Douglas Martin’s church ain’t got enough room for all the tombs.
King Tuff was already dead and reborn before most people even heard of him. By the time he released his pretty widely-acclaimed self-titled record, Kyle Thomas had already been in a million bands, including the one he formed while the ink was still drying on his contract with Sub Pop, the one he formed with all-time great J. Mascis, and the one he formed with a whole bunch of other people (who in tandem managed to create a pretty great but sorely underrated hippie-folk album).
All three of those bands had Google-proof names, possibly as a subconscious or preliminary defense against the excitable whispers all over the indie rock underground whenever the name King Tuff was mentioned. Now that 2008’s classic Was Dead is being reissued by garage-rock cathedral Burger Records, tardy Tuff converts can fire up a bowl and hear for themselves what the fuss was about.
From the psyched-out rave-up of opener “Dancing on You” to driving closer “So Desperate,” it’s apparent Thomas is a garage musician only in the loosest sense of the term. There’s a faithfulness to pop songwriting conventions that suggests the prevailing influence of classic-rock. And we’re not talking the kind of classic rock that it’s okay for punks to like nowadays (i.e. Springsteen and Neil Young), but the kind that cycles in two-hour blocks all day on FM radio, blasting out of every Pontiac that passes you on the street. Lunkheaded riffs, foot-on-monitor solos, and lyrics about missing, loving, or wanting a pretty girl are plastered all over the record in thick, chunky globs.
Appreciatively, the influence of classic-rock isn’t just a lazy aesthetic signpost, but a testament to a period in music history where the concept of writing songs wasn’t typecast as formalism. “Kind of Guy” could come across as somewhat cliche if it weren’t for Thomas’ charisma, nor would “Animal” be the kind of beer-hoisting anthem it is, with its spelled-out chorus and shouts of eating pizza ALL FUCKIN’ NIGHT.
There’s a cleverness in Thomas’ writing that belies the “rock first, think later” approach to classic-rock standards. The songs on Was Dead that aren’t about girls are about being a slacker, and Thomas sells it all in a way that doesn’t feel anything like irony or rock-star posturing. He realizes life is short and then you die (“Animal”), so you might as well be buried with all of your rings (“Freak When I’m Dead”).
A standard Thomas does believe in, however, is “variety is the spice of life,” as evidenced by Was Dead’s stylistic hopscotch, throwing together the outlaw country vibe of songs like “Sun Medallion” and “Freak When I’m Dead,” the Strokes-like preening of “A Pretty Dress” and “Just Strut,” and the sloshed boogie of “Lazerbeam” and “Ruthie Ruthie,” and I’m not usually the kind of person to throw around the word “boogie” unironically.
Five years ago, when King Tuff ascended atop his throne and the sun beamed rays on his crown, the world was a cold and unresponsive place, caught up in the glitzy disco balls still adorning dance-punk and the rustic cabins from which Fleet Foxes sprang forth. He gave us his testament and only found believers in the lost souls and stoner outcasts on the fringes. Now that his spirit has been reborn, we’ve been given a second chance to bask in the way rock ‘n roll music is supposed to make us feel. A repressing of a five-year-old, formerly obscure lo-fi-ish album shouldn’t really be a music nerd’s ticket to salvation, but if your spirit doesn’t rattle at least a little bit to Was Dead, then I really have to worry about your soul. Long live the king.