Monday, January 19, 2015

album review: 'uptown special' by mark ronson

So, by now you've all heard 'Uptown Funk' if you live anywhere close to a radio, and for most, I reckon it hasn't quite worn out its welcome yet. I mean, a funk track with a ton of energy from one of the more talented pop performers in the industry right now, what's not to like?

Yeah, I've already talked plenty about this song on Billboard BREAKDOWN, but I knew at some point I had to get deeper and go beyond the hit to see if the backing producer Mark Ronson might have some staying power. Now to some extent I already knew this was the case going in - this is Mark Ronson's fourth record over the course of a decade, he's been around for a while now. His debut album Here Comes The Fuzz came out in 2003, where he managed to wrangle collaborations not just from Ghostface Killa, Sean Paul, and the late Nate Dogg, but also Daniel Merriweather and Rivers Cuomo. It also had more of an alternative hip-hop focus, which he abandoned for his 2007 album Version for a slicker, funkier sound. Like his previous album, the reviews were mixed, mostly noting the guest-overloaded covers often lacked restraint and didn't show off the best of his talent. Undaunted, Mark Ronson kept working, accruing acclaim as a producer thanks to working with Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse, and Adele, and making a slightly more diverse album with Record Collection in 2010. Sure, it was still swollen with name guest stars, but to be fair he's a producer putting out albums - you kind of expect it.

As such, I wasn't sure what to expect for the newest album from Mark Ronson. I mean, 'Uptown Funk' is a great song, but how much of it is because of Bruno Mars and how much of it is Mark Ronson? And some of the other guest stars did raise eyebrows? Stevie Wonder? Jeff Bhasker? Keyone Starr? Mystikal, the semi-deranged rapper from the early 2000s that sounded a little like Ole Dirty Bastard and got the prison term that R.Kelly should have gotten? Well, at least it was going to be interesting, so I gave it a couple listens - how did it turn out?

Well, it's pretty good - probably the tightest, most controlled, most thematically cohesive record Mark Ronson's ever released, and it certainly has a lot of style that's working its ass off to blend flavours of the past with the newer trends in pop music. As such, it falls into a weird middle ground - modern enough not be deemed a throwback, but so retro in sound, approach, and even themes that it feels distinctly from a different time. And while I am a mark for the style and sound and era of Uptown Special, it also makes me all the more aware of the places where it can't help but feel a little sanitized, a little too safe to really cut into the wildfire of late-70s/early-80s Las Vegas.

I should explain, and the best place to start would be the instrumentation and production. The brand of funk that Mark Ronson introduces does have many of the typical flourishes of the genre - groove-heavy melodies, a rollicking bass, flicking guitars with blocky, fuzzy tones, plenty of real horns and punchy drums, the sort of material that sounds imported straight from the late 70s with plenty of texture. But the musical textures Mark Ronson often chooses to utilize are a bit of an odd fit and noticeable from the first song - deep, not quite spacious or colourless because of the reverb, but distinctly damp and deep, the sort of music that almost simmers with the roiling chunks of fuzzy synth. It recalls a much stronger modern R&B flavour over funk, and while I won't deny that it has texture, it has nowhere near the same level of energy and spark. I will say it does help that many of the beats are as sharp and crisp as they are, and while I do wish many of the synthesizer tones had that tightness, I get the sense of balance between liquid and definition that Ronson's trying to create, and there are instrumental moments he comes close to nailing it. That great mournful harmonica on 'Uptown's First Finale', the piano and guitar interplay on 'Summer's Breaking', the fantastic horns and skittering bass of 'Feel Right', the snarled fuzzy guitar line of 'In Case Of Fire' that transitions gracefully into a pseudo-disco line, the gurgling bass on 'Leaving Los Feliz' against the guitar, and, of course, the fantastic tension of 'Uptown Funk'. Hell, the only track I feel that doesn't really work instrumentally is 'Daffodills', mostly because the bass groove balanced against the reverb-saturated keyboards, hollow beat, and swells of synths just completely killed the momentum for me - just a little too drained for me.

Granted, part of this has to do with the guest singer, and really, so much of this album relies upon the strengths of its guests it's not even funny - and unsurprisingly, it's a mixed bag. Sure, the interludes from Stevie are good, Keyone Starr brings some fire, and everyone knows that Bruno Mars can pull off this brand of funk, but the real standout was Mystikal on 'Feel Right', mostly because his jittery, spasmodic energy and sense of wild-eyed humour was a shot of adrenaline that captured why so many of those funk musicians were so captivating as performers. Placing him and Bruno Mars early gives this album a ton of early momentum... and yet it can't really sustain it. Andrew Wyatt and Jeff Bhasker probably fare the best, but it's very clear that they're producers and songwriters first before being singers, and the heavier vocal production doesn't help. The singer that I liked the least, though, was Kevin Parker of Tame Impala - maybe it's just this production that demands a more potent and explosive singer, but his dreary indie mumble and croon just did nothing for this album's force or vibe, and I found him a chore on every track.

But instrumental flourishes will only take an album so far - what about lyrics? Well, following very much in the vein of the late-70s/early-80s style, the loose narrative of the record feels like a textbook casino story - kids entranced by the glam of Los Vegas to get away from their problems wander in, win big, lose big, deal with all manner of sleaze and double-crosses, and eventually wander away maybe a fair bit poorer, but also a bit wiser. And of course there are chunks of the album that are drenched in leisure suit swagger, showing just how dangerous those seedy lights can be, but just how attractive they are as well. And really, the fact that the album uses such well-established cliches for its story allows it to work on polishing the style, and I'll admit that Ronson's darker textures aren't a bad fit for accenting the few lonely lights that ring true on this record. The writing on this album is at its best on 'In Case Of Fire', the montage moment where things are starting to spiral down, and overall the lyricism does have the sort of technicolor imagery that you need to set the stage for songs like this. Yeah, it's corny at points - almost old-fashioned in its earnestness - but it works for what it's trying to do.

But putting aside issues of keeping momentum, here's my biggest issue with this album: when you look at new spins on old genre conventions like this, it's often done in order to make some sort of point, especially when you have such an established story that's borderline cliche. So with Mark Ronson making his casino album, what's the new spin here beyond just stylistic flourishes? Well, the more I listened to Uptown Special, the more it felt curiously empty in terms of its narrative and feel. It plays like a self-aware nostalgia trip through the glory days of Las Vegas, but considering it's nowhere near rough-edged enough to present any potent danger - well, beyond 'Feel Right', that is - it doesn't really say anything new about it. Sure, you get the 'all that glitters ain't gold' and the downbeat ending, but this isn't new and I'm not sure just a modernization of the style is enough to save this record or elevate it into something special.

Now can I still enjoy Uptown Special? Absolutely, it's a ton of fun, there's some great performances, and it's unlike anything else you'll probably hear this year and unlike anything I've reviewed. But for as much sizzle as you get there's not a lot of steak, and that knocks this record back for me. As it is, it's a light 7/10 and definitely a recommendation, especially if you need a soundtrack for that next Vegas vacation you've been looking to take over Reading Week. I wish the album had a little bit more punch for me, but it's hard to criticize an album this fun, so definitely check it out.



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