In the days of insipid and precious bedroom projects, King Tuff’s return to rock and roll, its insistence on loud guitars and fun, is a sublimely radical move.
Kyle Thomas is a busy man. Over the last six years, he has released or been in involved in as many records, seeming to launch one band off of another, making all the right connections to find outlets for each release: from the Vermont freak folk collective Feathers (on Gnomesong) to the Sabbathy metal band with J Mascis on drums, Witch (on Tee Pee Records), to the first album under the name King Tuff, Was Dead (also on Tee Pee), and, in the most recent phase, the twisted scuzz pop of Happy Birthday (on Sub Pop). That leads us finally to the second King Tuff album, self-titled, and also on Sub Pop. King Tuff, Thomas’s alter ego, began as a garage paean to rock and roll, and hasn’t drifted far from the territory, though it has gotten better. Thomas sounds more assured of himself as a singer and a writer and has incorporated the intricate melodic explorations and cuter elements of Happy Birthday into his dancing rock persona. In the days of insipid and chill bedroom projects, all part of a larger phenomenon of a simultaneous disparateness of musicians and overglutting of the market, King Tuff’s return to rock and roll, its insistence on loud guitars and fun, seems to be a sublimely radical (in its literal sense) move.
Throughout the relatively short history of rock and roll—somehow, even from the beginning—it seems that there have been acts that want to return to the roots, to rediscover the excitement and fun of the genre. King Tuff is one of those bands. Think of their songs as love letters to the music. The great thing about Thomas’s projects, whether he is playing metal, pop, or rock, is that it is obvious how much he likes what he is doing. In each incarnation, he goes full tilt. Though there is irony in his approach—his Witch lyrics are perfect examples of metal songs, his King Tuff lyrics drop all the old rock references—there is also an unabashed earnestness. King Tuff’s lyrics might seem unimportant, even silly. Take, for example, the relatively simple first line of the third track of the new album, “Keep On Movin'”: “I do the fireball / That’s how I kill them all / I do the creepy crawl / Crazy legs like daddy long / Keep on keep on moving / That’s right, there’s nothing to it.” But what Thomas is doing is entering one more number in the ledger of rocking dance songs, a song that lists the moves and invests soul-bearing importance in such a simple thing as a new style.That yearning is real.
Not to make too much of it, but King Tuff reinjects rock and roll with a dancing heart (see the first track of the first album, “Dancing on You”). Rock and roll can be fun, not just the miserable seriousness now so associated with indie or the boring childishness that’s in vogue now. Rock and roll is about exuberance, lust and passion. Thomas hits the adolescent awkward notes that have long been grist for the lyrical mill in seemingly throwaway tracks like “Unusual World” and “Losers Wall”, which invoke the rebellious outsider status that is always associated with the rocker persona. The former track is a glammy acoustic number, while the latter is like the Standells covering the Stones’ “Brown Sugar” on downers. These songs are simple but ingrain themselves in your brain.
Let's get to the heart of it. King Tuff opens up with three incredibly strong tracks. “Anthem” is all huge guitars, though surprisingly no singalong lyrics. The vocals are mumbly and blended into the track. The anthemic quality comes from the hugeness of the song, peaking with the strange lead guitar part that mimics an Irish fiddle. Next is “Alone and Stoned”, a song that could have been on the Happy Birthday album, which begins by cherishing high solitude, “listening to headphones,” but goes on to mourn the way everyone wants only to be alone nowadays. King Tuff counteracts the bedroom pop tendencies of so-called youthful innocence here. The song begins phased out, like music coming overheard on someone else’s headphones—but it quickly pumps up with infectious melodic lines that can’t bear introversion. King Tuff is all about fun—and this leads us back to the third track, “Keep on Movin'.”
The persona of King Tuff plays on the lineage of rock 'n’ roll rebel. The first single, “Bad Thing” finds Thomas leaving behind momentarily his nasally, whine to go full throat in declaring his badness. On the early Dylan influenced rebel speedy folk song, “Baby Just Break the Rules” King Tuff declares its credo of doing the opposite of what you’re supposed to do. For anyone who loves rock 'n’ roll, the songs will plug you into a series of references that mix garage, folk, punk, and most importantly glam rock—the last ingredient gives the album a slick and easily swallowed feel, but your consumption will not become a forgetting. You come back for more.
The tracks lead into one another, setting each new song up—and the second side of the album goes out just as strongly as it came in. “Swamp of Love” finds Thomas channeling Dylan again in his phrasing, with a folky, sprawling feeling. But this is all to set up the second half of the song, with big background vocals, and a glittery sheen. This song would be the perfect slow dance closer for a high school auditorium, as the glitter ball reflects intermittently on a hand drawn construction paper backdrop and you get the nerve to ask the one you want to dance, forgetting the incipient messiness of swampy love. The actual closer, “Hit and Run”, takes us back into raucous sing along territory, where King Tuff sounds tough again, growling more than his usual nerdy Marc Bolan whine. The song starts out with the age-old guitar police siren riff (see the Clash), but then launches into a boogie beat complete with piano.
King Tuff always finds ways to sneak in perfect little guitar leads, stuffing out the song with unexpected twists, or interlocking layers. The choruses double catchy melodies with cool guitar parts as understructure. The seamless quality of the songs also speaks to the album as a whole, which is conceived as an album, but not a concept. The songs lead into one another, harken back, fuse together into one big rock statement that says nothing more than rock n’ roll itself. King Tuff is fun and that’s all you can ask. But what Kyle Thomas knows is that even in the lowbrow, the simplest pop structure and lyrics, there can be the profoundest truth.