King Tuff – ‘King Tuff’


King Tuff is the musical alias of Kyle Thomas, a scraggly-haired, gold-toothed rock and roller who just released his follow-up LP, King Tuff, on May 29th via Sub Pop Records. The first thing I noticed was the unique album art— a bat-winged, horned skeleton wielding a guitar and wand on a pink background is nothing if not interesting—and it’s an image that could be on the back of the devil’s minivan or, more likely, in the margins of a notebook owned by a middle-school art student with a bad attitude. Rock and roll is built on bad attitudes and Tuff’s snotty vocals perfectly inhabit that ideal while the music categorically fits somewhere in the lo-fi garage section with bands like Ty Segall and Jacuzzi Boys—there’s an inattention to vocals that seems purposeful (especially on the verses) and a sound that is most aptly described as a mosh pit love affair between simple mod garage rock and whammy-bar, 70s riff rock. While King Tuff is comparatively more polished and accessible than the highly touted début Was Dead, that ends up being a good thing when he sticks to his fast and furious style or slows things way down. We all want hooks, even if we don’t admit it, and this record has them aplenty. It’s when he wallows in the middle, tempo-wise, that we find a few songs that miss.

“Anthem” is the perfect name for the opening track—the guitars blast riffs with the tonal quality of a vintage Les Paul—and it hearkens back to that period of Zeppelin-esque rock, that moment right before the scene got decidedly more glam. As someone who only recently got into King Tuff, my first thought was, “I thought this was a garage rock record?” The truth is that this record hops around genres (classic rock, garage, punk, soul) and generations (50s, 60s, 70s, early 2000s), making it more of a sonic time machine than a fusion record attempting to melt them together into something new. Track 2 “Alone and Stoned” is more of what I was expecting initially, the guitar is more lo-fi and bass heavy, but vocally we break new ground with Thomas stretching his cords with falsetto.  On many of the songs, you’ll find a throaty, unrefined verse line only to be followed by a much more harmonic chorus and this is a perfect example.

Whether more like hard 70s rock or more derivative of 60s garage rock, the songs are full of hooks, causing the album to sound more like a greatest hits record for a band that has evolved over many years. There are some absolute home runs on the record including hard-rocking “Stranger”(which sounds a lot like Zeppelin’s “Good Times, Bad Times”) and the first single “Bad Thing,”  which has an undeniably fun chorus line that awakens the mischievous spirit in all of us as he sings, ““All I ever wanted, is everything, and now I’m being haunted by those dreams. I’m a bad, bad, bad thing.” We lose some steam with the follow-up track “Loser’s Wall,” one of those songs I described that wallows in temporal middle ground,  sounding like some of the more uninspired work of Brian Jonestown Massacre where the verses just kind of drone on in pysch-rock purgatory. “Keep On Moving” has an interesting Buddy Holly feel with its hand-clapping chorus, but,  he’s just better off firing on all cylinders instead of going half-go. Lyrically, there’s just something irksome about a chorus that repeats that same simple title over and over.  Interestingly enough, some of the major wins on the record come later on toward the end when things become more soulful and slow.

Track 8 “Baby Just Break” starts off with the live acoustic sound of a troubadour and  adds communal hand-clapping and maracas, the perfect opening for a song that then dives right in with electric solo fills and asks us to “just break the rules” on the exuberant chorus.  I can imagine what it must have felt like to steal your dad’s T-Bird and go on a joyride in mid 20th century America. The album transitions into “Stupid Superstar” and at first I did not even realize the song had changed because the tone is similar and at that point I had no expectations of cohesion. The vocals on the second half of the record drop their gritty, I-don’t-give-a-fuck act and seem aware of harmony, melody, and pitch—things that seemed of no matter for most of the record.  The songs on this part of the record are sleepier, kinder, almost as if lead singer Kyle Thomas had changed costumes and came out as a different character to record them.

Track 11 “Swamp of Love” continues in the same vein—driven mainly by piano in this case—but the vocals return to a more guttural form, and this feels like one of the more honest tracks on the record, a funny take on the commonly used phrase “sea of love.” In my experience, it is more like a swamp. The ending track is “Hit & Run,” a well-titled (like the opening track) rocking, punk ditty that goes from 0 to 60 with zero foreplay, making it the perfect song  for the dance number at the end of a movie where the main character screams, “Ah, the hell with it all, let’s dance!” King Tuff  will likely be spinning on my iPod for weeks to come and what the album lacks in cohesion and lyrical development, it makes up for with stellar songwriting and an aesthetic that needs to be preserved in indie rock as the synth and keyboard continue to edge out the guitar as the instrument of choice.


Favorite Tracks: “Bad Thing,” “Hit & Run,” “Anthem,” “Swamp of Love”

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