Uptown Special: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆06 Feb 2015
This review is dedicated to my brother, who got me a copy of this album, urging me to listen to it. I wasn't supposed to judge it, and simply listen to it with an open mind and let him know what I thought. I did, and I guess the best way I can think to prove this to him is to write a review of Mark Ronson's latest release, "Uptown Special".
Before I begin, there are two things you should understand about my music listening habits, both of which are likely attributed by my upbringing preforming classical violin in middle school and high school. First off, this album is far too new for me to be listening to it, being that my standard is to wait anywhere between 9 and 12 months after an album is released before spending any time listening to it. When you are spending large chunks of your free time rehearsing 200 year old music, listening to music from three years ago is suddenly so new, even if the rest of the world has long moved on.
This can also be really helpful in cases where critical reviews are dominating search engine results immediately following the release, which can muddy my perception of the album after reading another's take on it. This is a big deal to me. Had I listened to, say, King of Limbs right after release, I probably wouldn't have given it more than two or three listens before succumbing to the temptation to "supplement" my opinion with that of popular sources' review.
However, I waited about a year, allowing me to engage in my second odd quirk in my listening habits, again, forged by my years in the orchestra. I listen to the same album (or sometimes, a group's entire catalog) for, on average, four to six weeks. I work in software development, and in that capacity I spend a typical day with about five hours of solid listening time. To be conservative, I've listened to this album, on repeat, probably 100 times. I have sonically etched this album into my brain's auditory stores, available for high-quality playback for up to six months. All I need is a quiet room and a little bit of time. So I feel my opinion on this album is coming from place beyond a simple "impression" review and more "I have this album basically memorized".
You may wonder how the math adds up there, for those who decided to do a quick back of the napkin estimate of my claims of listening to this album one hundred times. The album is much too long to listen to that many times in two weeks! You're right, it is. However, I didn't listen to the entire album one hundred times. I listened to the entire thing maybe twenty times or so. After just a few days of listening to this album, I decided to cut out some tracks that I felt were added simply to justify the album's existence from a production standpoint. Those tracks were conveniently located in a cluster; tracks three, four and five.
It really upsets me that the smash hit single of the release, "Uptown Funk", has, at the time of writing, nearly 184 million views on YouTube, while many of the really engaging parts hang in at around two thousand hits each. I mean, sure, I get it. You have to have something that will catapult the rest of the material into a place where it can get produced, publicized and performed, and in that sense Uptown Funk does a great job doing that. What it doesn't do a great job of is fitting in with the rest of the album. Speaking of that, Mystikal's half-stepping insult to James Brown's raspy style is so far removed from the other tracks as to be utterly dumbfounding. Rounding out this trio is an overly intense, too-disco sound of "I Can't Lose". With these, you have what record executives call a solid offering, and what a Pulitzer Prize winning author and lyricist calls a distraction.
What I can't understand is, if the album has a supposed R&B influence of the 70's and 80's, why does that influence only appear on the tracks that don't seem to fit in with the rest of the album? Why does the rest of the album sound like it was made by a progressive rock band with a good ear for electronic interludes? Why do the lyrics go from parties, dancing, and a general sense of being a standard pop record to entering very strange world of reflecting on your deserted upbringing in privileged Los Felix, New York? This becomes more troubling when the rest of the album pushes on into a life of gambling, prostitution, and dealing heroine in Las Vegas.
This album sounded like it set out to be a very bold, ambitious abstract on living a questionable life in the desert, and ended up being half of that with some pop singles tacked on. What a disappointment. If you have a haunting interlude by Stevie Wonder sprinkled throughout your album hinting at some serious trouble nine exits North of Las Vegas, you shouldn't squander that with cheap grabs at the Hot 100. But who am I to judge. Without those singles, I probably wouldn't have found this excellent group of eight tracks, a solid 27 minute ride that will definitely stay on repeat with me for at least the next few weeks. If I were to review just those eight tracks, this review would easily earn four stars out of five.
If you liked this album (namely, the parts I didn't delete from the track listing), you might enjoy Miami Horror's Infinite Canyons.