Heaven On a Popsicle Stick was Smoke’s debut album, and was followed in 1995 by the excellent Another Reason To Fast (which sadly ended up being their swan song).However, as fine as these two albums are I think possibly the best introduction to this music is through the Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen documentary film Benjamin Smoke – which focuses on the life of the band’s gravel-throated, speed freak, transvestite singer who passed away from Hepatitis C in 1999.
During his time in the 80s with punk-based outfits such as Medicine Suite and Freedom Puff, then later in the Opel Foxx Quartet, Benjamin cultivated a reputation as a fiercely uncompromising performance artist, performing in drag and regularly antagonising audiences. However with Smoke his approach was often more sombre and introspective, while still being a mesmerising and intense presence both on-stage and on record.
Smoke’s employed instrumentation such as cello, banjo, cornet and clarinet to create a sound that was simultaneously backwoods and sophisticated, while Benjamin’s lyrics veer from darkly honest confessionals to bizarrely surreal tales. Yet the album never sounds contrived. This is not the sound of a band trying to create a distinctive sound because they felt it would give them a market niche, but rather a group of genuinely free-thinking and creative musicians with a one-of-a-kind singer, who managed to create something enduringly idiosyncratic, while still retaining a deep core of musical and emotional honesty.
The song ‘Freak’ finds Benjamin deconstructing his identify with painful honesty, while ‘The Trip’ is a bizarre carnival ride of hallucinations and, um… perhaps over-familiar band interactions. Things get even more way out on ‘Luke’s Feet’, a paean to a magazine photo featuring the terminal portion of Luke Perry’s legs. It contains my favourite lyric on the album: “90210, 666. Um, I don’t have to watch the show but I do sometimes tune in for kicks, y’know?” Only Benjamin could get away with writing such a line without sounding completely ridiculous. For added measure, it also features a spoken word part about trying to romance Vic Chesnutt at a concert on Valentines Day (“He said no”, apparently).
Probably the most beautiful song here is the raggedly graceful ‘Awake’, in which Benjamin practically croons along with Bill Taft’s cornet and Brian Halloran’s cello. Further into the record, ‘Beeper Will’ is darker and almost dirge-like (there’s an incredibly intense live version in the film) while ‘The Pond’ kicks up a little dust when things threaten to get too sombre.
Closing track ‘Curtains’ is a remarkably powerful portrayal of Benjamin’s hermetic tendencies. He may have been a flamboyant performer as a young man (there’s some brilliant footage of the Opel Foxx Quartet on YouTube), but he became more reclusive towards the end of his life – partly due to health reasons. That someone who forged a reputation as a formidable, extroverted artist could sing a song so self-aware, yet so lacking in self-pity about becoming a recluse is remarkable in itself, but it is merely one example of many on this record of what a genuine and original talent he was.