© Seth MacFarlane and Epix HD

Music is better than Words

Especially when it is rendered as well as he does it on Music Is Better Than Words — MacFarlane’s exceptional Sept 2011 Universal Records album release.

With Joel Neely’s deft conducting baton and charting pen near at hand, Seth delivers a beautifully arranged and produced standards album indeed, but “exceptional”? … Really?

Yup, “exceptional” … in the true sense of the word. There are three aspects of Seth and Joel’s effort with Music is Better Than Words that make it exceptional and well worth a look.

It’s almost not fair…

Seth MacFarlane is a crossover artist to be sure. I’m not a connoisseur  of  Seth’s “day job” output (TV shows Family Guy, American Dad and the like) but he’s clearly made the big time with these huge hits in the animated comedic TV arena … writer, voice artist, engineering — he’s been successful in virtually all the creative aspects of the business.

I really need to apologize to MacFarlane the next time I see him (like there was a last time). I sort of “back burnered” Music is Better Than Words figuring it was coming from a guy that was probably passionate about the American Songbook but likely only a decent vocal talent — more of a vanity release.

Big mistake! Seth brings a dexterous and impressive vocal style/ability — classically trained by vocal coaches that have worked with Sinatra and others from the golden standards era.

It’s crazy and almost not fair for SMF to bring us this level of quality. I mean it’s one thing for a vocal artist to cross the genre street from blues, rock or country and belt out a few standards; but it’s unusual in the extreme for a TV actor/writer guy to wander into a studio and lay down a no excuses, top rung standards album like MIBTW.

MacFarlane displays superb vocal control, very nice range and beautifully classic intonation (not exactly like, but similar to Jack Jones, Steve Lawrence … or Vic Damone) across the 14 tracks on this album. More than surprised, I was dumbstruck.

Time to geek out a bit…

© Philip Nash

So I have friends (I do, no really!) that will get all misty when they hear how Joel Neely and Seth laid this record down. They really wanted to deliver MIBTW in a rich, warm … what I call “round” sound indicative of Sinatra’s best recordings in the 50’s and 60’s. In the end they went to significant lengths to pull it off — and pull it off they did!

First, they recorded in the old Capitol Records studio that Frank used for some of his best recording sessions. But going far beyond just the venue, Seth performed WITH the full orchestra! No edits, patches, punches … they either got the whole number or they didn’t — again reminiscent of Sinatra/Rat Pack era recording (hell Frank used to change the positions of the musicians in the orchestra on a song to suit his ear and sense of the arrangements).

Even beyond the wonky studio recording location and process, SMF and Neely decided that to get that rich, warm Rat Pack era studio recording sound they were striving for, they needed to record to analog (tape) rather that go straight to digital. This is esoteric and costly production technique but the end product achieves their goal in full measure. They achieved the Uber-Geek seal of approval (rarely dispensed these days) by using Sinatra’s original Neumann U47 microphone … OK, this is where I’ll need to pause for a few minutes so some of my audio recording super-freak friends can be revived.

Music Is Better Than Words is beautifully mastered and comes off in many ways sounding like the best of both worlds … warm, rich lustrous tones but still precise locality in the sound stage with Neely’s arrangements … the fabulous orchestra/band clearly laid out before you.

Finally … the track list is exceptional 

Exceptional in this case alludes to the unusual selection of tracks for a cross-over artist debut album. Robert Davi also made the actor-to-standards singer trek last year with a fine Sinatra styled debut album. Where Davi delivered an array of bellwether Sinatra hits, Seth impressively went off-road and delivered the goods with an interesting off-the-beaten path song list.

There’s a small passel of outstanding first line titles in the mix (“Laura”, “Two Sleepy People” and “It’s Easy to Remember”), but unless your a Sound of Music (“Something Good”) or Radio Days (“You And I”) aficionado, or you regularly travel the backroads of the American Popular Songbook, many of these numbers may be off your standards radar. That said, the A-list arrangements and Seth’s vocal style/quality made it a joy to explore the eight or so new (to me) tracks on this record.

