Crowning the Song of the Summer has become an annual tradition akin to the Super Bowl for music pundits, spawning its own Billboard chart, a seasonal stream of speculative think pieces, and official betting odds. But no such fanfare exists for determining the Song of the Winter, an arguably more impressive achievement, given that it must seize our attention from the hectic pre-Christmas crunch through to the post-New Year’s onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder (and all the grueling family gatherings in between). Where Songs of the Summer are readymade soundtracks for the happiest moments of your life, Songs of the Winter must be scientifically engineered with enough exuberance to fire up your serotonin during the most miserable time of year. Lest we forget, some of the most universally embraced, monoculture-fortifying singles of this millennium—from “Hey Ya!” to “Crazy” to “Happy”—all surfaced during the chilly season, making their outsized energy not just welcome, but psychologically necessary. And if 2014 was indeed the hottest year on record, we can thank “Uptown Funk” for raising the mercury during its dying days.
A year ago next month, Bruno Mars appeared at the Super Bowl half-time show in a rare, consolation-prize opening slot for the Red Hot Chili Peppers—the implication being that, even with two multi-platinum albums under his belt, the singer was somehow still too young or unproven to carry the show on his own. But on the heels of “Uptown Funk”—his inescapable, undeniable chart-topping collaboration with producer Mark Ronson—Mars could conceivably command headlining the spot this year and make everyone in the stadium forget there was a football game going on. If “Uptown Funk” represents something of a supernova moment for Mars’ ascendant star—unleashing a braggadocio that’s several degrees sassier than what we’ve heard on his more congenially soulful solo hits—it’s a hard-fought moment of Stateside redemption for Ronson. Though his name can be found in the fine print on some of the biggest British pop records of the past decade, Ronson’s own collaboration-heavy albums failed to establish the London-born producer as a star in his own right in his second home of America (where his sister Samantha is arguably more famous for being Lindsay Lohan’s long-time party pal). His productions for others have cracked the Billboard Top 10, but this time he has a monster hit to call his own—that is, if you discount the veritable syllabus worth of ’80s-funk sources “Uptown Funk” so unapologetically references. Between the Morris Day-schooled mojo and Michelle Pfeiffer name-drops, all the song is missing for maximum period detail is an Eddie Murphy cop flick to soundtrack.
There’s more where that came from on Uptown Special—though not as much as you might think. Where last fall’s “SNL”-showcased double shot of “Uptown Funk” and its gloriously profane, Mystikal-manned counterpart “Feel Right” suggested Uptown Special would be Ronson’s star-studded reenactment of a Revolution-vs.-Time First Avenue showdown, the album is actually more like a five-CD-changer shuffle through styles that dominated pop radio while Ronson was still a grade-schooler. Pieced together in several cities spanning Toronto to Memphis to L.A., the album represents something of a Sonic Highways-style journey for Ronson, and like Dave Grohl, the producer boasts both the chart-pop and alt-rock bona fides to attract luminaries from the mainstream and indie-verse alike. The guest list here includes everyone from a hall-of-fame legend like Stevie Wonder to an unknown choir singer, Keyone Starr, recruited from Mississippi State; from electro-pop pin-up Andrew Wyatt of Miike Snow to reigning psych-rock king Kevin Parker of Tame Impala; from the guy who wrote The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay to the guy who wrote “Shake Ya Ass”.
If Ronson’s previous albums were united by formalizing principles (retro-soul makeovers of alt-rock standards on 2007’s Version, odd-couple duets on 2010’s Record Collection), his strategies on Uptown Special are more conceptual. For several songs, he enlisted novelist Michael Chabon to pen pulp-novel-like lyrical vignettes of crime and passion on the outskirts of Las Vegas and hipster identity crises in L.A., providing the album with, if not a linear narrative, then a recurring motif of dislocation. And in the spirit of Todd Terje’s producer-cum-artist-album gold standard, It’s Album Time, the tracklist follows a loose dusk-till-dawn trajectory, welcoming us in with Stevie’s signature harmonica squeals on the sunset-summoning intro “Uptown’s First Finale” before slipping into the cocktail-hour psychedelia of “Summer Breaking” (the first of Parker’s three leads). But before the album’s 15-minute mark, Mystikal has already gotten up and offa that thing, Mars has completed his one-and-done deal, and newcomer Starr has held her own with the jazzy, jittery R&B of “I Can’t Lose”, rendering Uptown Special as an album of all-too-brief, berserker highs followed by a protracted, increasingly ponderous comedown period. The problem isn’t that Uptown Special’s incongruous collaborators clash with one another, it’s that Ronson sounds like he’s mashing two entirely different albums—one libidinous, one languorous—together.
In sharp contrast to the scene-stealing performances that dominate the album’s first half, Uptown Special’s second act essentially sees Parker and Wyatt trading smooth soft-rock volleys overtop chill grooves, with refereeing from Jeff Bhasker (who plays the same role on “In Case of Fire” as Todd Edwards did on Random Access Memories’ “Fragments of Time”—i.e., a big-name producer making a rare vocal turn on a thinly veiled Steely Dan tribute.) Parker’s contributions—be it the Toro Y Moi-style cosmic funk of “Daffodils” or Ween-like bounce of “Leaving Loz Feliz”—provide a prophecy of what a tamer Tame Impala might sound like another five years down the road should they ever trade in heavy-duty guitar jams for streamlined pop; Wyatt’s “Heavy and Rolling” cops its strut from “Billie Jean” but none of its dramatic tension, denying Uptown Special the late-game climax it’s begging for. Before you know it, Stevie Wonder’s returned for the sunrise swirl of “Crack in the Pearl, Pt. II” to send us off with another unmistakably Stevie-esque harmonica line (while making you wonder why the hell Stevie Wonder isn’t doing anything more on this album other than playing harmonica). Too top-heavy to sustain its momentum, yet too fleeting for its thematic framework to cohere, Uptown Special is that rare beast: a concept album that actually could use more fat.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1ypp4md