Although only in his mid-thirties, Nashville stalwart Sean McConnell has been releasing music for nearly two decades. Recording his debut at the age of 15, the Boston native spent the 2000s issuing a string of independent albums that firmly established his pop hooks, country roots, and folky heart. While mainstream success largely eluded his own releases, he found steady work as an industry songsmith, landing cuts with Brad Paisley, Martina McBride, and even Meat Loaf. Although deep into his career, McConnell's eponymous 2016 LP marked a turning point in that it was his first release supported by a label. In spite of the increased exposure for his own recordings, it was a 2018 single written for country upstart Brett Young, that landed him on the top of the country charts. For his 2019 follow-up, Secondhand Smoke, McConnell makes the jump from the established roots-oriented Rounder Records to the more eclectic N.Y.C. imprint Big Picnic. Marking another shift in approach, he opted to eschew the collaborative nature of Nashville's deep talent pool and record the album at home, playing almost all of the instruments himself. It's a testament to his talent as player that this self-produced set sounds remarkably similar in style and quality to its studio-generated predecessor. McConnell's warm tenor voice and heartfelt delivery remain at the core of these nostalgic, inward-gazing songs which again split their time between soaring folk-pop ("Here We Go," "Alien") and rootsy Americana ("Shaky Bridges," "Greetings from Niagara Falls"). As on previous releases, his songwriting is reliably honed and well-constructed, effortlessly hitting its emotional marks without going anywhere too risky. Left to his own devices in the studio, McConnell does offer occasional glimmers of experimentalism in the arrangements, particularly in his strong guitar work, which leaps out in unexpected solos and textural treatments that give songs like "Rest My Head" and "I Don't Want to Know" little doses of danger. While it's not the unfiltered creative wild card that several sequestered months of home recording might have yielded, Secondhand Smoke is nonetheless another solid release from a very capable artist.
AllMusic Review by Timothy Monger