REVIEW: Mark Ronson – Uptown Special (2015)

Old pop meets new pop on the latest Ronson compilation, but is Luke impressed? 

There’s no doubting Mark Ronson’s temerity – just when you try and dismiss him as being nothing more than a phony, talentless hipster, he tries to prove us wrong by pulling a few musical surprises and raising some eyebrows. As a hip hop DJ, he successfully flashed his b-boy credentials on Here Comes the Fuzz by dropping the beach party banger “Ooh Wee” on us. As a producer, he used Version to showcase his love of of 60s pastiches and vintage soul throwbacks by way of trumpet-toting cover versions with some of his favourite indie artists.

And like it or not, Ronson’s collaborations with Amy Winehouse (“Rehab,” “You Know I’m No Good,” “Back to Black”) have already gone down in the annals of pop music history. Even Ronson’s last album Record Collection proved he was starting to blossom into an accomplished musician in his own right, once again using his production nous to try and transport the listener back in time.

Ronson’s new album Uptown Special tries the same trick by revisiting the sax fetish which he embraced with aplomb on Version by diving headfirst into old skool funky go-go dancing and super freaky soul boy posturing à la Rick James. By dragging Prince’s early 80s Minneapolis Sound kicking and screaming into the selfie generation, Ronson has made an album of Zoolander-ish “blue steel” guilty pleasures which will probably make fans of Heart and Magic FM drool with ecstasy.

From Stevie Wonder’s corny chromatic harmonica in the intro – a fitting nod to cheesier ebb of Wonder’s New Wave-era output – to the sound of Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker doing a slightly more stoned take on the Isley Brothers on “Summer Breaking,” Uptown Special piles on lots of pungent slap bass and R&B grooves so flagrantly sugary they could easily rot your teeth, as well as set them on edge.

All bare-faced Chic and Nile Rodgers disco licks, rapper Mystikal even pops up on “Feel Right” to give his best foul-mouthed James Brown impersonation and – of course – Bruno Mars has a blast resorting to Gap Band-esque “Oops Upside Your Head” call-and-response Emceeing as he guests on the #1 smash hit single “Uptown Funk,” arguably the catchiest pop song we’ve heard since Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”

In “Daffodils,” Kevin Parker resurfaces to dip his toes in the shallow end of the psych-funk swimming pool and stays true to his indie hipster roots on “Leaving Los Feliz” by sounding like John Lennon experimenting on a Kaoss pad after sucking on a helium balloon. Thrown into an already heady mix is the 70s soft rock riffage and Doobie Brothers falsettos of “In Case of Fire” and the ghosts of The Whispers stalk “Heavy and Rolling” to prove – perhaps regrettably – that the beat really does go on.

To Ronson’s credit, the batch of songs on Uptown Special are surprisingly eclectic with more than a whiff of pretentiousness – although the God-awful leitmotif of “Crack in the Pearl,” with guest vocals sung by Stevie Wonder and lyrics rather pretentiously provided by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, often grate. But overall, the results here are a mixed bag of derivative off-cuts.

Cherry-picking the sounds of the past in a fit of postmodern approbation is all well and good, but sadly, for all its soulful crooning, Uptown Special is ultimately quite a mediocre listen, lacking in heart and often crippled by its own sense of false nostalgia. It’s an album tailor-made for the rich kids of Instagram – it apes the past and feigns authenticity by applying retro colour filters to its smartphone snapshots, while conveniently forgetting that the dark room is where the real magic happens. Such a shame really. It could have been so much more.

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