Album Review: Mark Ronson, ‘Uptown Special’

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“Uptown Funk” is a great song. With Bruno Mars doing his best James Brown impression and a rhythm and horns section that could make anyone dance, it’s undeniable. It sounds like a classic funk track, but the sharper instrumentation and heavier beat make it radio-ready. Like much of Mark Ronson’s past work (his production on Amy Winehouse’s 2006 album Back to Black and Adele’s 19 especially) it’s pure throwback and a testament to his artistic influences. The general sound and the “say what” recall The Ohio Players’ “Roller Coaster,” the howl in the first few lines of the chorus is pure Little Richard and there are even shades of Michael Jackson in the more ’80s synth moments.

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Really, the whole album is a curious and surprising mix of influences.

“Summer Breaking” has a chill smoothness that recalls 60’s surfer tunes. Kevin Parker of Tame Impala provides the relaxed, falsetto vocals here as well as on a few other tracks like the superior “Daffodils.” There, Ronson mixes dreamy vocals with a funky guitar riff and occasional electronic beats. It’s a decent song that has the misfortune of ending just as it seems like it’s finally about to go somewhere. The song’s real problem–and the whole album’s–is that it has too much going on. Ronson mixes so many genres throughout Uptown Special that it feels confused at best and messy at worst.

The styles and sounds swing wildly from song to song with probably the worst transition coming near the end when it goes from the R&B/soul sound of “In Case of Fire,” into the echoey indie sound of “Leaving Los Feliz” and then back to soul with “Heavy and Rolling.” The closest thing the album has to a sense of flow is a repeated strain of music that appears in the first track, “Uptown’s First Finale,” a little over halfway through in “Crack in the Pearl” and at the end in, “Crack in the Pearl, Pt. II.” With shared lyrics and a repeated harmonica melody (by none other than Stevie Wonder) in the first and last, the tracks are meant to provide a sort of through line. Yet each song sounds like a transition, pleasant but ultimately so unremarkable that not even lyrics by author Michael Chabon can save them. The best thing to be said about them is that they get progressively funkier—which is what the whole album should have done.

While the lighter tracks are listenable even occasionally good, they pale in comparison to those where Ronson lets that soul/funk influence take over. Take “Feel Right.” Mystikal (he sang “Shake Ya Ass,” remember?) spits the lyrics like a hard core rap song but the music and lines like, “it’s exercise with thighs and hip muscles,” get back to the old school meaning of “funk.” In this case, the genres complement rather than confound each other. It’s a fun track that has the same big band, pseudo-call-and-response sound as “Uptown Funk,” which plays directly after. Mars even appears at the end to tell everyone he’ll see them “uptown” at the “afterparty.” And as it often is, the afterparty is even better. The songs are a one-two punch of undeniable funk rhythms and the album that follows–even with the Chaka Khan-esque “I Can’t Lose”–never quite lives up to them again.

Still, “Uptown Funk” is good enough that it doesn’t really matter. It’s not like people buy albums anymore anyway. It’s all about the singles. Just treat Uptown Special like a collection of loosely connected singles and it goes down much easier.

Rating 6/10

Pick up Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special on Amazon or iTunes.

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By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over every detail of America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture and celebrity obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to. You can find her risking her life by reading comic books while walking down the crowded streets of New York City, having inappropriate emotional reactions at her iPad screen while riding the subway or occasionally letting her love of a band convince her to stand for hours on end in one of the city’s many purgatorial concert spaces. You can follow her on Twitter to read her insightful social commentary or more likely complain about how cold it is at @MarisaCarpico.

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By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to.