Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Frank: Seth MacFarlane's Music is Better Than Words

At Capitol Records, the Neumann U47 microphone is known as "The Frank" because it was used to record the voice of Frank Sinatra during the 1950s. For Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy and an out-of-the-closet crooner, "The Frank" symbolizes the passion he feels for the music of an era that featured the kind of orchestral arrangements that put Sinatra on the musical map.

Music Is Better Than Words (Universal Republic, 2011) is Seth MacFarlane's auspicious debut on CD. The album is a throwback to a time when vocalists literally sang with the orchestra in the same studio. Sinatra's Capitol recordings in particular captured an emotional dynamic that distinguished them from just about everything else in music. This was partly due to their technical achievements. But it was also due to the arrangements and the close proximity of the vocalist with the band. MacFarlane's record is not a tribute per se, but an attempt to capture the sound and energy of Sinatra's recordings. That's a worthy goal, but it's only as valuable as the music we hear. On Music Is Better Than Words, we hear it.

Joel McNeely arranged and conducted the fine orchestra behind MacFarlane, knowing full well the advantage of having the vocalist in the same room as the band. What that does, for one thing, is give you time to rehearse, and it gives you the chance to capture a moment on tape, which can't be reproduced with digital looping. The past few years we have seen the rise of singers recording separately from an orchestra, in some cases a continent apart. For example, Barbra Streisand recorded Love Is The Answer in the studio with a quartet. The orchestra was added later. We know this because she issued both versions on a deluxe edition in 2009. But I prefer the small group recordings for their intimacy. Otherwise, the orchestra sounds "added" and inflexible because they're playing against a finished recording. They can't make any changes to the vocalist either and have to assume an emotional posture that simply fills the space rather than compliments the singer. Clearly, the better choice is to record in the same room at the same time. MacFarlane was recorded using "The Frank" in the Hollywood studios at Capitol where some of the greats, such as Sinatra and Cole, preceded him.

MacFarlane in studio with mic
Which brings me to the larger question regarding the neo-trad pop singers of the past ten years, namely, Michael Bublé.

It's easy to contrast the work of Michael Bublé to this so-called traditional pop music made famous by Sinatra and Cole. The trouble with Bublé's recordings is the familiarity of the phrasing and arrangements. Bublé's got chops and a whole lot of swing, but his albums sound contrived. To my ears, they mimic the traditional pop sound instead of re-inventing it. I prefer music, in any form, that takes risks and surprises me. Bublé does neither.

MacFarlane, on the other hand, challenges my familiarity with the songs and arrangements by offering an album whose intention is to capture the sound of the Fifties as heard in the present. So what we're hearing is more than just a recreation. This is one of the interesting things about Jill Barber's work. She writes original songs in the style of the era so they stand on their own.

Music Is Better Than Words is a pleasant, often beautifully rendered album. The arrangements have charm, grace and solid dynamics. The playing is pitch-perfect and remarkably fresh to the ear. MacFarlane's voice is up-front, in front of the band, and his warm baritone is free of excessive vibrato. He sings everything straight and lets the words and notes float through the air. Clearly, his intention is to make a great sound.

Frank Sinatra in studio with mic
The strongest tracks are "Laura," "It's Easy To Remember," "You and I," and the title track, "Music Is Better Than Words." There are some drawbacks. Unfortunately Alan Broadbent's piano solo is buried on "Laura." Hoagy Carmichael's "Two Sleepy People" features a duet with Norah Jones, but I'm not convinced they shared a studio to record it. I would have prefered a duet version of "Something Good" from The Sound of Music, one of my favourites from the musical.

MacFarlane and McNeely, who composed music for American Dad!, should also be complimented on the song selection. I was only familiar with half the tunes, so it was nice to discover "It's Anybody's Spring" by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke. "Nine O'clock" by Bob Merrill and "The Sadder But Wiser Girl" from The Music Man by Meredith Willson.

MacFarlane's album did reasonably well last year, peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard Jazz Chart. It barely made a dent on the pop charts (#111), but this is 2011, not 1958. Nevertheless, the Grammy Awards have added his album to the list of nominees for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album, which Tony Bennett has ruled as a legitimate category for many years. This time MacFarlane is up against Bennett, Barbra Streisand, Harry Connick Jr. and the ubiquitous, Susan Boyle. In spite of a solid effort, Bennett will get the trophy simply because he went to Number 1 and out-sold everybody in the category.

John Corcelli is a musician and broadcaster. He's currently working on a radio documentary, with Kevin Courrier, for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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