By Sean Fennessey
Music has forever been a breeding ground for impresarios -- people who build as much around spectacle as on the strength of their talents. Mark Ronson, an accomplished producer and DJ, has a flair for a particular brand of showmanship: the micromanaged collaboration. It has not always worked -- in 2003, he linked Jack White, the rapper Freeway and soul ingenue Nikka Costa for a cacophonous boatwreck called "Here Comes the Fuzz." Gimmickry like that implies a musical utopia stronger in theory than execution, but Ronson has learned to finesse his pairings in recent years.
Ronson's sneakily good third album, "Record Collection," is not unlike his 2007 covers project, "Version," minus the covers. The new release offers 14 tracks, three interlude-style instrumentals and lots of unlikely team-ups. Phantom Planet's Alex Greenwald trades verses with Ghostface Killah! Duran Duran's Simon Le Bon coos alongside British MC Wiley!! Atlanta's Pill raps over a vocal melody by the London Gay Men's Choir!!! What's different are Ronson's methods: There's hardly a trace of the bopping '60s soul that characterized his work with Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen. "Record Collection" is happening two decades later, in the synth-infused '80s. It's a savvy transition for the club-conscious Ronson. On the achy "Somebody to Love Me," Boy George's operatic cameo is both flashback-inducing and nostalgia-proof -- unironically perfect.
But Ronson's honed political prowess doesn't guarantee success. The hermetic soul genius D'Angelo makes a rare appearance here, on "Glass Mountain Trust." Age, alleged substance abuse and the song's pinging keyboards have made D'Angelo a cawing parody of himself. Which is further proof: It's not what you have, it's how you use it.
Recommended tracks: "Lose It (in the End)," "Bang Bang Bang"