There’s something about Sean McConnell's voice that just draws the listener in. Immediately upon listening to Sean McConnell's albums, you feel like you’re listening to a friend tell you stories about his life. These songs are often intimate and specific to his own experiences yet they feel like they are stories from your own life too. Secondhand Smoke, Sean McConnell's debut for Big Picnic Records, opens up with the title track and the story told within it would be meandering in a lesser artist. But, like he showcased on his self-titled album from 2016, Sean McConnell knowns how to use his instrument better than most singers. He showcases his vocal restraint with melismatic vocal techniques released when needed, not just because he can go there as a singer. On “Here We Go,” McConnell brings a powerful a radio-ready sing-a-long chorus along with the intimate lyrics and his nuanced, layered vocal mix (with background vocals which are at times doubled to match his lead).
“Shaky Bridges” uses a harmonica to help tell the soulful story of how Sean McConnell comes to grips with his life and how he’s helped other singers build their careers as a songwriter in Nashville (to various levels of success as a songwriter and demo singer) and as a touring vagabond singer/songwriter playing to rooms of various sizes. “Everything That’s Good” has a David Gray-like quality to the earnest vocals and production about the love of his life. It’s a sweet, sweet love song and one of the first instances on the album where McConnell showcases the powerful vocal instrument he wields along with his mighty lyrical pen. The vocals are never overwrought and only serve to enhance the lyric. “I Could Have Been An Angel” is interesting if for only the production choices, choices which showcase off McConnell’s instrumental abilities.
“Alien” is the kind of song which wouldn’t have been found on McConnell’s previous record. Sounding like something unlike anything he’s done before, the song recalls records of days gone by and uses strong imagery to tell the story of the woman in his life, the one who changed everything for him, a unicorn or “alien from another world.” The lyrical turns of phrase are present throughout the record and there’s bits of bluesy soul/rock found on “Rest My Head” (check out his guitar solo here) and folksy home-spun stories from the road on “Greetings From Niagara Falls” (which joins “Everything That’s Good” and “I Don’t Want To Know” as songs which could’ve been found on the previous record’s introspective fear while he co-writes “Another Song About a Broken Heart” with fellow singer/songwriter Gabe Dixon and of all of the songs found within Secondhand Smoke, this is the one which could and probably should be recorded by a mainstream country artist. The lyrics are about preemptively ending a relationship. “Say Goodbye” has moody production choices to help with the almost angry vocal from McConnell. The piano, vocal closer “Wrong Side Of Town” is brilliant in its simplicity.
The songs on Secondhand Smoke are often intimate, they’re often accompanied by interesting melodies and instrumentals and 100% pure and true. It’s another great record from an artist who definitely deserves a bigger platform than he currently has. That being said, being able to balance co-writing sessions with Nashville songwriters and artists with his own dogged touring schedule, McConnell is able to make a strong statement for following your muse and making music that is true to you and not something that has been committee’d to death. Honest. Real. True. That’s what Secondhand Smoke is and, while still early in 2019, it is a contender for my favorite album of the year.