Having started his career as a garage-rocking party man, Kyle Thomas instantly transformed into his stage persona King Tuff. Now, deep into his solo career, Thomas eases back and luxuriates in the natural world and memories of his hometown, two vitally important pieces to this personal album, Smalltown Stardust.
Written in Los Angeles with the help of his housemate SASAMI (who co-produced and sang gorgeous harmonies/backups throughout) Thomas was floundering for meaning and latched onto his love of nature, particularly in his rural hometown of Brattleboro, Vermont, as inspiration. The eleven tracks all harken back east, exuding changing seasons, organic flow, and luscious sonic sound.
The opener is actually the most off-putting of the bunch as Tuff sings about the directly titled “Love Letters To Plants”. The pulsing and endlessly repetitive string work becomes grating, but this sonic experiment is the outlier. Very quickly Tuff settles into a robust sound with deep bass, fluttering electric guitar, and restrained rock in a Kevin Morby/Sam Cohen vein as “How I Love” is a winner.
Things continue positively, after an eight-year-old Thomas begins a meditation, with “Portrait of God” acting as his summary statement, the direct lyrics about his personal spirituality and excellent musicality make this an album centerpiece. The title track deals with vanishing memories of youth around touches of ominous sounds, reminiscent of old Beck efforts, while the acoustic “Pebbles In A Stream” and the folk-rock “Tell Me” are two very pretty love odes sprung from the same seed.
One of the most pleasant efforts is “Rock River”, yet another tune dealing with nature and days past. It is a track that feels like it wants to be elongated on stage with an upbeat swinging vibe and even more, guitar soloing, while “The Bandits of Blue Sky” goes the more-is-more route with layers of orchestration in late-era Beatles fashion.
“The Wheel” closes things, but that placement is odd as “Always Finds Me” is the true finale of the album. The track is a culmination of everything Thomas built to this point with personal lyrics, rising horns, fluid backing vocals, and even some backward tape loops to keep the ears open.
On 2018’s The Other, Thomas was questioning and searching in sometimes morbid ways. Now, with the personally emotional Smalltown Stardust, he has found some solid answers in nature, love, friends, and hometown memories; King Tuff sounds gratifyingly grounded.