Off-Ramp

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Review: King Tuff's self-titled Sub Pop debut

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40784 full

The planet Earth first met the man calling himself King Tuff back in 2008, when he delivered a fluorescent-green-and-pink LP called Was Dead on a tiny label called The Colonel. Even in an era when everyone on the Internet knows everything about anything, this was a truly outta-nowhere release. It revealed itself as a minor masterpiece to the outside world--you know, the kind of people who might not demand in a song called "Freak When I'm Dead" to be buried in all their gross dirty clothes with all their rings. And it became record of the year (and several future years) to a small but ferocious demographic of people who pound-for-pound spend more on vinyl than food. 

What's this mean for you? Well, if you ever loved a electric guitar, gas-guzzling car or wild nocturnal animal at any point in your teenage life, King Tuff's Was Dead was gonna be sustenance, hope and medicine at once. It was 13 songs by and for people into the same unchanging classick-with-a-k teenager-iana that made a young Cyril Jordan and a young Roy Loney start the Flamin Groovies, who in spirit and sound and eventual historicity laid the way for King Tuff and his famous "mean green Chevrolet."

So what we're talking about here is obviously rock 'n' roll, as simple and as complex as it can be. For this second LP, Tuff decided to go with a little more of the complex. Was Dead and assorted singles demonstrated that he's already a master at popping out these make-it-seem easy songs that put a dozen happily unexpected little flourishes under his jet-turbine-whine vocals. They just fall off him, really, and the only real trouble is trying to just collect them. 

So producer and spirit brother Bobby Harlow--most famously of Detroit's Go, but also mastermind behind impeccably and idiosyncratically produced rock records by his own Conspiracy of Owls and Magic Jake and the Power Crystals--teamed up with Tuff and decided to do this one the hard way. This is a King Tuff record ... with new things. Slow songs? Acoustic songs? Dreamed-out slo-mo pop basically unprecedented in the Tuff discography? As Stiv Bators--himself a proto-Tuffian, actually--once sang, "All this and more, little girl!"

Don't worry, pre-existing fans. The Tuff you hear and obey is still there, especially on closer "Hit And Run," which is the essence of the man purified toward irresistibility. "Alone And Stoned" is another easy winner, especially for succinct statement of purpose and identity: "There's nothing better than alone and stoned / listening to music on your headphones." "Bad Thing" and "Stupid Superstar" and "Stranger" are traditional rippers, too. Tuff starts where Marc Bolan stopped and spirals off toward glammy-punky semi-underground legends like Milk N Cookies and the Only Ones, whose "Another Girl Another Planet" is the spark from which many a Tuff-y song ignited and whose singer/guitarist Peter Perrett should probably be DNA tested in case Tuff is due any psychic child support. ("Loser's Wall" especially and "Swamp Of Love" are particularly Perrett-ian, which is such a nice adjective to get a chance to use.) 

But this is an album, not a singles comp, and if you got enough heart you should take it all at once. That way, it seems more like Teenage Fanclub (check "Stupid Superstar") or Vaselines or even late-'70s Alex Chilton--musicians that knew they could knock out a beautiful power-pop-punk-rock song and willfully decided to, as the stand-out Tuff song demands, "Keep On Movin'." 

The next big challenge after the pop song is the pop album, and Tuff here projects his sense for the unexpected into 12 complete compositions instead of just two minutes of wham-bam bubblegum over and over. Because he did it right, that means there is gonna be stuff on here you like instantly. There is gonna be stuff that weirds you out. And there is also gonna be stuff that you would never have thought you'd like, and yet ... well, you best believe you're in L-U-V. ("Baby Just Break," perhaps? It's about as propulsive as acoustic guitar can muster, and adorable in a perfect sneak-out-your-window teenage way. Tuff's "Thirteen"?) 

What's new here are the obvious experiments in style and sound; what's the same is Tuff's natural sense for where a song should go and when it needs to change, and what shines is his ability to drop in some crazy why-not? hook that is hilarious and catchy and perfect all at once. ("Keep On Movin'" falsetto for this album's top example.) Was Dead was a surprise attack but Tuff's new self-titled is still a surprise. It does what you want when you want, yes--but the best part is how it gives you a few things you never knew you wanted at all.

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