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 so well because of their cumulative effect rather than their merits as individual songs.
Introspective yet resonant, “5am Again” sees Smith return to the easygoing flow of slide guitar and harmonica while everyday road noise (right down to the impatient car horns) unfolds in the background. “Beeswax” is similarly sleepy, with a low-key keyboard line and clock-like percussion, as well as a wine glass tunefully manipulated by producer John Lee and faint, fleeting snatches of vocals that don’t quite disqualify it from being an instrumental. “Dumpster in the Sky” circles back to those burnt edges of feedback that Smith conjures so well, albeit with a more mellowing effect this time.
When his vocals do re-enter the frame on “Sunny”, he’s singing in a creaky voice nestled into the background, another sign that he’s more comfortable as a free-ranging guitarist and tinkering multi-instrumentalist than as a straightforward singer. Like several tracks here, this one sounds like an eroded demo tape that’s becoming more wavering and diffuse with each visit. Burnt and buzzing, “Two Abstractions” then bridges the dusty gap between spaghetti-western twang and an atmospheric sprawl in the style of like-minded English outfit Flying Saucer Attack.
After inhabiting his own distinctive realm for the bulk of the album, Smith surprises with a parting cover of The Velvet Underground’s ballad “Oh, Sweet Nuthin’”, which closed 1970’s Loaded (Lou Reed’s final studio album with the band). Unhurried yet still shorter than the original, it draws out a tuneful back-porch country vibe before coming to an abrupt end – which again evokes a feeling of the album as some lost artefact we’ve stumbled across by accident.
With Smith trying on so many moods and modes across Second Hand Smoke, it makes sense that he needed Lee to help whittle all his material into a coherent work. Not everything here was recorded alone – “New Blossom” incorporates a four-track mix by The Birthday Party’s Phill Calvert (now a producer) and the title track features bass and drums by Richard Andrew, who recorded part of the song at his studio – but this is very much a home-recorded album.
And though it was completed well before this year’s lockdowns, it feels like the outgrowth of sustained isolation. In Smith’s case, he spent a decade living in the small Gippsland town of Rosedale while employed as a labourer, operating a crane for a concrete company at one point. He’s now back in Melbourne and working on the production line for Maton Guitars, a symbolically satisfying job for someone who has manipulated that instrument in such fascinating ways. (American record label Emperor Jones once called him a “guitar fog reconstructor”.)
Smith’s most accurate job description comes from himself, however. Amid the usual press blurbs, he drolly sums up Second Hand Smoke with a single sentence: “Misanthropic construction worker lovingly forges art-damaged country blues album.” If that only sketches a broad outline of this ruminative, enigmatic record, the rest is waiting for us to map out ourselves.
Second Hand Smoke is released on September 25.