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King Tuff - Was Dead (2008)

As a musician, King Tuff falls somewhere between having a distinct point of view and being a full on parody of flaky '70s glam rockers. The King, as he likes to refer to himself, is a persona of Kyle Thomas, lead vocalist of the J Mascis side project Witch and freak folkers Feathers. In this incarnation, Thomas eschews both harder sounds of the former and the laid-back grooves of the latter to board a time machine for the era when it was still acceptable to dance to rock music. On Was Dead, King Tuff confidently returns to the land of the living with 13 lucky numbers that nicely evoke the era of feel-good, danceable rock 'n' roll.

There is an unmistakable anachronistic quality to Was Dead. Whether due to careful production or budgetary restrictions, the songs have a certain rawness indicative of a bygone era. The guitars sound thin and slightly tinny, mixing with a wheezy organ and overly present high-hat somehow mix to give a reasonable approximation of '70s glam. The effect is heightened by Thomas’ nasal vocal delivery. The voice he uses in “Tuff” persona is opposed to the studio-enhanced perfection encountered on many releases that it marks the songs as coming from an era where some measure of idiosyncrasy was encouraged in popular music.

The songs on Was Dead are a mixed bag of male posturing, come-ons and mysticism whose lyrics are all ultimately throwaways. Their position on the album is subservient to the grooves, which are present in abundance. Like his predecessors in glam, Thomas is concerned with finding a universally infectious groove. On Was Dead, Thomas, or perhaps more correctly King Tuff, makes an admirable attempt in this direction.

King Tuff is many things. In body, he is Brattleboro’s Kyle Thomas, one half of the eclectic folk act Feathers and front man for J. Mascis’ (Dinosaur Jr.) side project Witch. In spirit, King Tuff is the embodiment of times past — specifically, 35 or 40 years past — an era of seemingly invincible, larger-than-life rock personae. Garage rock from one ragged edge to the other, King Tuff’s Colonel Records debut Was Dead recalls a solid ’70s pop-rock record recently rediscovered, dusted off and repackaged into its psychedelic neon-green sleeve, and released into a scene largely lacking its fuzzy power chords and tambourine-laden verses.

The hard backbeat and sitar-sounding effects of “Dancing on You” serve as a fitting opener to Was Dead. Images of sweaty kids and flailing hair pour forth from the entire album, and this tune indicates your likely fate should you choose to abstain. The followup, “Connection,” continues the bouncy vibe with a walking bass line and bright organ riffs.

Thomas’ nasal delivery is an acquired taste, but it does lend Dylan-esque sincerity to the lyrics, even if the words themselves are somewhat nonsensical, as on third cut “Sun Medallion.”

Album standout “Lazerbeam” follows with frenetic drumming and a building “Ahh-ahh” refrain, culminating in a guttural scream by Thomas. Was Dead is never short on energy or musical chops, evidenced by skilled and varied guitar work on subsequent tracks “Lady,” the gritty “A Pretty Dress” and toe-tapper “Ruthie Ruthie.” Though he brings along a touring band for gigs, Thomas laid down all the record’s primary instrumentation. And his musicianship, though at times a bit overwrought in its layering, is solid.

“Just Strut” offers a vaguely neo-swing sound with persistent high-hat and syncopated guitar. But Thomas quickly turns back to more traditional rock rhythms with “Kind of Guy” and the fittingly titled “Freak When I’m Dead” — the latter a commentary on the importance of an open-casket funeral when you strive to be unique.

Following the mostly forgettable “Animal” and “Stone Fox,” hard-rocking album closer “So Desperate” calls out any remaining wallflowers and fittingly caps the sub-40-minute offering. Short as it may be, this small package is crammed with a lot of rock. Was Dead would certainly serve as a fitting soundtrack to the excess of your choosing. (7dvt.com)

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