Check out the full track list below. I did not find a bad track in the bunch. In addition to the aforementioned film and more mainstream numbers, I was particularly drawn to “It’s Anybody’s Spring”, “Anytime, Anywhere”, and “The Sadder But Wiser Girl” … these songs just ooze that Sinatra, Jack Jones, Matt Monro ambiance from the 50’s and 60’s.

Then there’s the duets … “Two Sleepy People” with Norah Jones is spectacular. Nora’s sultry vocals compliment SMF in this classic Hoagie Carmichael song. Sara Bareilles joins MacFarlane on “Love Won’t Let You Get Away” … a interleaved duet (think “Baby It’s Cold Outside”) that comes off great… I mean really great.

Geez, I’m gushing here…

It’s not becoming I know. But hey, I never claimed I was a dispassionate critic … in fact passion is integral of appreciating the American Songbook. If you’ve spent any time on this site, you know I love this stuff. It’s hard not to gush about Music Is Better Than Words — both the spirit that was brought into creating it and the result of Mr. MacFarlane’s passion, effort AND singing talent.

Do yourself a favor and dial dial up MIBTW from

Track listing…

(VS_Guy ratings: “+++” pluses are good; “~” for meh to middling;  “- – -” minuses are not good)

1. “It’s Anybody’s Spring” — Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Burke 2:56 +++
2. “Music Is Better Than Words” — André Previn, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green 3:20 +
3. “Anytime, Anywhere” — Imogen Carpenter, Lenny Adelson 4:00 +++
4. “The Night They Invented Champagne” — Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe 2:36 ++
5. “Two Sleepy People” (featuring Norah Jones) — Hoagy Carmichael, Frank Loesser 4:26 +++
6. “You’re the Cream in My Coffee” — Ray Henderson, B.G. DeSylva, Lew Brown 2:23 ++
7. “Something Good” — Richard Rodgers 4:16 +++
8. “Nine O’Clock” Bob Merrill 3:12 ++
9. “Love Won’t Let You Get Away” (featuring Sara Bareilles) — Van Heusen, Sammy Cahn 3:52 +++
10. “It’s Easy to Remember” — Rodgers, Lorenz Hart 5:05 +++
11. “The Sadder But Wiser Girl” — Meredith Willson 2:55 +++
12. “Laura” — David Raksin, Johnny Mercer 5:28 +++
13. “You and I” — Willson 3:41 +++
14. “She’s Wonderful Too” — Joel McNeely, Jonathan Hales 2:59 +

  • Susan

    This is a really great album…… We had it on tonight as Steve was making a great dinner.. Grilled Pork Chop with a roasted poblano pepper stuffed with mashed potato… Oh man that was good.. but that’s a whole other story…back to Seth MacFarlane… I enjoyed listening to every song… and as a self proclaimed Sound of Music aficionado… Seth does “Something Good” as well or better than Christopher Plummer (sorry Christopher! ) … Listen to this one.. it’s a good one!

    • Anonymous

      Man, those pork chops did rock … they were porterhouse cut loin chops with a dead simple rub but just perfect coming off the grill. Since we were steeping in SMF’s music over dinner, we’ll have to call them “Pork Chops MacFarlane” … I’m sure Seth won’t mind the culinary notoriety of having his name associated with a pork product!

  • Just wondering if you have any links to interviews with steve discussing his music. It just seems so unlikely that the original Family Guy and American Dad has his musical proclivities . . . here. Are you a fan of his TV shows? Do you know if his love for the Great American Songbook has been expressed through any of those characters?

    • Anonymous

      Douglas, I know what you mean — I’m not a fan of Seth’s animated comedy shows (I’m not a hater … just not my cup of tea), but MacFarlane definitely possesses musical talent and a clear love of the popular American Songbook that he alludes to in an NPR interview he did regarding his foray musical “diversion” (http://www.npr.org/2011/10/17/140946967/seth-macfarlane-tvs-family-guy-makes-music-too) … Seth discusses the links between the album and his TV shows as well as interesting anecdotes about how he developed his love for the standards. I heard this interview replayed on Siriusly Sinatra while driving and it spurred me to dig into the guy and his music.

      The album production team also did an informative “making of” video for the Seth MacFarlane artist page at Amazon.com that’s worth a look.

  • Jim

    I’m still trying to recover from the U-47 reference

    • Anonymous

      Just breathe man, it’ll be OK… 😉

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