King Tuff’s Was Dead is an album that plays on the trend of recreating and modernizing popular sounds from past decades – a trend that probably all of the popular music consuming population (myself included) are suckers for. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the success of some other releases that came out this year to see my point: Phoenix’s Bankrupt! had a very 80s vibe and was pretty well received, and Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, which took samplings from 70s disco, funk, and jazz, opened at #1 on the Billboard charts. Of course, King Tuff isn’t as popular as Phoenix or Daft Punk, but he has still managed to gain a decent following, including the people over at Adult Swim and me, thanks to his great songwriting coupled with his adherence to this sampling trend.
I first heard about King Tuff last year after his 2012 self-titled album received rave reviews on the Internet. The album quickly became a favorite of mine and eventually won the coveted title of My Favorite Record of 2012. King Tuff, aka Kyle Thomas, is very much a garage rocker; his music has that rough-around-the-edges, slightly fuzzed out characteristic that typifies the genre, but unlike some of his contemporaries, it’s a bit more catchy and poppy. His self-titled album took this sound and infused it with 70s classic rock. Several songs sounded like the second coming of T. Rex, a band I am pretty crazy about. (Bang a Gong, anyone?)
It’s important to note that this version of Was Dead is actually a re-release of the album that was initially put out in 2008 by a small record label, in limited quantity. By the time King Tuff the album came out last year, pressing of Was Dead had stopped and any existing copies were pretty hard to find.
Knowing that this was a garage-rock debut recorded with the budget of a very small label, I expected a rowdy, lo-fi mess of an album. I’m totally cool with the rowdy, messy, lo-fi sound; hell, I even love it. But, I was pretty surprised to hear that Was Dead is actually rather clean – every instrument is discernible in the mix, especially the guitars, which ring out loud and un-muddied. Thomas fits the garage rock trend of whiny male vocals, exemplified by artists like Jay Reatard, Wavves, Ty Segall, and Nobunny. The difference here is that his voice is clear and in the foreground, not reverbed into oblivion or obscured by mounds of distortion.
Now, if we’re going to talk about modernizing popular ideas from previous decades, I think we should first take a look at the cover. It’s basically “Killroy was here,” a popular joke from the 1940’s that was often drawn on walls and stuff, (sort of like their version of a “meme”) with Thomas’ features applied to it. Can you imagine it; 70 years in the future, some artist applies their likeness to the trollface? Yikes.
On the sonic end, the songs on Was Dead pull heavily from the sounds of rock in the 60s and 70s, hitting genres like vintage garage rock, power pop, and even a little glam rock. This starts almost instantly with a sitar-filled psychedelic pop tune “Dancing on You.” The second song, “Connection,” is a sweet and poppy song complete with organ accents, “oohs” and “ahhs.” It’s quite possibly my favorite track on the album, but it’s hard to choose because Was Dead is packed with great tunes from front to back. The songs “Lady” and “So Desperate” are great summer driving songs and have an almost Allman-like lead guitar sound.
My one concern, if you want to call it that, is that the songs on this album have the potential to blend together a bit. I guess that’s a possible problem with any given album, but on Was Dead the songs all stay around the same tempo and have a similar feel to them – it might require several listens to get a real sense of the album.
This is typically fine with a lot of albums, but I think the way Was Dead is presented, the songs are supposed to be quick and immediately catchy, so they shouldn’t be running together. Track length probably also has something to do with it; most of the songs are less than 3 minutes long, but I guess that’s not even so bad since the quickness of the album makes it easier to listen to on repeat. Like I said before, Was Dead is great from beginning to end, so this is less of a problem and more of a quirk that I noticed.
In my mind, there are few things better than garage pop done right and King Tuff’s Was Dead delivers 13 short-but-sweet tracks that prove my theory. The 60’s and 70’s sounds accentuate its catchiness, and make it a great album to listen to on a lazy summer afternoon. I highly recommend checking this baby out and giving King Tuff’s self-titled a listen as well. Hopefully Kyle Thomas will continue to bring his reverence of old school rock and roll to any further endeavors as King Tuff, because what he’s made so far has been tons of fun!
Here’s King Tuff’s track from Adult Swim’s garage rock compilation: