Music Review: Music is Better Than Words

Chances are, if you’ve been living on this planet, then you’ve heard Seth MacFarlane sing. His voice is constantly featured in the zany musical numbers of his animated comedies Family Guy and American Dad. Recently, however, Mr. MacFarlane has decided to feature his voice in a more serious musical environment, with the release of his own Big Band record on Universal Records–complete with a 90-piece jazz orchestra–entitled Music is Better Than Words.

Although it might come as a bit of a shock that the creative mind behind Family Guy is making a jazz record, it’s really not surprising that he would take this route. MacFarlane’s animated series feature a 50- to 90-piece orchestra in almost every episode, and MacFarlane has been a fan of the Great American Songbook since his childhood days growing up in Connecticut.

MacFarlane’s voice, for the most part, is underwhelming. He fumbles through the record with amateurish phrasing and cornball vibrato. His accurate pitch and authentic crooner tone are impressive, but the melodies of mid-century American classics seem to be too much for the cartoonist to handle. It’s obvious that MacFarlane knows what he’s doing, but he lacks the command and charisma of his idols and he’s constantly buried underneath the orchestra.

MacFarlane should be given credit, though, for knowing that this music is nothing to joke about. His authenticity and his devotion to tradition are impressive. The entire record was recorded onto analog tape with MacFarlane singing into Frank Sinatra’s original microphone. Moreover, the whole orchestra recorded in the same room with no overdubs or punch-ins, the same way the crooners of yesteryear did it. This is a significantly difficult and noble challenge to take on.

Although MacFarlane’s performance registers relatively low on the Richter scale, the featured orchestra under the direction of Joel McNeely is fairly impressive. McNeely’s arrangements are lush and take advantage of the fantastic talent of the musicians on the record (although his background in film and TV are thinly veiled, with not so subtle allusions to the musical stylings of Family Guy or American Dad). The solos and shout choruses are the highlights of the album, but they’re not enough to pique the listener’s interest, let alone make the album enjoyable.

The pop celebrity cameos hardly help the cause. Both Norah Jones and Sara Barellies join in for duets and their flimsy voices hardly have the gravitas to stand up to such an orchestra. They’re even overshadowed by MacFarlane. Although the two guest singers have merit within their comfort zone, they were clearly the wrong choice for this style of music and were only brought in for their mass appeal.

Overall, although Music is Better Than Words seems to be a victory for the American Big Band tradition, it’s dwarfed by the old-timey American classics that it tries so desperately to emulate. Save for a few shining moments, it will fail to be anything other than a novelty album that will sell simply because of the fame of Seth MacFarlane. Although MacFarlane set out to make a record that would celebrate the tradition of a music he loved, this record only serves as a painful reminder that the music that once made this country great has now been relegated to jokesters and novelty musicians.

To hear McFarlane discuss his new album in his own words, head over to NPR by clicking here.

Charlie Schlinkert, Music Editor 

Posted by on October 20, 2011. Filed under Arts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry