ALBUM REVIEW: Seth MacFarlane “Music Is Better Than Words”

Seth MacFarlane is without any doubt best known for his comedic work as the creative force behind ratings winners “Family Guy”, “American Dad!” and “The Cleveland Show”, but as his long-awaited debut album “Music Is Better Than Words” dewmonstates, the versatile vocalist is far more than simply convincing as a big band vocalist. A dexterous performer, MacFarlane is far more than a playful swing singer a la Robbie Williams, or a modern day crooner a la Michael Buble, he has a sprinkling of old school class that sets him in the same league as the unforgettable Frank Sinatra.

“Music Is Better Than Words” is a cleverly constructed collection. Rather than simply reworking old time favourites, MacFarlane has taken the time to compile lesser known classics by celebrated composers Rogers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe.

MacFarlane unsurprisingly shines on the more playful numbers. Notably  “You’re The Cream In My Coffee” manages to tease without edging into Dean Martin cheese. However, it is a tender rendition of  “Something Good” that really sees MacFarlane soar. While he may not have the winsome innocence of Julie Andrews, his strikingly smooth vocal certainly comes close to stealing a signature song.

While MacFarlane shines throughout, it is the to and  fro of the album’s two duets that steal the show. Norah Jones is on fine form as she soothes on “Two Sleepy People”, while a Jane Russell-esque Sara Bareilles knocks MacFarlane for six on the perfect “Love Won’t Let You Get Away”.

MacFarlane’s debut musical outing  may not be catering to the tastes of his loyal comedic following, but it is nonetheless a timeless record that uplifts and entertains.

Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jeremy Williams

The Kaje talks talent show success with Jai McDowall

25 year old Jai McDowall first came to the public’s attention as the unlikely skinhead who sang a tender rendition of “Anthem” from “Chess” at the Liverpool auditions of “Britain’s Got Talent”. While he may have gone on to won the whole competition with a sensational rendition of Josh Groban’s “To Where You Are”, McDowall felt the backlash of being the underdog who walked over bookies favourite – teen soloist Ronan Parke. But instead of rising to the bait, the hard working Scotsman kept his head to the ground and his focus in tact. After several months in the studio and some much needed R&R, McDowall is now ready to return to the stage as he unleashes his debut album – the suitably titled “Believe”.

Was winning on your mind when you entered Britain’s Got Talent?

I don’t think I went into it with preconceptions. I didn’t go into it saying I was going to win it because you never know what can happen in life. I just thought I’d go in and take it one day at a time and try not to get too caught up in the idea of winning, just so that if it does not work out, you don’t get too upset. I knew if I tried my best and gave it everything that I had, then I had potential to get quite far in the competition.

I’ll be honest, I never ever thought about winning. I just thought I would do what I could do. If it happens, it happens. If it didn’t, then you know.

Having won the competition, you were immediately written off as a surprise winner. How did that feel?

At first my Mum hated it. She was like ‘your my boy, you should have won.’ But I don’t know, I saw it as somewhat of a compliment. I came up to the competition and folk didn’t expect me to win, but that just shows that I worked hard to do what I did. I pulled it out of the bag when I needed to. It took a lot of hard work on the show and that is pretty all I did the whole time I was there. I worked hard and practiced. It paid off.

Now, when you hear things like that, maybe they did not want me to win and I was not the favourtie – but I did.

How did you react to winning?

I was quite dazed. Straight after, the night of and the day after I thought kind of ‘whoa! what’s going on?’ Then I went into doing a lot of TV appearances for it and I think I never really stopped to think ‘Oh my God I just won!’ It took a while for me to comprehend it and allow it to sink in. It wasn’t till wee kids back home, where I am from, came up and talked about it. I had one of those moments where it was just ‘wow! I did win that. This is weird!’ Even still sometimes when I hear it, it is strange to hear it. My Dad said to me the other day, ‘do you realise you are the only Scottish person to win the show?’ I didn’t. That is weird as well. It is things like that which are strange.

