I have to admit that at first I was very hesitant about listening to King Tuff‘s self-titled Sub Pop debut. It just seemed like the man behind the King Tuff moniker, Kyle Thomas, was simply attempting to ride the current wave of garage rock bands that have bizarrely found popularity. And the truth is, you really can’t blame me. His alias is King Tuff, which almost comes off as some weird parody of King Crimson‘s legendary name. But that’s not even what irked me the most – it was the album cover. It’s a bat with a skull face holding a guitar and a wand for god’s sake! As if the cover for Help by Thee Oh Sees wasn’t already the epitome of garage rock. This guy had to show up and improvise on an already ridiculous formula. At the end of the day though all of that is just aesthetics, and aesthetics is where the tired clichés remain. The actual music speaks for itself in several different forms, presenting listeners with great variety and relentlessly fun songwriting.
The album kicks off with a face-melting guitar riff, as any garage rock record should. The reverb is immediately noticed on Thomas’ vocals, but it’s not used to the point of incoherence. This works to not only create the feeling of faux-amateurism that bands in the genre strive for, but it also works in keeping his hooks intact. For the first couple of minutes of the record, however, the vocals are not the focus.
Despite having a good amount of instrumentation in his tracks, King Tuff mostly evokes the feel of an outcast with his electric guitar. Tracks like “Keep On Movin'” and “Bad Thing” basically revolve around Thomas’ voice and his guitar. The vocal melodies are carefully constructed to go along with the guitar chords that every so often break into finger-picking or an exhilarating solo.
For those looking for something to simply pin you to the wall, look no further than “Stranger.” The riff in this track is downright filthy, and Thomas’ lyrics about having a good time are clearly not out of place in this record. That’s not to say that he simply sticks with what he and the genre know, as the record does try some pretty interesting stuff. Country influences rear their heads in “Baby Just Break,” while “Stupid Superstar” isn’t too far from the slowcore sounds of Galaxie 500. Before closing however, “Hit & Run” gives you one last good time partying with Thomas and his guitar, reminding you of what the record is all about.
At the end of it, the cover for the record makes quite a lot of sense. There is really no better way to describe the record. The bat is King Tuff – aggressive, dark, and an outcast whose bite will cause more damage than you can think. The guitar is his trusted ally, the equipment with which he creates his own world. The wand is the touch of his own personal magic; he’s not just any garage rock musician. He’s one who knows what he’s doing.