Review: Mark Ronson, Uptown Special

Mark Ronson is pretty fly for a white guy.
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Mark Ronson is pretty fly for a white guy.
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opinion byZACHARY BERNSTEIN < @znbernstein >

Mark Ronson is pretty fly for a white guy. He’s a GQ cover boy. He dates Hollywood actresses (Rashida Jones) and marries French models (Josephine de La Baume). He has Simon Le Bon, Quincy Jones, and Ghostface Killah on speed dial, and that’s only the beginning of his musical pedigree. His honey-hued, brassy production on Amy Winehouse’s 2006 breakthrough Back to Black launched a new British invasion of soul music, the reverberations of which can still be felt today every time Adele polishes her trophy case or Simon Cowell endures another trembling ingénue’s rendition of Duffy’s “Mercy.” Ronson masterfully practices the art of detached, effortless cool, smirking and gazing out from behind hot pink sunglasses at the musical and fashion landscapes that have unquestionably been shaped over the last decade by his influence. Still, most Americans would probably ask themselves, “who’s that random guy in the new Bruno Mars video?”

Despite the many hats that Ronson wears – DJ, producer, style icon, all-around coolest man in the UK – that of a solo pop star has never seemed to fit his well-coiffed head appropriately. Blame it on the spastic and synaptic firings of a busy mind, but his recorded output has always been somewhat erratic - the more polished gems diluted by production flourishes that elsewhere never congealed into memorable hooks. “Uptown Funk,” the Bruno Mars-featuring lead single from Ronson’s fourth album Uptown Special is both a world-conquering pop juggernaut and a misrepresentation of the record for which it speaks. Uptown Special is much weirder and spacier than the sweaty, stupid joys of “Uptown Funk” and promotional single “Feel Right” would lead you to believe. Maybe I’m being shallow, but I honestly thought that this party would be a little more, well, fun.

Good music is good music, regardless of age or era, and Mark Ronson has always known this. For that reason, his best singles are universal and timeless in their appeal. Each of Ronson’s three albums – 2003’s criminally underrated Here Comes the Fuzz, 2007’s Version, and 2011’s Record Collection – have birthed one perfect pop song apiece – “Ooh Wee,” “Valerie” (this reviewer’s favorite song of all time), and “Bang Bang Bang,” respectively. “Uptown Funk,” with its soulful guitar, doo-wop accents, and screaming horns, continues this tradition by managing both to belong to every era at once and simultaneously to function as a polyglot product of 2015. Bruno Mars deserves a substantial amount of credit here – a producer is only as good as his collaborators and Mars is arguably the only true triple-threat (singer, dancer, writer/producer) male pop star to emerge in the last half decade.

In fact, all of Uptown Special’s best material owes a great debt to its featured artists. The aforementioned “Feel Right” is a dirty, funky James Brown-channeling barnburner featuring the spitfire rhymes of Mystikal, of all people. The similarly fantastic “I Can’t Lose” is nearly impossible to classify – a synth-powered pop-rock jock jam with hip-hop drum beats and jazz horns, bolstered by the rafter-shaking vocals of virtual unknown Keyone Starr. Ronson plucked her from open-mic obscurity – here’s hoping we hear more from her.

Unfortunately, this party cannot sustain its early momentum. If the first half of Uptown Special is a performer’s showcase, then its second half is a producer’s plaything, in which Ronson’s arrangements grow increasingly fussed over and busy while less charismatic vocalists chill in the backseat. Ronson’s mission statement has always been nostalgia – Here Comes the Fuzz a scratch’n’sample hip-hop rave-up, Version a Daptoned covers album morphing Brit Pop into variants of “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” and Record Collection a neon, '80s-channeling fever dream. So the primary influence for Uptown Special as a whole is...dad rock? The record’s later tracks head-scratchingly derive their sonic landscapes from the '70s-FM likes of Billy Squier, Steve Miller Band, and newly minted Coachella headliners Steely Dan, proving that the anticlimactic proper opener, the Santana-lite “Summer Breaking” was not a fluke. The strangely cowpoked “Leaving Los Feliz” lugubriously plods along, dragging down any remaining chance of a late-record second wind. “In Case of Fire” and “Heavy and Rolling” are perfectly serviceable and immaculately produced, but nowhere near as exciting as their more rambunctious, A-side predecessors.

Ronson clearly wants to be taken seriously as an artist, as well as a well-connected partystarter, which is why he drafts celebrated American author Michael Chabon to pen lyrics for the record. The record’s storylines touch upon one-night stands, fictional drugs, and an apparent fascination with Las Vegas, but not many people would play a Mark Ronson album for its substance. Juxtaposed with lackluster B-side songs, who really cares what they’re saying?

Perhaps the biggest sin of Uptown Special is that it wastes Stevie Wonder. The album opens and closes with a blast of that epic, inimitable harmonica, but it serves merely as bookending – an anticipatory prelude and self-congratulatory bow for an epic pan-generational dance party that never fully comes to fruition. Mark Ronson has called this album his best record, and strictly speaking, perhaps it is – with its fixed roster of featured players and reprises of musical themes, Uptown Special exhibits a long-playing cohesion missing from his prior output. The sense of free-wheeling fun, however, is largely absent with the exception of the record’s funky A-side trifecta. The best and most memorable nights are often those that necessitated the least amount of planning, driven by a sense of youthful spontaneity rather than structure and carefully orchestrated moments. Uptown Special veers far more closely to the latter, ultimately to its detriment. This is party music – don’t overthink it. Sadly, it sounds as if Mark Ronson did. B-