The shifting interior: Chris Smith’s ‘Second Hand Smoke’
The home-recording Melbourne guitarist’s first album in more than a decade is free-ranging yet ruminative
Chris Smith works at his own pace, in his own inscrutable style. The Melbourne guitarist and songwriter’s new album Second Hand Smoke (It Records) is his first since 2006’s Bad Orchestra, which came six years after the previous one. Smith continues to revel in contrast and fragmentation, with the new LP emerging only after Smith had brought around 50 hours of primarily home recordings to producer John Lee. Even after being distilled into a 12-song album, it plays like outsider art, snaking along disparate paths while looking stubbornly inward.
That’s fitting for someone who cut his teeth playing alternately frenzied and lethargic noise-rock in Geelong’s The Golden Lifestyle Band in the mid 1990s, yet also collaborated with New Zealand experimental musician Peter Jefferies. Smith’s solo work began as mostly textural, droning instrumentals (see 1998’s Cabin Fever and 2000’s Replacement), before Bad Orchestra edged closer to underground rock again (especially on the scorching stand-out “Living Dead Blues”). Bad Orchestra was reissued in 2014 on Hermit Hut, the small US label run by another cult guitarist: Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance.
Second Hand Smoke takes cues from all of those phases, mingling windblown instrumental dirges with surprising melodicism and even folky balladry. Smith sings as well, though his vocals are often heavily distorted and sometimes layered, producing a sort of disembodied harmonising. Such askew juxtapositions materialise right from the opening track, “The Journalist”, on which an oddly sombre news report about actress Heather Locklear plays over Smith’s blown-out acoustic guitar, leisurely whistling and lyrics we can’t quite make out.
The vocal overlapping continues on the bluesy title track, pairing muddied sung and spoken parts against scratchy slide guitar in a way that recalls both Bill Callahan’s earliest work as Smog and Chris Knox’s contributions to Tall Dwarfs. Then comes a sandblasted squall of noise and distortion in the not-quite-minute-long “Damage”, a volatile turn that then bleeds into the soft bliss of “New Blossom”, a hazy narcotic ballad à la Mazzy Star. Smith’s voice is again distorted and mirrored by another set of his vocals, but this time it conveys a slower, sweeter mood that carries into lead single “Animal”, which, with its lonesome harmonica and chiming guitar twang, is the most traditional song here.
Smith even borrows the phrase “bright blessed day / dark sacred night” from that eternally hopeful standard “What a Wonderful World”, teasing at an inner peace that would have felt impossible during the onslaught of “Damage”. But with “New Blossom” in between, it actually makes sense. As on Bad Orchestra, these gradual shifts in mood allow Smith to range from roughly abrasive to whisper soft without losing the listener. That also means Second Hand Smoke should be listened to in order, in a single setting, especially since five of the seven songs after “Animal” are somewhat amorphous instrumentals that work