Mark Ronson, ‘Uptown Special’ Review


B+Verdict: “Uptown Special” is a triumphant slab of throwback sounds



It seems as if everything from Souvlaki-era shoegaze to Zeppelinesque proto-metal is undergoing some cultish reverence in basements and garages across the world. As regressive as these worship bands may seem, there’s an undeniable logic in retreating to the sounds of decades past summarized by the mantra “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Sure, while that guy down the street could be committing his time towards something a bit more forward-thinking than that cover-but-not-really-a-cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” there’s worse things you could be subjected to. English music producer Mark Ronson seems to feel the same way if his fourth studio album “Uptown Special” is any indication. Indebted to the old icons of funk, soul and sixties pop, Ronson’s latest recording is nothing if not a remarkable trek through the days of decades past, channeled with keen clarity through the present.

Throughout the album’s eleven tracks, “Uptown Special” covers a remarkable amount of ground. As the psychedelic haze of the album’s second cut “Summer Breaking” transitions to the full-frontal funk and r&b attack of “Feel Right,” it’s clear Ronson’s approach isn’t concerned with a unified, consistent sample of the past as much as it is with casting a vast, encompassing net over days of yore. “Uptown Funk,” the album’s hit single, serves as the prime example. Sure, it reeks of manufactured nostalgia, but it’s just too irresistible to matter. Images of billowing smoke, beaded curtains and star-spangled glasses all come to mind as the track works methodically through the retro-funk playbook. Bruno Mars, the president-elect of failed revivalism, even turns in a remarkable performance, elevating the song into something not only listenable but impossibly enjoyable.

As “Uptown Special” continues to wind through the years, the logic of Ronson’s modus operandi reveals itself. After all, there’s no times like the old times. This philosophy is particularly pronounced through the quirky, tripped-out gait of “Leaving Los Feliz,” thanks in no small part to the kaleidoscopic vocalizations of Kevin Parker. The fuzzed-out, funky guitar work doesn’t exactly hurt the aesthetic either, drawing listeners deeper down the rabbit hole.

Speaking of aesthetic, Ronson’s “Uptown Special” traverses the razor’s edge of modernizing yesterday’s sounds with considerable grace – an innately tricky endeavor. Given Ronson’s extensive experience as a producer though, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but the results are stunning nonetheless. Had he committed too far to contemporary stylings, Ronson would have risked ruining the inherent appeal of his retro soundscape, inadvertently turning the album’s proceedings into lifeless revisionism. Instead, “Uptown Special” sounds markedly pristine, like a newly polished recording of years long gone warped through the lens of today.

This is all to say that Ronson has crafted one remarkable record. “Uptown Special” operates in a niche all its own, playing to – and just plain playing – the annals of history. Whether working in funk, soul, R&B or ’60s pop, there’s a pointed understanding of the genres as work. It’s credible, engrossing and, most of all, just plain fun. Sure, audiences could listen to something a bit more forward-thinking, but really, who doesn’t appreciate some good, old-fashioned Stevie Wonder worship?