Track by Track: CHRIS SMITH – SECOND HAND SMOKE (IT RECORDS, 2020)

Words: James Frostick

On Friday September 25, songwriter and guitarist Chris Smith released his long-anticipated record Second Hand Smoke via It Records. Assembled and recorded over the better part of a decade, Second Hand Smoke is a compendium of dog-eared ideas accumulated over years – musings that have been given time to mature and settle, creating a lived-in and fully realised end product. Chris has kindly shed insight into the record via a track-by-track breakdown – a wonderful accompaniment to the listening experience.

If every musician had the luxury of being able to take a decade off writing to accumulate fresh inspiration or novel experiences to funnel into their next release, I reckon we’d get more albums of quality. Albums like Second Hand Smoke by Chris Smith. Chris has spent almost ten years living life out of the public eye, cataloging years of reflective thoughts, ideas and emotions – all while raising a daughter and eking out a living beyond the stage. Second Hand Smoke is Chris’ brand-new record and first since 2007’s Bad Orchestra. It’s an unhurried affair (in terms of both the duration of its compositional period and its aesthetic), one that’s been given the benefit of time to find its conceptual footing.

Time hasn’t diminished talent – Chris clearly retains his guitar chops, showcasing his range by creating soundscapes out of twisted bluesy licks, squalls of vicious dissonance, contemplative acoustic plucks and echoing reverb-drenched chords. Adding texture to the mix is his voice (careworn and mellow) and a collection of field recordings and found sounds – snippets of worldly ambience that make Second Hand Smoke feel like it’s from a place, that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum (or solely in one’s head) but rather is a response to stimuli of reality, of living. The overall tone is melancholy and contemplative, with the lingering notes of Chris’ guitar casting shadow across the work. As the sound of Chris’ guitar peals or soft strums taper off into the gloaming, he leaves me tingling with wisdom accumulated via some form of auditory osmosis. Lessons and realisations that can only be discovered with time, granted upon me by one who has experienced it.

Chris kindly shared insight into Second Hand Smoke’s genesis and inspiration behind its track list …

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‘The Journalist’
A cassette dictaphone is a handy way of keeping track of ideas, and limitations are good. I can hear squeaking of the tape machine and some chicken frying in a pan. There’s no irony or judgement here. The last line in this tabloid press article just had to be used.


‘Second Hand Smoke’
Initially tracked by Richard Andrew at Pharmacy in North Fitzroy, I’d run out of prepared material during a session. He encouraged me to pick up a classical guitar, and we recorded a single F#minor chord for two minutes and forty five seconds. Rich gave it some swing with drums, percussion and bass, while I found a reject lyric from an old song. Some time passed and I resorted to finishing it on the 8-track at home while Rich was busy elsewhere. Hopefully he’s ok with it.


‘Damage’
Misuse of cheap electronics (running a consumer grade children’s keyboard through an octave divider) can sometimes make for happy accidents. But this time around, this carelessly bloated signal blew up a preamp I was running into. It sits on the repair pile to this day.


‘New Blossom’
The oldest track on the album came to life via a broken Tascam 4 track portastudio. The drums are a paintbrush, a piece of cardboard, a suitcase and some sleigh bells. I was trying to sing like Thalia Zedek, and became stuck with the demo vocal once the original cassette was lost. I borrowed a LOT from Warwick Brown and Andy Turner’s The Sunset Strip. This can be said for much of the album, truth be told.


Animal
We’re all animals.


‘5am’
Again, I’ve worked a string of factory jobs over the past decade or so, and can’t quite escape the necessity for a buzzsaw alarm set at around 5 am (give or take 15 minutes). I’m not a morning person, so it’s been a challenge at times. The field recording was taken outside of Flinders Street Station around 6:00 am, mid way through my morning commute. Nowadays (when not in lockdown) the alarm’s set for 4:45 am, and I’m soon lost in a sea of high-visibility vests aboard the 5:25 am service.


‘Beeswax’
Barely an audible word in this one; a nod to the runaway powers of the rumour mill. Don’t get sucked in.


‘Dumpster in the Sky’
Incomplete thought synapses, fever-induced delirium, neuro-atypical sensory processing… Mellow hallucinations.


‘Sunny’
It’s been a rough decade of friends departing too soon. This one’s for a charismatic prankster and true original. I miss the sing-song-y way he’d greet his friends.


‘Two Abstractions’
I bought some brass chimes for that sometime-Alice-Coltrane-sound. More Dante’s rumination than Eastern meditation, though. It makes me think of the heavy floor-to-ceiling turquoise curtains hanging in my old bedroom. Turned out they were good for acoustics.


‘La Gare Montparnasse 1895’
I had a photo of the notorious 19th century French train disaster on the back of my toilet door for years. The sole fatality was a street vendor minding their own business outside the station walls: right place, wrong time.


‘Oh, Sweet Nuthin’’
What to say about one of Lou Reed’s many odes to the outsider/reject/social misfit? I thought it might sit ok with all the others here.

Second Hand Smoke is available now (on vinyl, compact disc and digitally) through It Records. You can purchase a copy here

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