Kyle Thomas, aka King Tuff, is not interested in much else than making sweet, sweet rock ‘n roll on his latest album. The follow-up to his debut, 2008’s underground hit King Tuff Was Dead, is a varied collection of tunes with one thing in mind: to catch the ear. And with gruff yet tight melodies, sweet hooks, and even Mountain Dew-fueled guitar noodling, King Tuff often does just that.
This is, of course, not Thomas’s first record with Sub Pop. He released an album with another band, Happy Birthday, in 2010, but with a return to King Tuff his priorities have changed. If that album shifted a bit more into pop music terrain, this one puts him right back in the rock arena from the outset, on the pounding shuffle of opener (the knowingly titled) “Anthem.” The drums crash, and the guitars ring out, and Thomas’s charming croak is in control between the two, often luring you in with its quiet before yelping to life.
The album goes from the moody stomp of that song to the sunburst of power-pop on “Alone and Stoned,” which bemoans all the folks walking around lost in their headphones, getting high and keeping to themselves. There’s also the propulsive garage rock of “Bad Thing,” the riff-fest that is “Stranger,” and the bright bounce of “Hit and Run.” In these moments, Thomas and his players are at their most carefree and powerful. This is rock ‘n roll without much of an agenda, except to get your head bobbing and your feet moving. If it does have a point, it’s merely that music should be shared, should be communal — check the worn-out sound of his vocals on “Alone and Stoned” for evidence — and then he gives the party he imagines in his head some bad-ass songs to thump to.
But that’s not to say there aren’t musical ambitions on King Tuff. It gets into other textures and moods, like the overcast jangle of “Losers Wall” and the dreamy echo of “Unusual World.” These songs keep the hooks and tone down the bratty noise to great effect. “Losers Wall” has all the power of, say, “Anthem,” but it also has a more insistent pace, and gives itself space to stretch out in a way few songs do here. “Unusual World” peels all the distortion out in favor of stripped-down guitars and restrained percussion, establishing the drifting, alien feel of a, well, unusual world.
There are other textures that don’t work as well. Where King Tuff can run into trouble is that sometimes the fuzz and haze obscures things too much. But when the pace slows down, the goofy joy of the rock songs doesn’t fit. The AM-gold silliness that is “Swamp of Love” may be tongue in cheek, but it still doesn’t work. It pushes the carefree vibe of the album — which never takes itself too seriously — into something that is just a shade too childish, that you wish would take itself, for once, just a bit more seriously.
The same happens when Thomas affects a smirking falsetto. It’s charming, for a second, but it also disrupts the music. The second King Tuff record ends up falling off course when it tries to be too clever in its decided uncleverness. It’s an album that will mostly make you smile because of how guileless it is about its love of rock and roll. The times it will lose you is when it’s trying to make you smile, even laugh, at just how seriously they can nail party music. Thankfully, there’s far more of the former than the latter, so you’re likely to bang your head along to these songs far more often than you’ll be left scratching it.