You are about to release your debut album – ‘Believe’ – can you tell us how you decided which songs made the cut…

I have a really eclectic taste in music, if I am honest, if I think it sounds good then I like it and listen to it. In terms of what we brought to the table, it was quite wide. Then the guys at Sony said which style they liked and we put it together.

What I wanted to do was to keep in with the style of ‘Bring Me To Life’ that I did on the show. I tried to go with that as I got a lot of fans out of that. A lot of people that liked Evanescence said it was a pretty good version of the song. A lot of people said that it sounds as if it was my song, which is really nice to hear. When I did that I got a lot of younger fans. So I tried to go along the rock music vein as opposed to the likes of ‘Amazing Grace’. I love those songs, the big choir songs, but I thought we can combine to two so it would appeal to more people.

‘Believe’ is an album of covers. Do you have any desire to release original material?

Definitely. I would love to. The only drawback is that I don’t play any instruments at the moment. I would love to learn. Now that this is my job I want to do as much as I can to improve. Just to learn more stuff and do stuff I have never been able to do before. I have got lyrics. I always wrote poems. I have loads of them at home. I would like to try my hand at writing anyway as I think it is good. I love the likes of Matt Cardle and Kelly Clarkson. I love the fact they have written most the stuff themselves. I love when artists get down to the nitty gritty and you can just totally relate to what they are writing about. It means so much more than singing with no feeling.

I am quite glad I did covers for this one. There is no way I would have got an album out this quick if it had been my own original material. That is why I kind of decided I was happy to do covers for the first album. It is the Glee effect, or the Michael Bublé effect, where you take a song and change it enough to make it your own.

Talent show winners often get written off as pop puppets – with many past contestants complaining about the system. How do you feel as a talent show winner?

My management and Sony have been great. The whole process of doing the album, I have had a lot of say as to what I want to do and who I want to be. Obviously I came onto the show with a skin head and rocker scarves and boots. I like that kind of style but it is strange as my music taste is a bit eclectic and my dress sense is just the same. I just bought a red pair of trousers from Topman! If I am comfortable in it then I will wear it. But I want my music to be true to who I am and my management company have been great. For my music video I wore all my own clothes, it was my style, it was me. I don;t want to change or be something I am not.

You hear artists from other talent shows or reality shows saying they didn’t get much control, they did not have much say on what they did. I don’t understand that as I have had a very different experience. I have had lots of control. I could have just sat there and take what I was given, but because I knew where I wanted to be and how I wanted to be perceived, I just decided to voice it. I tried not to be cheeky about it. I worked with people rather than just saying ‘this is what I want’. It paid off for me. I want to be an artist in my own right.

Would you suggest to other hopefuls that they take the same route you did?

I would advise them to do it if it was they want to do and if they felt strong enough to do it. I think the X Factor is an awful lot tougher. Obviously it lasts a lot longer and you are out every week performing. It must be really hard. They are away from home for so long and it must be difficult. If you think you are strong enough then go for it.

I spent years and years sending out demo tapes and doing other auditions for musicals and even a boyband once! I got nowhere. Sometimes it is as case of you’ve just got to do what you have got to do. If somebody thinks they can then they should. Just stay true to yourself. Don’t try to be something you are not as you get a lot of people who go onto these shows and you can noticeably see the change in them. They are not who they were when they started.

“Believe” (Sony) is out December 12. 

Words and Images: Jeremy Williams

LIVE REVIEW: Joe McElderry, Symphony Hall (Birmingham), 09.11.11

Now I have to admit that the last I heard of Joe McElderry was when he lost out on the Christmas chart battle back in 2009. Not long after I moved to Australia and missed out on the next chapter. While I had not been a McElderry champion (I concede that I was rooting for the second from last placing Rikki Loney, before hedging my bets with the equally unpopular Rachel Adedeji), I thought him a worthy winner and secretly hoped he could break the curse of the male X Factor winner. However, through the wires I heard that his debut single “Ambitions” was only a mild hit and that he was swiftly dropped post debut album “Wide Awake” – despite it featuring a cover of one of my personal favourite tracks – Nerina Pallot’s “Real Late Starter”. The curse had struck once again and McElderry was bound for the bargain bin.

