Essential New Music: Chris Smith’s “Second Hand Smoke”

What could be more disappointing than secondhand smoke? You breath it in, it leaves its mark on you, and you can’t even say that you had the satisfaction of lighting up in the first place. Of course, to live a while is to be disappointed, and Chris Smith has indisputably lived a while. Second Hand Smoke contains the kind of music you make when some time has passed and you’ve lived through some things. 

Smith lives in Melbourne, Australia, and he first pinged on musical radar beyond that town a year or two before everyone learned to say Y2K, when he did a bit of recording with New Zealander Peter Jefferies. Smith went on to do a lot more on his own, releasing several albums that set aching melodies swimming underneath choppy waters of guitar noise. In 2007, he made The Bad Orchestra, a record that reversed the ratio of tunes to fuzz in order to hint at a very personal interpretation of the blues. Then things went quiet for a good long while. 

Reportedly, Smith spent that time working in factories, making guitars and raising a kid, but if the sound of Second Hand Smoke is anything to go by, he also spent a lot of time listening to his favorite old records and, maybe a bit more, watching spaghetti-Westerns. This album makes no attempt to keep up with the times, and it’s better for sounding so at home with being exactly what it is. This is the kind of blues you make when you don’t have to worry about closing time, because you never left the house in the first place. 

Smith’s songs still ride in and out of the murk, but now the messy parts sound less like a frothy maelstrom and more like a funnel cloud of choking dust stirred up by bolts of jagged-edge feedback and moment-of-truth harmonica. The steed of choice for navigating the haze is often an acoustic guitar, tuned low and played slow. Smith isn’t afraid to let his influences show. When it’s not obscured by distortion, his voice sounds as lonesome and vulnerable as Hitchhiker-vintage Neil Young, and the sounds surrounding it on the forlorn “Sunny” bring to mind what Big Star’s Third might’ve sounded like if Alex Chilton and Co. had decamped to the desert. But each moment of desolation on Second Hand Smoke is followed by one of hard-won grace, often created by a surge of blessed, blasted noise.

—Bill Meyer