre pop tune, unmemorable with a rehashed guitar rift off of studio mavens Toto’s “Hold the Line”. I found the track woeful. Leaving Los Feliz is almost as bad. Kevin Parker has a great voice but the mixing and overproduction on his vocal obscured his performance. Way too much reverb, another miss. Unfortunately Heavy and Rolling is more of the same. It seems to be an attempt at a classic 80’s R&B ballad, it didn't materialize. The guitar on this track seems out of place and forced. The best thing I can say about Crack in the Pearl II is that Stevie Wonder plays harmonica beautifully on this track.
The takeaway from the release is a not too inspiring collection of radio fodder. There are some promising moments, Mystikal and Keyone Starr’s performances stand out. Parker and Whyatt also do a stand up job on their vocals when not undermined by the production. Examined as a whole Uptown Special feels non organic, and prefabricated, with ringers and cameos galore, almost a novelty piece. If you like 80’s R&B with a side of uninspired cookie cutter production this is the record for you. It is something akin to those Ronco Hit Discs from the 70’s and 80’s.
Thanks to Spotify being the new clearing house for singles, the good tunes will get play, but my advice is to save your money and wait for the Contemporary Pop radio stations to play the death out of certain songs on the release. Checking out the original R&B performers’ recordings from back in the day would give more satisfaction to anyone interested in the genre. Any one of those classics would beat the content on this record. I give this a 5.5 out of 10 and it would have scored worse if not for the quality vocals and new talent that save this record from being a totally banal effort.
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