Uptown Special

Mark Ronson

RCA, 2015


REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


There’s something endearing, optimistic and unexplainably cool about funk. It never gets old, no matter how many years have gone by since its heyday. And almost any time a modern artist brings back funk and its cousin disco, the results are praised; witness Daft Punk’s sweeping success with Random Access Memories in 2013, for example.

Producer Mark Ronson is affectionate toward this era, and with the money and connections to do something about it, decided to pull together Uptown Funk. The ingredients include stalwart session players, superstars Bruno Mars and Stevie Wonder, lyrics from author Michael Chambon, ‘70s-flavored beats and authentic production the way they used to do it. Put in a blender, the 40-minute album is both nostalgic and modern…presumably, the way Ronson feels music should be.

The presence of “uptown” in the title, Ronson’s love of Steely Dan and Songs In The Key Of Life and the man’s skill as a producer lend this an air of sophistication; it’s too classy for greasy funk, but it’s not Yacht Rock for the Refined Snot, either (which may be a good name for a compilation…someone alert K-Tel). “Summer Breaking” is a breezy smooth jazz-inflected piece influenced by both Steely Dan and Seals & Crofts, sung lightly by Kevin Parker (of Tame Impala) and floating by on a cloud.nbtc__dv_250

It gives way to the first hit off the album, the chunky funk of “Feel Right,” which features a great rap from Mystikal and a fine chorus, which is unfortunately dragged down by the repeated heavy cursing (the MF word, over and over). Better is the global hit “Uptown Funk,” wherein Bruno Mars stops by and offers up a snappy number with the emphasis on the bass groove and the between-word blasts of brass. These two songs are the only ones where Chambon, (a Pulitzer-winning author) did not contribute vocals, and it shows, as lines about “uptown funk you up” and shitting fire are not generally associated with the Pulitzer committee.

“I Can’t Lose” is knotty funk that features newcomer Keyone Starr in full-on ‘80s funk diva mode, while “Daffodils” is a sort-of sequel to “Summer Breaking,” except with Parker’s falsetto broken up by a distorted squall of a guitar solo and a psychedelic midsection that contrasts with the bottom-end bass groove; there’s more going on than meets the eye, and it rewards repeated listens.

“Crack In The Pearl” is so much a Stevie Wonder song that the man himself should have received a credit; instead, he offers a brief harmonica solo on the opening “Uptown’s First Finale” and closing “Crack In The Pearl Pt. 2,” which seems like a waste of his talents. “In Case Of Fire” is a little disjointed to cohere but paints a picture with words: “Bad girl, good moves / Big dreams, but little fuse / You start fires that you can't put out / Just watch it burn / A lifetime of heartbreak and outta cigarettes / A melancholy equation / Street summer memories, of the day we met / Could change the radio station.”

“Leaving Los Feliz” is Parker’s third appearance, weaving a tale of someone realizing he is too old for the club scene (perhaps a surrogate for Ronson’s feelings; the producer is almost 40) but musically falling a bit short. Same goes for the glossy “Heavy And Rolling,” which is neither, but hardly a misstep in the context of the disc.

Trying to slap a genre or even a year on this is difficult, which is exactly what Ronson was going for. True, Uptown Special pays homage (sometimes overtly) to Ronson’s musical heroes, evoking an era and offering what some would consider nostalgia. But where the album succeeds is how Ronson explores different genres, mixing psychedelia, funk, R&B and light rock in ways one wouldn’t expect, in ways that only could be dreamed up by someone with 20 years in the business and a wall full of vinyl. It’s a varied, thoughtful and foot-tapping album, if a bit professional and calculated in spots.

Rating: B

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