Thus I was more than little surprised when a couple of weeks ago I spotted a poster of McElderry which detailed his tour. Upon mentioning this to a couple of friends, their disdain was obvious. “McElderry should be doing musicals” the one noted, before the other snidely remarked, “he is the modern-day Cliff Richard – clean-cut, inoffensive.” Their instant rebuttal fuelled my curiosity and that evening I googled McElderry and found out a little bit more about the in-between time – but it was his mind-blowing rendition of “Nessum Dorma” on Popstar To Operastar that cemented in my mind that I needed to attend to satisfy my morbid curiosity. I knew in that moment it would be either total car crash or beyond brilliant.

Luckily it was the latter. While my friends are possibly right that McElderry veers towards the safer side of things, I personally see little wrong with that. His boy next door charm clearly has its appeal as the Symphony Hall is bursting at the seams with an all-ages audience. While the dazzling Roxanne Emery makes more of a lasting impression than X Factor rejects The Reason 4, neither act is able to touch the evening’s headline act. With a million dollar smile, McElderry promises to take the audience through his journey – the highs and the lows – from the X Factor through to the current day.

As he makes his way through a selection of tracks from his debut album “Wide Awake” it becomes clear that suffered for his status rather than his lack of ability. Though he may not be a born dancer, his vocal aptitude is immense. Every word he breathes resonates through the crowd and is met with roared appreciation. While early highlights include the aforementioned “Real Late Starter” and the surprisingly strong “Ambitions”, it is his cover of Savage Garden’s “Affirmation” that really hits home for me.

Having explored his post X Factor failure with enthusiasm, McElderry is clearly thankful for the show that brought him to the public’s attention. While “Don’t Stop Believing” goes down a treat with the audience, a rendition of “Open Arms” hits home his forte. McElderry is a singer who connects with emotional strength. Mouths drop in amazement as McElderry wows with spine tingling beauty.

Before long we are into ‘Classic’ terrain – an announcement that is met with unanimous applause. In my absence, McElderry has gone from flopstar to superstar in an unexpected manner. After a brief introduction, in which he humbly expresses his own surprise at his good fortune, McElderry launches into material from his latest release with a notable increase in confidence and presence.

Post an emotional rendition of the diving “Dance With My Father”, the evening builds through chill blain inducing renditions of “Canto Della Terra” and “Time To Say Goodbye” to an almost orgasm-inducing delivery of “Nessum Dorma”. Oozing confidence and with impressive presence, McElderry revels in his reaction as he is met by a standing ovation.

With debut hit “The Climb” as yet unperformed, the wait for the inevitable encore is  met with riotous chants. Before long McElderry is back with an acoustic working of Michael Buble’s “Home” and the obvious “The Climb”. As McElderry is joined by his adoring audience in the refrain, “Always gonna be a uphill battle, sometimes I’m gonna have to lose. Ain’t about how fast I get there.
Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side – It’s the climb”, it suddenly hits me just how poignant a prediction his debut hit had been.

McElderry is a rare talent. He is not a reality television discovery. He is much more than that. The show upon which he made his name may have led to his initial downfall, but the determined star has been able to find his feet and if tonight is any indication, this star has remained grounded and is laying strong foundations.

While my friend may have meant malice with their Cliff Richard comparative – I now see it in a different light. Cliff Richard has weathered the seasons and had consistent success. McElderry may be made from the same mould. A versatile performer with a dedicated following. Time alone will tell where his journey will take him next, but during this evening he added another fan to his camp and I have added his CDs my birthday wish list for this weekend (friends take note..).

Reviewer: Jeremy Williams
Rating: 5/5 

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