When a collaborative album starts and ends with Stevie Wonder, you know you’re about to get into something good. And this is what we arrive at with Mark Ronson’s latest offering Uptown Special, a homage to the lost go-go 1980s funk scene that arrived in a time where polished pop songs grew and lo-fi, syncopated percussion saw a downfall.
With his first album in four years, Mark Ronson has bought about a collective offering that, in its entirety, brings listeners back to a time of dancing in the street, music as a unifier and maximum band set-ups over minimal sound and line-ups. It’s all about the entertainment and the good times where the sound overrides all.
Immediately, with the first track “Uptown’s First Finale”, we are reminded of a time where music was made by actual instruments and collective input and where a wall of sound and the talents of others triumphed over “yeah it’s just cheaper to use a sample”. What better way to start this vibe off than with Stevie Wonder’s harmonica melody line complimented by the man’s resolving vocals.
Ronson has pulled in some big names on this one- Stevie, Bruno Mars, Mystikal, Andrew Wyatt (Miike Snow), Kevin Parker (Tame Impala) and The Budos Band (almost all of whom were the backing band for the Ronson produced Amy Winehouse game changer Back To Black) to work on tracks that prove their collaborative efforts rather than a just a session musician job.
Each track lies true to each artist’s unique sound and this is an attribute that can especially be seen in the Kevin Parker track Daffodils. With everything you’d expect from the condensed psychedelic hit-maker, the track sits comfortably between the Tame Impala bass driven, synth sound scape that their track “Elephant” is now synonymous with and the funk vibe that Ronson is aiming for.
This is further reiterated in “Leaving Los Feliz” where, on the surface, the track has the trudge-alone Parker feel however more so resembles the bass line of the 1970s funk band Rufus’ “Tell Me Something Good”. It becomes apparent here that although a great collection, Ronson’s influence borderlines direct appropriation (check out the matches for the Bruno Mars’ track “Uptown Funk”).
But this is something that is probably hard to escape when you are trying to recreate the sound of a genre that essentially does not exist in popular music today.
A standout track comes in the form of “ I Can’t Lose” featuring a little known artist named Keyone Starr. Channelling a Chaka Khan inner spirit, Starr belts this horn heavy disco-funk track perfectly with her grindy yet pop-soul vocals.
Starr’s is a story that characterises the work that Ronson does to achieve sound as he travelled across the US and visited gospel churches to find musicians and be inspired by the American soul scene that was still hanging onto the foundations that the 1970’s and 80’s built.
Andrew Wyatt makes another appearance with Ronson on a few tracks but nothing can quite match up to “Somebody To Love Me” (shiiiiittttt what a track). His voice is however a great match for the deep-house soul wax beats that Ronson has created for him.
I’ll admit that Uptown Funk is not Ronson’s best work but I can also admit that its hard to score him on his previous accolades because everything that he brings out is just so different from one another despite his continuous work with the same musicians.
This is something that Ronson should be commended on: acknowledging the history of music and using it as a tool to bring musicians together and push the culture forward.
The days of bedroom producers may be upon us now, but everyone knows that a party is better when more musicians turn up.
Funk on mate.
Hometown: London, UK
Latest Release: Uptown Special, January 16th 2015 (via Columbia)
Say What? Mark Ronson sent the idea about Stevie Wonder playing harmonica on a track to Wonder’s management and was stunned to receive a reply with Stevie’s blessing and a file of the harmonica part recorded for Ronson to use.
Paws and pineapples, Cat