Bret McKenzie - Songs Without Jokes (Sub Pop)

Bret McKenzie – Songs Without Jokes (Sub Pop)

Anyone who ever watched Flight Of The Conchords back in the day will already be only too aware of what a major talent Bret McKenzie is. The two television series were utterly essential viewing, frequently hilarious and perhaps an early indication as to just how in-depth he and comedy partner Jemaine Clement must have studied the art of making a pop record.

That grounding well and truly paid off, it seems, with McKenzie even picking up a Best Original Song Oscar at the 2012 Academy Awards, for ‘Man Or Muppet‘. It’s hard to believe that was a whole ten years ago, but not difficult, when you consider the New Zealander’s history, to understand why he felt the need to call his debut solo album Songs Without Jokes, setting the record straight before you even press play or lift the needle to the record.

That’s not the say the album isn’t playful – ‘If You Wanna Go‘, in particular, is an early Elton-like romp akin to the almost glam rock classic ‘Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)‘, with perhaps a little Billy Joel thrown in for good measure.

Often it feels like McKenzie has, above all, looked to Burt Bacharach for inspiration, with several tracks here seemingly in thrall to the great man, most notably opener ‘This World‘, the more downbeat ‘Up In Smoke‘ and the absolutely gorgeous ‘Carry On‘, while numbers like ‘A Little Tune‘ hark back further; to the music hall, in a similar way to some of McCartney stuff on The Beatles (aka The White Album).

One of the most memorable tracks on Songs Without Jokes is ‘America Goodbye‘, which is halfway between George Harrison and Aztec Camera, with just as strong a hook as you would imagine with those two artists as references. ‘Dave’s Place‘, conversely, is an eighties infused ode to Dave Bianco, McKenzie’s friend and engineer, who sadly died shortly before work began on the album. It’s a fitting tribute, bright, breezy and affectionate.

Here For You‘ sounds oddly like The Jesus And Mary Chain if you stripped away all the layers of feedback and echo. It would fit on Darklands with no problem at all anyway. Elsewhere, ‘That’s L.A.‘ conjures up memories of Norman Cook circa 1995, during his Freak Power phase and the ‘Turn On, Tune Out, Cop Out‘ single. Similarly carefree, summer vibes abound here, and ‘Tomorrow Today‘, likewise, has the feel of a song that suggests the excitement at the start of a long, much anticipated holiday.

Songs Without Jokes ends with the quiet introspection of ‘Crazy World‘. It’s a beautiful way to finish, and we’re left in no doubt whatsoever that Bret McKenzie is, indeed, just as good at writing ‘songs without jokes’ as he is at penning ones that are full of them. Perhaps even better.


God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.