Towards the end of 2014, something slightly out of the ordinary happened. A song was released and it immediately became hugely popular on pretty much every kind of radio station. But what was this song? Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk”, featuring Bruno Mars, caught the attention of radio stations world wide and certainly had me getting pretty excited for Ronson’s then-upcoming album, Uptown Special. Here in Australia, “Uptown Funk” has been played and played (and, to be honest, is on the verge of being overplayed), on every FM station that’s not just talkback or classical music. Even Triple J, who you’ll remember from last time are a bastion of independent sounds, have been smashing it – the combo of commercial favourite Mars with indie favourite Mark Ronson makes this an appealing track for people on both sides of the divisive radio station battle which is waged by cool young people in this country. When I later heard “Daffodils”, another track from the same album and featuring Kevin Parker from Tame Impala, I knew we were in for something good. Indeed, the feeling was that Uptown Special would be good – it was just a matter of how good.
Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, Uptown Special was duly released. It does not disappoint. Stemming from a tradition of 1970s and 1980s soul/funk/disco, it’s blatantly obvious that this is an album of musical homage, especially after the opening of the second track. There is no sense that Ronson is in any way apologetic about it either – this is an album that is consciously serving up some funky sounds and looking to the very best for inspiration. “Summer Breaking”, again featuring Kevin Parker (you’ll want to increase the speed to 1.25 using the settings cog in the bottom right corner of the video as it’s slowed down ‘for some reason’ *feigns ignorance*), is almost like a lyricised version of “Viva Tirado”, a funk instrumental from 1970 by El Chicano. Throughout, especially with “Uptown Funk”, there’s a clear influence from the sounds of Michael Jackson, especially work of his which was produced by Quincy Jones.
Ronson is a little bit like Quincy Jones. A musician par excellence, Quincy Jones is at home conducting his own bands or producing other peoples’. Having worked with a diversity of talents, from Frank Sinatra to Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones is an institution in the American music industry. He works with brilliant people and makes them absolutely shine. Ronson is doing the same thing here. He made his name as a DJ before going on to work with people like Duran Duran, and Amy Winehouse; with the latter on her excellent album Back to Black. Ronson’s Uptown Special features a lot of very talented people, and his talents as a producer working with them leads to some brilliant and stylish musical works.
To look at the list of artists on this album, you would think that it could be little more than a mish-mash of sounds and styles with no coherent connection between tracks – a sort of ‘Calvin Harris does funk’. But no. This isn’t a concept album per se, but there is clearly an effort being made to have an overarching ‘feel’ the the album. The creative influence of Stevie Wonder, himself credited on two tracks and responsible for some harmonica solos which do really scream ‘Stevie Wonder’, can be felt throughout the album – complex synthesiser lines and a jaunty tempo keeps the album moving apace. Kevin Parker brings some of his trademark psychedelia from the world of Perth music, and his three tracks are real highlights, especially “Daffodils”. Indeed, for me the only track that I couldn’t listen to more than once was “Feel Right”, featuring rapper Mystikal, but that’s only because I don’t like hip hop. The backing track is smooth as silk, though, so even then there’s a redeeming feature.
So, how good is Uptown Special? Well, it’s excellent. Mark Ronson is unabashedly showing a love for those smooth, funk sounds of the 70s and 80s which that has largely dropped off the mainstream popularity radar. If this album can help bring that back a little bit, and maybe even break through the increasingly tedious trend towards every artist cookie cuttering electronic dance music sounds, then it’s a win. But more than this, Uptown Special is just a lot of fun. You can feel the fun that was had producing it. If this doesn’t lead to Mark Ronson really breaking into the public consciousness, then, music lovers, we need to take a long hard look at ourselves.