Before you hear the first note of Seth MacFarlane’s debut album, you know it won’t be terrible. You know this because MacFarlane recently hosted two of the most vicious hours in television history — in the form of the Charlie Sheen roast — and a guy who just presided over that bloodthirsty a gathering isn’t about to hand his cutthroat contemporaries a rusty blade they can torture him with for the next 25 years.
Sure enough, even if it is a certifiable vanity project, MacFarlane’s “Music Is Better Than Words” is far from rotisserie-ready. The celebrated mocker has made a nearly unmockable album — which is saying something, given the inherent risibility of TV’s adult-animation king endeavoring to steal not just from Homer (as Mike Tyson put it at the roast) but Hoboken.
The voice of Stewie places himself squarely in Sinatra territory, leaving nary a punchline or even ironic wink to be found in the 14 big-band standards and show tunes he interprets… except the ones songsmiths like Rodgers & Hart and Meredith Willson put there themselves 50, 60, or even 75 years ago.
Let’s be Frank: He’s not. But if you put MacFarlane on the bandstand next to, say, Frank Sinatra Jr., it might be a close call.
Counting against him in the modern-standards sweepstakes is the very proficiency and lack of edge he brings to the role. His baritone maintains a smooth and easy quality even when he goes for the operatic notes at the climax of “It’s Easy to Remember (But So Hard to Forget),” a first-rank ballad first cut by Der Bingle in 1935. But it’s a generic enough voice that, were this his day job, he’d have to settle for being a near-world-class wedding singer.
MacFarlane scores big points, though, for his choice of neglected vintage material. A handful of tunes here will be familiar to the average movie-musicals buff — namely, the lesser remembered numbers lifted from the not-so-obscure scores of “Gigi,” “The Sound of Music,” and “The Music Man,” plus the non-movie vocal version of “Laura.”
But even the musical theater buffs among us may have to do some Googling to find out or remember where the sublime “Nine O’Clock” comes from (answer: the little-remembered 1959 Broadway musical “Take Me Along”). MacFarlane is the rare revivalist who knows that the Great American Songbook is more than 100 pages thick, and it’s his willingness to look deeper into the catalog that gives “Music is Better Than Words” its kick.
Well, not just that. Joel McNeely, who’s worked up the myriad musical homages on “Family Guy” and MacFarlane’s other shows, turns in sure-footed orchestral arrangements. Norah Jones makes the ideal red-eyed partner for the wry Hoagy Carmichael/Frank Loesser masterpiece “Two Sleepy People.” While Sara Bareilles — the other duet partner, on “Love Won’t Let You Get Away" — is on less familiar ground than Jones, you sort of sense her growing into the role as the song goes along.
Fans of scatological (and worse) humor may be wondering, “What have they done with our Seth MacFarlane?”… even as they enjoy the private joke of being able to give their grandparents a Christmas gift recorded by this sometimes-scourge of the American right.
As for where the family-unfriendly “Family Guy” went amid all this wide-eyed romanticism, maybe that’s him wondering (per Richard Rodgers) if “somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.”
It’s definitely him singing the album's highlight, that classic, hilarious ode to promiscuity, “The Sadder But Wiser Girl.” There's a reason this lesser-celebrated number from the supposedly wholesome “Music Man” never became a standard: It's still smuttier than anything MacFarlane ever came up with.