King Tuff: Smalltown Stardust [Album Review]

| |

King Tuff
Smalltown Stardust
Sub Pop Records [2023]

On his sixth album, Kyle Thomas who performs under his original band name King Tuff, steps away from the guitar-driven garage-band power-pop that dominated their 2014 Sub Pop debut, Black Moon Spell, and the self-descriptive single “Headbanger.” Created as a love letter to the rural smalltown where he grew up in Brattleboro, Vermont, Thomas collaborates with his house-mate Sasami Ashworth to deliver music that captures his child-like sense of wonder at the beauty and spiritual quality of nature, the inspiration often for both visual and musical arts. Together they delve into folk rock with mild psychedelic leanings, mingling keyboard textures with orchestrated strings and enough guitar accents to give grounding to Thomas’ floating melodies, and their harmonies. The lighter tones fuel the nostalgic, Beatlesque vibe that fits the musical mood of an album rooted in the memory of one’s childhood.

“I’m holding on to wonder/Holding on to something I can’t touch,” Thomas sings in the album’s title track, an acoustic take on what might have been a grunge progression on a louder, electric guitar, but in “Pebbles in a Stream” that follows, it’s old school folk acoustic guitar matched with the deeper tones of a cello. As the strings and horns come in, the piano notes pour in like the song’s subject matter, a musical portrait of a natural scene, clearly capturing the tone Thomas and Ashworth are looking for. The album opens with “Love Letter to Plants” a hymn-like meditation, focused by the repetitive trance-like strings, but thankfully is interrupted by the R&B beat and gritty guitar rhythms of “How I Love,” with an organic 70’s pop/rock feel.

After the brief recording of the 8-year-old Thomas attempting to lead a yoga meditation, where he comically suggests that we “take a really deep breath to let all our soul out, and let’s be spiritual with this,” we get another blast from the past, an early 70’s burst of flower power pop in “Portrait of God.” Thomas states “I’m not the kind of guy/that goes to church on Sunday/I’d rather spend my time/worshipping in my own way/walking in the woods/wading in the river, breathing in the mountain air.” Getting his cues from the colors and contours of nature, Thomas likes “Oil painting in my garage/Let my colors flow/I’m working on my portrait of God.”

Thomas brings his electric guitar back to the fore on the appropriately named “Rock River,” about those youthful days of innocence, skinny-dipping, capturing that energy in a tasty solo as well as the power-pop rhythms. “Bandits of Blue Sky” has a playful, Yellow Submarine-era Beatles’ feel in the bold beat and horns and orchestra’s strings. Thomas sings, “I’ve been in a dark place for what seems like forever,” and goes on to worry about how “the atmosphere is missing,” taking a comic stab at our growing climate crisis perhaps. In the lush, horn-drenched trance-like, penultimate meditation that is “Always Find Me,” Thomas sings of closing his eyes to memories of “going back home,” back to nature where he can commune with “legends and lost souls.” Look for him where “the rivers meet/looking for answers that I’ll never know/that’s where you’ll always find me.”

Thomas says that he combines his memories of childhood with music that echoes the influences of his youth to “make an album to remind myself that life is magical.” As such, he and Sasami and the rest of his musical collaborators have delivered a work of Smalltown Stardust, a celebration of the spirituality in nature, community, beauty, youthful innocence, and the experience of love. In the final track, “The Wheel” he sings “Ooh we were just kids… And it’s coming ‘round again.” Yes. Yes it is.

“Portrait Of God” / “Smalltown Stardust” / “How I Love”

Ty Segall / SASAMI / Big Thief

Black Moon Spell (2014) / Was Dead (2013)

Official Website | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Bandcamp | Sub Pop Records

Brian Q. Newcomb

The Tubs: Dead Meat [Album Review]

Alex Lahey – “Good Time” [Video]


Leave a Comment