“Ronson sonically high-fives just about every genre known to man.”
“There’s a need for more authority from this collaborator-general.”
“One too many swerves in tone prevent it from really hitting its stride.”
What do we call “special”? Pizzas, offers, fried chicken in Chinese takeaways – often things that aren’t very special at all. They’re geared-up, friendly versions of proper things, made to make a sale, or be comforting.
This is not to say that Ronson, the Canadian producer made famous in the UK by his work with Amy Winehouse, and in tabloid realms, via his sister’s relationship with Lindsay Lohan, is unintelligent or boring. He’s his own breed. A special kind of “special”: in Uptown Special’s giddyupping through Ronson’s trademark electronic funk, past wobble bass (Daffodils), to the dream pop of The Thrills-esque Leaving Loz Feliz, the producer, and his huge collaborators, sonically high fives just about every genre known to man.
It leaves an album that’s funky and very listenable, but often in that patronising “You don’t know shit” kinda way. Where’s the ingeniousness?! It would all be fine if he was just a functional figurehead in pop music, but he isn’t, he’s an actual musician, a producer, thrown into media’s way. He may be pop’s communicator and genre poster boy – and there’s something in that – but the point is, in Uptown Special, Ronson achieves nothing much for himself as an artist and in that, really, neither will anyone else.
What Daft Punk ‘did’ for ‘70s disco, and Robin Thicke ‘did’ for the soul music of Marvin Gaye (lawsuit notwithstanding), Mark Ronson has taken it upon himself to ‘do’ for old-school funk.
Now, to a retrospective observer, on those groovy originals there is, for every euphoric banger, at least one skippable dud. And so it proves on Uptown Special. Whether born of postmodern experiment or of fun-lovin’ pastiche, Ronson’s aims are laudable – but we know now that there is to be no second Uptown Funk.
Don’t knock the smooth I Can’t Lose, and don’t knock Feel Right – a James Brown-alike on which the rapper Mystikal pronounces on how at ease he is in Uptown Special’s auspicious proceedings. With a little help from his high-profile friends, Ronson has achieved one of the most Frankensteinian records of modern times: stitching on an old Rufus Wainwright riff here, grafting on some Stevie Wonder harmonica there, and buzzing the unusual lyrics of novelist Michael Chabon through the whole quirky lot.
But strangely, there’s sometimes a need for more authority from this collaborator-general. And on those occasions Ronson allows Uptown Special to meander into irrelevant and yawnsome psychadelica such as Heavy and Rolling, you wonder what became of the party we’d been promised.
Uptown Special’ lumbers into existence via Stevie Wonder’s harmonica, crooning across a smattering of slow, swirling electronica before ‘Summer Breaking’, to be officially filed under ‘lounge-tastic’.
So a rather sluggish start then, particularly in comparison to the party promises broadcast across the radio by single ‘Uptown Funk’. All that changes with ‘Feel Right’, a fun and filthy James Brown homage, Mystikal ‘motherfucker’-ing over a 60s funk soundscape and swerving so far from the previous tracks, you can’t help but get drawn in. Bruno Mars skids in for ‘Uptown Funk’ before newcomer Keyonne Starr delivers the synthy, poppy ‘I Can’t Lose’ and suddenly we’re in 80s Eddie Murphy movie territory.
What follows includes – but isn’t limited to – the same scrunchy guitar as the Roobarb and Custard cartoon theme and a riff on ‘Leaving Los Feliz’ which owes a lot sonically to the original Grange Hill TV theme, two shows that emerged in the 70s, as did Ronson. A coincidence maybe, or perhaps childhood memories have been plundered here. Whatever the case may be, the end result is seriously seventies and intermittently beguiling.
‘Uptown Special’ is great if you’re in need of a smash on the head with a funk hammer or a heavy tickle from a bass guitar, but one too many swerves in tone prevent it from really hitting its stride.
Listen to 'Feel Right, ft. Mystikal