Kyle Thomas, both under his King Tuff moniker and with Brattleboro, Vermont based band Happy Birthday, has become known for a fuzzed out garage pop typical on the fringes of the indie scene as a whole. With the exception of his work with J Mascis’ metal band, Witch, and folk band Feathers, he’s largely delved into this ’60s influenced sound. On this, his second record as King Tuff, Thomas expands his sonic palette a little further, while still remaining well within that garage rock context.
Though Happy Birthday’s successes as a whole relied on the pairing of bubblegum pop melodies with Thomas’ nasally yelp, that sonic dichotomy is almost entirely removed here. Thomas’ vocals are largely unchanged, but the music is much more befitting such a vocal modus operandi. Whether in the Ty Segall inflected heaviness of “Stranger” or in the sloppy acoustic rock intro of “Baby Just Break The Rules,” more than ever before it seems that Thomas has found a sonic home for his unique (to put it kindly) voice. Even on Happy Birthday, which was Thomas’ most fully formed release to date, there were still a few tracks (“Zit” in particular) where he managed to utilize his voice in a way that was more grating than anything. That all is reconciled here, both by clearer production and what seems to be a more refined use of the timbre of his voice in general.
“Evergreen” exemplifies this most eminently, as Thomas adopts a Billy Corgan-esque wispy whine over an atypically mellow track. Though Thomas’ nasal whine has become his calling card, here he chooses to dial it back a bit, pairing a new croon with a moodier instrumental than he usually puts forth. We know Thomas can rock. On his previous records, both as King Tuff and Happy Birthday, he firmly established that fact. But here he’s proven that he can write as well. The melodic turns on “Evergreen” stand out, recalling the more laid back moments of Smashing Pumpkins and suggesting a rambling sort of indie rock not too far removed from the Slumberland-y sounds of the most recent Big Troubles record. It’s this tonal diversity that finally lands a home for Thomas’ unique voice and, more than anything, makes for an album that strikes many more emotional chords than records past. Though it’s a jarring change to hear such tracks, it’s certainly a welcome one.
All that said, this is still essentially a straightforward indie rock record. And it’s understood that most indie acts really have to do a lot to stand out in the crowd. One could certainly fault Thomas in that regard. Some of these songs veer firmly toward ground that’s often tread by the likes of Hunx and his Punx, Nobunny, or The So So Glos. That’s all not to say that Thomas is a copycat by any means, he’s long established himself as part of that little circle, and this record seems far and away his most stylistically diverse work. Though it may lack a song with the immediacy of something like “Girls FM,” the tracks on King Tuff represent some of the best work of the career of a man who’s hopefully just getting started.