In March of this year Mark Ronson gave a stand-out TED talk about the art of sampling. Until that point he’d kept quite a low profile since ‘Record Collection’ in 2010 (remember that massive tune ‘Bang Bang Bang’?) Apart from producing bits and bobs for Paul McCartney, Bruno Mars and Giggs, he’s mainly been working on his fourth studio album, ‘Uptown Special’, out January 2015. Last night we heard a couple of tracks.
First things first, can you dance to them? The answer’s yes: they’re so upbeat even Victor Meldrew would get his freak on. That’s always been the sign of a good Ronson hit, the benchmark set by his debut single ‘Ooh Wee’ released way back in 2003. It’s not easy in a rapidly changing music landscape to write a song that would get all sorts up on the dancefloor at a wedding. ‘Uptown Funk’ features Bruno Mars, who’s made doing an amazing impression of Prince his USP. The track, not out until January, is a surefire number one. It has Chic, Michael Jackson and Earth, Wind And Fire written all over it but Ronson’s vibrant production magic keeps it from sounding clichéd. And when it’s this infectious who cares anyway?
‘Daffodils’ is even better. Listen above via Stagedoor.FM. Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker contributes vocals – he’s on a few songs on the album – and his stoner-washed falsetto injects something new into the chopped-up Nile Rodgers guitars and Bille Jean-esque beat. Imagine Kevin Parker at number one? That would be cool. Even cooler, Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer prize-winning novelist wrote the lyrics.
Ronson wrote to Chabon, his long-time favourite author, after meeting him at a party in New York and much to his surprise the novelist replied and took him up on his request to collaborate. Most of the lyrics on the album are written by Chabon – excluding ‘Uptown Funk’ – and, from the sound of ‘Daffodils’, they inject something new into the retro sounds Ronson’s employing. “Run your fingers down the cool underbelly of the blue evening,” Parker sings on the track. Chabon evokes a much more atmospheric picture than the party and bullshit of so much brainless modern EDM. It’ll be interesting to hear how the rest of the tracks work out; I can’t think of an instance when a novelist has worked so directly with an artist.
But what of the retro sound? How can Ronson make 70s funk sound relevant in 2014? It was a question on his mind. Here’s a quote from the Guardian:
The lack of anybody trying to say anything really interesting in mainstream R&B, pop and soul music at the moment, I find a little depressing. With this album, I wanted to make something that could sit rightfully on the shelf with my own favourite American R&B, soul, jazz and blues records from the 70s and 80s, when the lyrics were really striving for something.
Ronson’s sets at YoYo, the night he played at Notting Hill Arts Club in the 00s, were always jammed full of stone-cold dance dynamite. You couldn’t fail to have a good time and it was clear he had a failsafe ear for a strong beat, for tracks from both the past and the present. Indeed in the notes about the album he talks about how the NY club scene inspired him as well as the artists – he cites Biggie, Chaka Khan, Amerie, Boz Scaggs, Missy, Earth Wind & Fire, N.O.R.E – he always comes back to. “Regardless of genre or era, if the song was good – if it had dope drums, if it had soul to it – they danced,” he says. “With Uptown Special I set out to capture the feeling I remember from those New York nights”.
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And Ronson’s sound has always been nostalgia re-upped. Motown, soul, funk, old school hip-hop are his points of reference. Remember his mastery with Amy Winehouse’s material? Funk’s been having a bit of a revival recently but no one’s done it with this kind of verve: Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memories’ was interminably boring, Jungle seem to have just the one track. And even for the most hardened neophiles, there is no denying Ronson’s production skills, brio and obvious joy at making bangers. I think we just heard the ‘Get Lucky’ of 2015 – and it could be either one of the new tracks.