“Music is Better Than Words” by Seth McFarlane

For those who are wondering, yes, this album is by that Seth McFarlane—the comedian behind the long-running animated sitcom Family Guy, who used to be considered one of the funniest men in Hollywood but is now generally despised for his comedic excesses. For the record, I tend to agree with the general opinion on his work…that is, that it was extremely funny early in his career but has gone drastically downhill since he was given too much free reign with his own projects. But we’re not here to talk about that; our focus is the album of Great American Songbook standards he recorded in 2011.

The critics absolutely hated this album, but I imagine that had more to do with the very concept of Seth McFarlane trying to emulate Frank Sinatra than the actual quality of the album. Granted, it did receive a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album, but there are so few high-profile Traditional Pop albums these days that this probably speaks more to the Grammy committee’s desperation to fill out a ballot than any positive feeling toward the album itself.

Of course, in one way doing an album of classic standards is easier than doing a conventional album of original songs because you’re pretty much guaranteed excellent material without any especial effort on your part. On the other hand, it can also be harder, because all the focus is on your performance and people will be automatically comparing you to the giants of the genre’s past. Certainly, it’s an established fact that McFarlane can sing, and from a purely vocal perspective his work here is unquestionably excellent, with the album closer “She’s Wonderful Too” showing off his strong baritone particularly well.

The critics accused McFarlane of sounding like a bland standard-issue Lounge Singer here, but he actually has a very distinct style as an interpreter of these songs. He approaches most of the album with a crisp, somewhat sardonic sound, even on the most ebullient numbers (such as the title track). This approach makes the ‘money can’t buy happiness’ credo “It’s Anybody Spring” sound like a satire in the vein of “All I Care About Is Love” from Chicago, and he delivers the humbly romantic “Anytime, Anywhere” with what sounds like withering sarcasm, turning it into a biting anti-love song.

This may sound like a bad thing, but it actually helps breathe fresh life into these overexposed standards. Remember, in interpretive singing there’s no one ‘right’ way to perform a song, and it is both expected and desirable that the singer put a fresh spin on the song. McFarlane’s approach is refreshingly different, and despite the critics’ accusations, this album is far more interesting than the warmed-over Sinatra leftovers that critical darlings like Michael Buble specialize in.

Seth seems to be having the time of his life on “The Night They Invented Champagne” and “The Sadder-But-Wiser Girl”, turning the former into a rakish party song far from its innocent beginnings (it was originally sung by the teenaged heroine in Gigi), and approaching the latter with a gusto worthy of Robert Preston. Even “Something Good” from The Sound of Music sounds faintly acerbic here, coming off as more regretful than blissful.

But lest you think the album is purely an exercise in irony, there’s Seth’s heartbreaking version of “It’s Easy To Remember”, where for a moment he really does sound uncannily like Sinatra. Also diverging from the album’s mocking tone is “Laura”, which he turns into an eerie song of obsession that sounds like the singer is going quietly insane.

There are also two duets with singers that everyone respects, who help lend credibility to this attempt. Granted, Norah Jones also contributed to the soundtrack of McFarlane’s decisively horrible movie Ted, for reasons I’ve never understood. But I certainly understand why she agreed to duet with him here, and they give “Two Sleepy People” a wry elegance that could honestly compete with many of the great duets from the ‘classic’ era. As for his duet with Sara Bareilles, they bring a stinging bite to “Love Won’t Let You Get Away” that emphasizes the song’s darker implications, resulting in a vivid if ironically cheerful portrait of a truly dysfunctional relationship.

I’m aware that Seth McFarlane has earned his negative reputation fairly, and that reputation will always work against this album being taken seriously. But none of the reasons for McFarlane’s bad press have anything to do with this album, and they really shouldn’t be held against it. I’m also aware that this isn’t one of the greatest Standards albums of the decade…it certainly doesn’t approach the level of Tony Bennett’s Duets II or Paul McCartney’s Kisses on the Bottom or Willie Nelson’s Here We Go Again. But it is a valid and frankly rather fascinating take on some truly classic songs, and if you can look past the bad work its singer has done in entirely different fields, it’s definitely worth a listen. And frankly, I think we can all agree that if McFarlane abandoned his primary endeavors altogether and just focused on making standards albums like this, the world would be a much better and happier place.

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