I’ve been wracking my brain the past few days trying to determine the one word that might best encapsulate Music is Better Than Words, the album of standards released at the end of last month by Seth MacFarlane – best known, of course, for his animated hits Family Guy, American Dad and The Cleveland Show.
Spectacular might even fall short. This album exudes artistry in every imaginable way, from the arrangements and production by Joel McNeely to the band and the amazing vocal talents of MacFarlane. Quite simply, had this CD not just landed in September of this year the casual listener could be excused for thinking “They just don’t make music like this anymore.”
Ah, but they do.
In the liner notes, MacFarlane explains the long-standing love he has had for the music of the fifties.
“This was a time during which some of the greatest vocal recordings emerged, but just as importantly, during which some of the greatest orchestrations were written,” he writes. “In today’s auto-tuned landscape, it’s hard to imagine a time when it was common for so many mainstream recordings to feature orchestras of 35 to 60 players. And yet there is a reason those recordings endure today. Each element of their creation was artfully tended to by an individual with specific abilities.”
And somehow, MacFarlane and McNeely managed (with the help of recording engineer Rich Breen) to recreate that fifties sound. The technical details of the ‘how’ behind that, elaborated on by McNeely in his notes, are fascinating. Breen hit on the unique combination of analog tape without noise reduction and a limited mic arrangement that allowed the sound of the orchestra (59 members by my count in the notes) and MacFarlane to blend seamlessly. By special arrangement with Capitol Records, MacFarlane was even afforded the rare opportunity to record his vocals on Frank Sinatra’s original microphone.
“Almost every vocal and orchestral performance on this recording is a live complete take with no editing,” McNeely writes in his own introduction. “This is a real testament to Seth’s ability as well as to the incredible players on the record.”
I agree whole-heartedly. I have been a Family Guy fan since it first debuted, then through the bizarre cancellation, and then from the revival in ’05 through today. However, I know there are people who, despite being otherwise nice and rational, don’t care for it. That said, Music is Better Than Words stands as its own piece of art and deserves fair consideration regardless of your feelings about Family Guy or MacFarlane’s other animated work.
It’s even family-friendly, which frankly wouldn’t make the cut if I were brainstorming words to describe Family Guy. That’s why I’m reviewing here on KDL. Buy it. Play it in your Swagger Wagon. Let your kids know that there are actual, talented musicians still making records, and some of them even play instruments.
I scoured YouTube hoping to find an official video from MacFarlane, but didn’t see anything. I did, however, find a recording of him performing what may well be my favorite track on the entire album – “The Sadder But Wiser Girl,” from The Music Man – on Conan. (And yes, before you ask, I totally appreciate the borderline hypocrisy to call the album ‘family friendly’ then immediately roll into ‘The Sadder But Wiser Girl,’ but I can’t help it – this song SWINGS!) Enjoy!