It’s been five years since producer, Mark Ronson, released the synth-focused concoction, Record Collection. So what has the mastermind been up to since then? Uptown Special is the culmination of Ronson’s recent efforts, but considering the length of time he’s had to work at it, the hit-maker monumentally falls short. There is a strange nostalgic quality that hangs around the record like stale cigarette smoke. Ronson’s trademark horns reappear, but they have been re-imagined into a gloopy mess of seventies funk inspired tracks. Furthermore, despite the new rota of big names roped in to plump up the album, Uptown Special fails to utilise them to their best abilities. While there are the occasional flickers of sophistication with the likes of Daffodil and Uptown Funk, these are obscured by the general haziness of the rest of the album.
Getting through Uptown Special’s opening is a bit of a slog. The 1:39 minute intro track, Uptown’s First Finale, is lethargically bland, despite an instrumental appearance from Stevie Wonder. Likewise, Summer Breaking slips by with a faux-smoothness that feels a bit too try-hard and immediately melts away into filler territory. Not a great start, Ronson. However, the jarring horns of Feel Right, when coupled with Mystikal’s course vocal stylings (and even coarser language), blare in like a rude alarm clock to wake us up from the record’s soporific opening. But the gratuitous helpings of “Mother fucka!” are annoying and unnecessary.
The few acceptable tracks take form in lead single, Uptown Funk, which stomps over the entire album with its punchy brass hooks. I have to admit, I wanted to hate the song (due to a general dislike of Bruno Mars) but the track’s arrogant catchiness is hard to deny – the peppy trumpets feel like they’ve overdosed on Viagra. However, the whole overconfident lyrical swagger routine that has become a standard in recent songs achieves very little. The other notable track is In Case Of Fire, which trundles along with amicable rockabilly guitar twangs and provides a much-needed relief from the languid swampiness of Crack In The Pearl. Yet its scratchy falsetto does grate after a while. It’s a shame that guest, Jeff Bhasker – notable for producing the likes of Kanye West and Jay-Z - comes across as though he hasn’t really bothered putting much effort into his collaborations on Uptown Special.
Leaving Los Feliz drifts through the psychedelic fog of Tame Impala frontman Kevin Parker’s vocals like a lazy Summer’s afternoon. The track would be perfect tacked onto the road trip scene in an American High School movie. But unfortunately, its lack of get-up-and-go lets it down. Daffodils works better, and Parker’s lo-fi style adds a pleasant dreamy quality that nestles in among the backdrop of throbbing bass lines. I Can’t Lose ought to be decent, but again falls short. Keyone Starr’s smoky vocals provide the only lifeline to the song’s musty undulating synth and repetitive chorus. As for the rest of the album, it’s pretty forgettable in my opinion.
Ultimately, Uptown Special is a fuzzy affair with everything buzzing around each other, jostling for attention, like a swarm of mosquitos. Don’t let the showiness of Uptown Funk misguide you into assuming that the rest of the songs will follow in its footsteps. They don’t. I found the whole thing to be disappointing. If you want great Mark Ronson tracks, buckle down with Version and wait for his next offering in another five years.