King Tuff

Everything on The Other sounds like Kyle Thomas wanted to break off from the King Tuff moniker and leave it behind – to fold up his old sun medallion and let it rest in the drawer for a spell. It has, in fact happened before, with Sub Pop signing King Tuff only to have him immediately flip the coin and work out the kinks as Happy Birthday. Still, after roaring back into the cracked leather of Tuff’s driver’s seat for another 8 years ‘round the bend following that diversion, there’s an understandable desire at this point to slip away into the shade. As much as Thomas’ 10-foot cartoon chassis is a beloved institution of power pop, it’s got to be exhausting to carry that towering persona around. In that light, this feels to my ear more like a Kyle Thomas solo record that someone in A&R begged him to keep under the Tuff moniker for categorical ease. Not that it tarnishes the Tuff brand, if it’s a Tuff record it’s actually one of my favorites, but I almost wish they would have let him rip the decal off and don the new hat.

The record still has an engine of power pop, though it’s pushed way beyond garage’s bubblegum snap and slid back the hi-fi party mask that found its way into King Tuff’s lyrics over the years. This is a world-weary record that’s pushing Thomas’s pop into lush production, still fairly larger than life, but now trying to duck that personality out of sight and ponder the preposterousness of life on this hunk of chipped granite. Thomas, largely alone, wrangles country’s grand vistas, glam crunch, glittering keys and jittery funk into the shape of one of 2018’s most delightful surprises.

The record follows a grand tradition of bands breaking stride and finding their bittersweet soul wrapped in high concept. This is KT’s Parachute, his Odyssey & Oracle, his Arthur. Like those albums it’s both over the top and a masterpiece of pomp, pathos and pop. The record has huge ambitions, sure, but I’ll be damned if Thomas doesn’t hit his marks every time. Are there lyrics that will date this to an exact moment in time, absolutely (“Circuits In The Sand”), but how is that any different from “Shangri-La’s” exploration of ‘60s idyllic suburb life? Does the record throttle his stylistic core? Yeah and that’s the point. That’s what makes it work and maybe, as much as this feels like a different animal dressed in a familiar sweater, maybe that’s what actually makes the case for keeping King Tuff on the hood ornament.

In the same way that those ambitious albums by the ’60s set pushed listeners out of rote garage territory and acted as portals to new sounds, this affords the past and future King Tuff fan a doorway through the shiny pop sneer and into a treasure of styles. There are hooks that will soar this into the infinite and a hugeness that tends to make pop albums treasures for generations of diggers to come. Even if the world doesn’t turn and take notice, this feels like a record with a long tail of influence down the road. If this is the beginning of a new chapter, or a complete new book, The Other stands to become a definitive moment for King Tuff.


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