Razz me all you want about this being an album review and the fact that the backstory shouldn’t have anything to do with the music and all that – I don’t care. The ring-tailed facts of the matter are as follows: I’m a sucker for a good love story; I’m an admirer of folks with true grit; and the Smoking Flowers’ new 2 Guns album is a hell of a piece of work, regardless of the backstory. And that’s that. But before we talk about the tunes …
East Nashvillians Kim and Scott Collins had been married for twelve years when they put the songs on 12 Guns to tape. Besides their signature sometimes-harmony-sometimes-just-letting-it-go vocals, Kim plays accordion, harmonica, and percussion; Scott is a downright cool and nasty guitar picker. Chris Autry covers the bass chores on the album with a big ol’ palette of low-end womp; Marshall Richardson provides the album’s multi-jointed drum backbone (Nick Milliner covers the kit for one track); and Todd Moore and Micah Hulsher split the keyboard chores over the album’s 13 tunes. The frosting on the cake was having Adam Landry on hand to do double duty as producer (you may know him as the studio ringmaster for Deer Tick, Middle Brother and Diamond Rugs) and guitar foil for Scott Collins. The Smoking Flowers pulled off a true in-the-moment hit and run, blistering through the recording of 2 Guns in a four-day stretch. Often beautifully ragged; sometimes beautifully haunting; many times beautifully goofy-grinned and/or playful, pleading, and pledging – but always beautiful – the album went into the can a punkish alt-country/rock/whatever-you-need-it-to-be masterpiece, mixed and ready to rumble by the spring of 2012.
And then Kim was diagnosed with breast cancer and every ounce of thought, attention, and love the couple could muster was put into dealing with that. 2 Guns was shelved.
The decision was made to forgo chemo, radiation, or hormones – Kim chose to go a totally holistic route in tackling her disease head-on. A year down the road, the cancer was deemed to be in remission; the couple took a deep breath; and they refocused their energies on the brilliant album they’d recorded, ready to take the lid off the thing and get out on the road behind it.
The temptation is there to compare Kim and Scott Collins to a number of classic couples: June and Johnny; Emmylou and Gram; hell, the White Stripes, I suppose – just to get that one on the table and out of the way. The fact of the matter is, anytime you try to stick a one-size-fits-all label on 2 Guns, it doesn’t adhere – there’s always a clarifier that makes sure to mention the punkish side of the twang; the grit in the rosewater; the fact that the Nudie suit has both knees ripped out and grease all down the front of it from rebuilding the carburetor on a beat-up old convertible Eldorado.
Start 2 Guns a’spinning and you’re going to hear all sorts of things in there – familiar things that you’ve never heard before. On one end, the album-opening “Spark & Fire” rumbles in like an upbeat cousin to Nirvana’s “All Apologies” with Autry’s bass leading the way – Kurt Cobain’s ratty sweater traded for a CBGB t-shirt and a bolo tie. And on the far end, “66” takes things home, roaring down the road with the tailfins going wide on the corners like a hot-rodded morphing of the Stones’ “Dead Flowers” and Don Williams’ “Tulsa Time”. (Dig them greasy-as-hell slide geetars!)
In betwixt the two ends of 2 Guns are all sorts of delights. “White Flags” is a bit of ominous and fun surfish lurch; “Low” combines gentle melody and from-the-gut vocals in a hand-in-hand walk beneath a Harvest Moon ; “Pistol Whip” pogos along, doling out big cartoony pictures and tar pit guitar noises; and “El Matador” is a slow waltz in the basement of Keith Richards’ Exile -era Nellcôte hideout (with some just-right accordion by Kim).
If I had to pick one track off 2 Guns to hand to you, it would be “The Juggler”. Imagine if Whiskeytown’s Caitlin Cary had shared the foreground with Ryan Adams during the Stranger’s Almanac sessions: voices entwined in total hearts-on-sleeveness; smart-and-clever lyrics; a melody that soars with a bit of flavor from the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down”; a bass line that both counters and supports what goes on with the rough-voiced guitars and gentle keys, backed by no-nonsense drums. “I’m not here to steal the show/Not here to let you go,” the Collinses assure each other just before Scott and Adam Landry launch into glorious growling twangorama at the 2:40 mark, sounding like Ryan Adams and Phil Wandscher at their rawest and best – the guitars echoing the emotion of the lyrics perfectly. It’s no extended jam, but it nails the bullseye, retreating to let the vocal bank the fire and turn off the lights.
Bless your soul, Kim Collins: you keep taking care of yourself – and the two of you keep taking care of each other. And when you guys have the chance, keep them tunes a’coming: this ol’ world could use all the music you want to share.
This is good stuff.
Brian Robbins hides out in the basement over at www.brian-robbins.com