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Mark Ronson and the Business International: Record Collection
The trend of superstar producers headlining ahead of their superstar artist peers has never been more embraced than in the case of Mark Ronson. His first two albums Here Comes the Fuzz (2003) and Version (2007) experienced polar receptions upon release, but seven years after he made his name as a quirky and original DJ in New York, he has cemented his position in the industry as one of the most influential and sought after producers. The release of Record Collection under the visor of Mark Ronson and the Business International signals a new stage for him; as he tries to show that he can stand on his own two feet without vocals by his superstar friends.
Released as the first single and taster way back in July 2010, opener 'Bang Bang Bang' sets the tone, as Ronson ditches the horns for a more synth-pop sound. It’s catchy and sounds off with a bigger and louder bubblegum boom on every listen. Veteran rapper Q-Tip is a perfect fit for a Mark Ronson song, but it’s Amanda Warner of electro-pop duo MNDR that surprisingly shines. Her delivery of the line ‘Je te plumerai la tête’ in the chorus is as gratingly infectious as it is teasingly playful and sexy.
There is a conscious effort on Record Collection to fuse the mainstream sound that brought Ronson so much success with Version with his own brand of alternative hip-hop that was initially so badly received on Here Comes the Fuzz. Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah originally featured on his debut, and his contribution on ‘Lose it’ is another precious highlight of what turns into a laboured record.
Listen after listen, you’ll will it to work; because on paper it all looks great: Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran, Kyle Falconer of The View, Rose Elinor Dougall of The Pipettes and the talented D’Angelo are all mouth-watering contributors. Despite this, the album lacks the spontaneity and imagination that it deserves. Every song sounds too measured and too precise, which ultimately equates to flat and forgettable tunes, such as ‘The Bike Song’.
Record Collection will underwhelm fans that are still riding the soundwaves of his hit remixes. Unlike the mix and mingle of Version; this album feels much more consistent, and for better or for worse, it has a distinct and solid uniform feel to it.
Mark Ronson is likeable and completely unobjectionable, which makes it harder to suggest that his most successful songs are those featuring the bigger, popular and more successful stars. Former muses Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen lent their star statuses as much as they did their vocals, and it begs the question: exactly how many of these songs will still be on radio playlists six months from now? We think one, maybe two. Probably just the one, though.
In eleven songs, they built a unique sound that you couldn't quite put your finger on: slow beats dressed in austerity, accompanied by enigmatic lyrics and lone wondering guitars. With a Mercury music prize under their belt and almost every music critic at their feet, they started work on their sophomore album.
But overall, this album is much less introverted. Both Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim seem to have gained confidence as singers and hone their vocal skills with more conviction then they did on their debut album.
Beatmaster Jamie xx, having built a very solid reputation as a producer in between the creation of the two albums, also steps closer to the limelight on this record. Even more songs than on the debut album are built on beats instead of a guitar riff and those beats are slightly more experimental than they previously were. There is even some steel drum - certainly not the hippest of instruments - seeping through in ‘Reunion’.
Canadian artist, Grimes – real name Claire Boucher – has made a name for herself with her eclectic, haunting production style and unique ethereal vocals. With one of 2012’s best albums, Visions, Grimes firmly placed herself on the art-pop landscape as an incredible producer, placing on several album of the year lists. Now it’s 2015, and she’s back with what is her fourth overall studio album, but is it the second coming everyone expected?
The album opens with the straight-forwardly titled ‘laughing and not being normal’. As a testament to the breadth of the work that she takes inspiration, the track sounds like something from an anime or Japanese video game. The vocals are as haunting and ethereal as ever and as if the production style wasn’t enough to warrant a comparison to Japanese and anime culture, the song ends with the line “When the leaves fall/ I try to catch ‘em all.” Coincidence?
The second track, ‘California’, is where Grimes goes all-out with her mainstream pop influences. Sounding like something released in the early 2000s, the song almost borders on bubblegum, bursting at the seams with sticky satirical bile aimed squarely at a certain music website who’s name may or may not rhyme with Shmitchfork. Grimes puts all her vocal emotions into the repeated verse, ending “Oh lord cause I don't wanna know what they say/ Cause I get carried away, Commodifying all the pain.”
Ouch. But there is more to this track than just satire. The light synth buzz in the background brings the song back down to earth a little bit, and the layered vocals make this a great synthesis between her personal style and a more mainstream aesthetic.
This play between art-pop and more mainstream stylings is an ongoing theme throughout the album. ‘Flesh without Blood’, for example, sounds like a song that you might see Rihanna performing – and funnily enough, Grimes’ last non-album single, ’Go’, produced in collaboration with Blood Diamonds was originally written for RiRi, but was turned down. This is seen once again on ‘Realiti’, which manages to combine elements of house and liquid dubstep, with only a light smattering of pop-iness.
That doesn’t mean that Boucher has lost her touch for experimentation. ‘SCREAM’ combines vocals performed entirely in Mandarin by female Taiwanese rapper, Aristophanes, with guitar and drums that would not be out of place on a Nine Inch Nails album. The minimalist verse periods are full on With Teeth/Year Zero style production, with the chorus section seemingly being pulled straight from Trent Reznor and co’s 1992 EP, Broken.
‘Kill V. Maim’ is further evidence of this, although the experimentation is more lyrically-based. Potentially, the best pop song of the year, the lyrics deal with, in Grimes’ own words, “the perspective of Al Pacino in The Godfather Pt II. Except he’s a vampire who can switch gender and travel through space.” Beyond the strange subject matter, the lyrics steer dangerously yet subtly close to philosophical concepts, as seen much more commonly on previous releases. At the end of the bridge, she screams “You gave up being good when you declared a state of war”. This appears to be a reference to John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government where he defines a state of war as being a situation where one can kill in defence of their freedom, in contrast to the state of nature where this is not the case. Pretty deep for a bubblegum pop tune, but that’s just how Grimes rolls.
The most absurd thing about this album –forgetting for one brief second the vampire Al Pacino, the Pokemon references and the Mandarin rapping – is that it is all entirely self-produced and engineered, flying right in the face of critics of DIY styles who will tell you that it’s sloppy and poor quality. This is one of the best produced albums of the year and, despite a couple of stumbles, Grimes shows a maturity beyond her 27 years, bringing all of her influences together into a well-made, danceable and, above all, long-awaited package.