Bret McKenzie – Songs Without Jokes: Album Review

Bret McKenzie makes the solo break away from hit comedies and film soundtracks with his first full length long player; Songs Without Jokes.

Released: 26th August 2022

Label: Sub Pop

Format: CD / Vinyl / Digital

Moving from a hugely successful trade in comedy and story songs to ‘normal’ songs is a brilliant move for Bret McKenzie. One half of Flight Of The Conchords and Oscar winning songwriter for the Muppets reboots, McKenzie finally makes some music just for him; a record that he would like to listen to as a fan.

I could list a whole host of a.k.a.’s for McKenzie, but the one that should be settled on after hearing Songs Without Jokes is that he is a brilliant songwriter. And with an unreal selection of session musicians around him, this album is truly something to behold.

On the cast of the players here, it really is stellar. Leland ‘Lee’ Sklar takes up bass duties; a man with a credit list longer than his beard a million times over. Dean Parks is on guitar; this is the man that played on the seminal 70’s records from Steely Dan as well as playing with Sonny & Cher, The Crusaders and Joe Sample (to name a few). Multi-instrumentalist Drew Erickson takes up piano/synth duties; his work has included turns with Father John Misty, Lana Del Rey and Florence & The Machine. On drums, R.E.M., Beck and current Roger Waters sticksman, Joey Waronker, takes up the strain. This is genuinely a dream team, and it makes for a stunning album.

Songs Without Jokes opens with the showy This World; a lament about the sad state of the world around us. Brass, McKenzie’s inimitable and unique delivery, alluring backing vocals and the aforementioned tight as hell band set up the album perfectly. Another cut that fits into the same style as the opener is the single, A Little Tune. It’s a piano led bar room song that grows and grows; and it is so unbelievably catchy.

Catchy is something that Bret McKenzie is adept at. His history with Flight Of The Conchords confirms that. Here, If You Wanna Go implants its way into your mind with catchy lyrics and a driving rhythm a la Hall & Oats; it is a perfect three minute song. Pure pop. There is also a suitably bizarre and fun video to accompany the song too.

Dave’s Place keeps up the tempo; this could be a thinly veiled Flight Of The Conchords reference (if you know, you know!). The breakdown in the middle of the song is utterly funky; some disco style guitar licks and vocals to make you chant along ensure that this earworm sticks around.

Throughout the album, you can hear influences far and wide. With the players all bringing different backgrounds to the songs it is obviously a deliciously mixed bag, but at the heart is McKenzie and the songs he wants to hear. Here For You has a little of Springsteen circa Tunnel Of Love (think One Step Up). That’s L.A. is wonderfully quirky and evokes sunshine and heat, however lyrically, the song deals with a seeming sadness and the hardships of the place. There is a definite Steely Dan feel here; you can hear Park’s guitar fluttering around in distinctive style.

Up In Smoke is a heavy piano ballad. It is reminiscent of something you might have heard from darker end of The Beautiful South and Paul Heaton’s pen. It is a brilliantly placed piece in the album and breaks up one side from the other. Carry On has a similar feel but with added flourishes from acoustic guitars and light synths.

If there is a little lull in proceedings, America Goodbye picks up the pace again and Tomorrow Today compounds the driving style with it’s War On Drugs style synth opening. There is a real ecstasy to the song as McKenzie again paints the picture of the LA freeways and the expanse it offers. Again, the chorus bounds wondrously and gets stuck in your head.

Crazy Times completes the album in contemplative fashion as the sun sets on Songs Without Jokes which is without doubt an utter triumph. Musically, it is a joy to hear these musicians creating such aural magic. Hopefully, Songs Without Jokes is not the last solo outing for Bret McKenzie; he is an incredibly talented chap who has so much to offer. We should cherish and treasure these songs and this artist…he is one of a kind.

Watch the video for If You Wanna Go from Bret McKenzie below.

Bret McKenzie: Website / Bandcamp / Instagram / Facebook / Twitter

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