First Spin... Mark Ronson's Uptown Special
As someone who began their career as a DJ on the New York club scene where he was known for sets that incorporated hip-hop, funk and rock, it should perhaps come as no surprise that Mark Ronson's records exhibit so much contrast from one to the next. From his 2003 debut, the hip-hop focussed Here Comes The Fuzz, through the retro funk and soul-flavoured covers on 2007's Version, right through to the electro-pop of 2011's Record Collection, you can never be sure quite what to expect from one of Ronson's LPs.
Following a somewhat mixed reception to his last full-length offering, Ronson has been keeping himself busy producing other people's records, including work for Duran Duran, Rufus Wainwright, The Black Lips and Paul McCartney among others, but in terms of his own musical output the last couple of years had gone relatively quiet.
But then in November he suddenly reappeared with 'Uptown Funk', a track so infectious that it was soon a ubiquitous presence on the airwaves and was already being described as this year's 'Get Lucky', even before X Factor contestant Fleur East cheekily performed her own version on the show, before the single had even been officially released.
With 'Uptown Funk' bagging Ronson his first UK No. 1 and still sitting pretty at the top of the charts at the time of writing, next week (January 19th) will see the release of his fourth album, Uptown Special, and it appears he's pulled out all the stops with contributions from Bruno Mars, Stevie Wonder, Mystikal, Tame Impala's Kevin Parker and even author Michael Chabon, who contributes lyrics across much of the record. So, without further ado, let's give it a spin and find out what we're in for shall we?
'Uptown's First Finale'
With a title that any Stevie Wonder fans will recognise as a tribute to the Motown legend's 1974 album, it's no surprise to hear his distinctive voice and harmonica on the opening track. Miike Snow vocalist Andrew Wyatt is also present here and at just under 1:40 in length it's a short, slow-burning introduction to proceedings, but it's making us excited...
The first of several tracks on the album feature Kevin Parker on vocal duties, 'Summer Breaking' continues to ease us in gently with a smooth, downtempo track that wouldn't seem out of place on one of Stevie Wonder's mid-70s albums. There are swirling keyboards and fuzzy guitars, with some jazzy chord progressions and Parker's soaring voice sitting gently on top.
The first real uptempo song on the album finds rapper Mystikal adding his unique vocals to what is, essentially, a straight-up funk track. Ronson and Mystikal are channelling James Brown here and the result is brilliant. Although Michael Chabon has written the lyrics for several on the album's tracks, with lines like “still rapping, slapping kittens and grabbing my cock”, we're guessing Mystikal is handling lyric duties himself on this track, but damn its funky.
Probably the one track on the album that needs no explanation, Bruno Mars is the perfect addition to a track that echoes everything from late-70s Philadelphia funk to Purple Rain-era Prince, with a little Morris Day & The Time thrown in for good measure. Ronson has a habit of mining for musical gold among a variety of genres and time periods, but this time he's hit pay dirt. It's only January , but we may just be listening to this year's biggest hit.
'I Can't Lose'
As part of the gestation period for Uptown Special, Ronson and friends have been touring America's midwest, travelling to as many as 30 churches to find gospel singing talent. It was during this trip in the town of Jackson, Mississippi that they discovered Keyone Starr, a real honest-to-God daughter of a preacher man with a voice that is part Chaka Khan, part Evelyn 'Champagne' King, the perfect match for a track awash with funky 80s synths and brass. This is a pure blast of feel-good funk.
Kevin Parker reappears on what is surely one of the album's best moments, lending his dreamy, psychedelic vocals to Chabon's lyrics: “Run your fingers down the cool underbelly of the blue evening / Crank that vapour-wagon, start that kick and dragon beating.” Spun over the top of a funky guitar riff that conjures up images of Average White Band, this is a real stand-out moment.
'Crack in the Pearl'
Reprising the theme from the album's opening track, we're treated to another burst of gentle swirling keys and Chabon's evocative lyrics before the track's refrain dissolves slowly away...
'In Case of Fire'
And now for something completely different. Jeff Bhasker has been collaborating with Ronson throughout the album and here he lends his voice to what starts out sounding like a glam rock track, all fuzzed up guitars and swinging, stomping drums, before settling into funky swing that reminds us of Stevie Wonder's 'Higher Ground', which is no bad thing. Bhasker's soaring melody weaves through the track's interesting key changes, glueing the whole thing together nicely.
'Leaving Los Feliz'
Kevin Parker's final appearance on the album comes courtesy of a track that features an infectious, melodic hook over some MPC-style hip-hop beats, making for an odd but compelling blend that's part White Album-era Beatles, part Talking Heads, all delivered at a 1980s New York block party. We think this one's a grower.
'Heavy and Rolling'
Andrew Wyatt lends vocals to a track that's underpinned by a Billie Jean-esque disco beat, with a melody that invokes Chic, The Pointer Sisters and Steely Dan all at once. That might sound like a heady mix, but it really works and it's probably the closest thing 'Uptown Funk' has to a companion piece on the record.
'Crack in the Pearl part II'
Stevie's back with his harmonica, and so is the recurrent theme that surfaces throughout the record, only this time we've finally shifted up a gear and there's a funky, disco undercurrent to this closing number, rounding off the album nicely.
All in all, what Ronson has delivered here is a pretty expansive record that takes you on a journey through his love of late 70s and early 80s soul and R&B records. Although he's delivered many an accomplished record as producer working for other artists, with Uptown Special it finally feels like he's done the same under his own name. More than that though, he's delivered what is sure to be a hit record without buying in to the sound du jour, in fact its quite the opposite. Nobody else is making records like this right now, and while that's a shame, it puts Mark Ronson in unique place. And do you know what? It really, really works.
Uptown Special is out now in hmv stores and available to download at hmv digital.