King Tuff aka Kyle Thomas makes feel good garage-pop songs that will have you singing along in just a couple listens. What separates him from contemporaries is his distinct voice and strange persona, both of which are inseparable from one another. He sounds like Marc Bolan after sucking helium out of a balloon (in a good way) and portrays himself as a strange loner, one who finds more satisfaction sitting at home, smoking marijuana and listening to music than going out on a Saturday night. After all, last year’s self-titled Sub Pop release had a song about doing just that called “Alone and Stoned”. He uses his voice and persona to convey a child-like sense of wonder and innocence that give his songs a real originality. When one of his songs comes on, you know that this is unmistakably a King Tuff song. This was best exemplified on last year’s “Bad Thing”, a song in which he describes himself as “a creature so ugly and wild” with such earnestness that he sounded like a child singing a song for show-and-tell in their second grade class. He conveyed himself as a warm-hearted freak that most people fear but really just wants to be your friend. Most importantly, he did all of that through one of the catchiest and well-structured power pop songs I’ve heard in a long time.
King Tuff Was Dead is not a new King Tuff record. It is a reissue of Thomas’ King Tuff debut which originally came out in 2008. Very few copies of the original were pressed and so the record was quite rare until now. What we have is a great collection of sunny garage pop gems that stand toe to toe with any of the songs on last year’s King Tuff self titled album. While King Tuff’s second album was mostly a straight guitar, bass, and drums affair, King Tuff Was Dead features more interesting instrumental flourishes to accompany and accentuate each song’s pop melody. Opener “Dancing On You” features what sounds like a Mellotron accompanying the band and an organ holds steady underneath songs like “Connection” and “Lazerbeam”, all of which are straight to the core pop rock songs. “Sun Medallion”, a song about the sun medallion Thomas is always wearing, sounds like a lost ‘60s garage pop gem based around an acoustic guitar.
This album is all about melody. All of the instrumentation is there to bring the songs to life and no instrument ever takes over a song aside from the occasional melodic guitar solo. “Just Strut” sounds like Is This It-era the Strokes with piano adding some intriguing beauty to the song’s ‘70s style guitar rock strut (the song is appropriately titled). “Kind of Guy” sounds like Loaded-era Velvet Underground but with a harder back-beat that really drives home the song’s dance floor rhythm. At any time during these songs, Thomas will throw in some angelic backing vocals just as easily as a psychedelic guitar solo or a harmonica for good measure. It keeps the listen extremely interesting as these are three-minute pop songs but you’re never quite sure what’s going to come next. The amazing part is that the songs remain extremely catchy and melodic throughout.
King Tuff Was Dead is very late ‘60s and early ‘70s influenced in both its sound and structure. The album takes the glam rock sounds of T Rex and combines them with the psychedelic garage rock of the 13th Floor Elevators and their ilk. Each instrument plays just the right amount of notes underneath the earworm melodies that Thomas squeaks out. Just about every song on this album is of a similar style but it is King Tuff’s outsized personality and melodic flair that makes this an impressive debut from a blossoming songwriter.