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Ronson's 'Uptown Special' showcases retro sounds

By AMANDA AUBLE | January 29, 2015

Following the surge resulting from his soulful single “Uptown Funk,” English music producer and DJ Mark Ronson released his equally retro sounding album Uptown Special on Jan. 13 in the U.S. The album reached number one on the U.K. charts after its Jan. 19 release.

Known for his masterful collaborations with artists like Amy Winehouse and Adele, Ronson has mastered his own sound in his fourth studio album, blending classic funk, R&B and rock genres.

Although Ronson orchestrates his own vision on Uptown Special, other notable producers, writers and artists add power to the album. Grammy Award-winning songwriter Jeff Bhasker and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon aid Ronson’s lyrics while Bruno Mars, rapper Mystikal and Stevie Wonder allow their signature sounds to align with Ronson’s retro focus.

As the first single released earlier in November, “Uptown Funk” brilliantly utilizes Mars’ attitude and soulful voice. After his Super Bowl performance, which gave homage to Motown, Mars provides a classic vintage image and sound.

Furthermore, New Orleans rapper Mystikal’s raspy, hoarse voice and confident flow project a James Brown-like sound in the upbeat “Feel Right.” The song’s lyrics are explicit and full of attitude, but also subtly silly.

On the album, these two songs seem tied together as Bruno Mars can be heard introducing Mystikal’s track “Feel Right” and then inviting listeners to the “after party” located uptown (also known as the next track, “Uptown Funk”). These two collaborations were also performed on the Nov. 22 episode of Saturday Night Live, giving listeners a preview of the soul quality that is a key piece of Ronson’s album.

Notably, the legendary Stevie Wonder provides classic, recognizable harmonica melodies for some of the tracks on Ronson’s album, including the opening track “Uptown’s First Finale.” This gives listeners an authentic soulful sound from the albums very start, and Ronson retains a strong admiration for Wonder’s music.

“[Having Wonder on the album] is probably the peak musical highlight of my life,” Ronson said in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine. “I’m fine if I never top it.”

The track is haunting yet mellow as Wonder’s melodies sound like they float through space.

The use of Wonder’s talents adds authority to Ronson’s album. However, Ronson also reached out for new talent on Uptown Special. The song “I Can’t Lose,” which sounds like a lost 80’s hit with its playful lyrics, heavy synthesizer and R&B vocals, features new talent Keyone Starr. According to an interview with Billboard Magazine, Ronson searched parts of the country for a very specific voice and discovered Starr in Jackson at Mississippi State University.

Although the album has success duplicating funk and retro-pop sounds alike, Ronson also chooses to incorporate rock music elements. For instance, “Summer Breaking,” “In Case of Fire” and “Leaving Los Feliz” all contain an electric guitar focus and simplistic vocals.

“Summer Breaking” harks back to 1970’s soft rock with mellow vocals and rhythmic drums. The lyrics tell the story of a young woman freely playing with the singer’s emotions, utilizing the double meaning of the word break: a laidback vacation but also an event that causes damage.

In addition, “In Case of Fire” emits a Thin Lizzy vibe with its heavy guitar riff and “Leaving Los Feliz” takes cues from psychedelic rock with slow guitar sounds that remind of the Beatles’ “Revolution.”

“Daffodils” remains a uniquely contemporary song with eerie static and a contagious bass line. Lyrics like “Drop another daffodil, we can push up through until morning / Drop another daffodil, sail right off the map till morning” present ideas of escape.

Similarly, “Crack in the Pearl Part I” presents haunting disillusionment with the repeated lyric “Nine exits north of Las Vegas.” Listeners can feel a sense of isolation like that of being left stranded in the Nevada desert. “Crack in the Pearl Part II,” however, ends the album and brings back Wonder’s harmonica as well as an upbeat rhythm.

Overall, Ronson’s album has moments of intensely impressive revitalizations of funk sounds, but also holds its own footing when Ronson chooses to incorporate rock and electronic elements.


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