Album Review: King Tuff, ‘Smalltown Stardust’

In Smalltown Stardust, Vermont native Kyle Thomas – known to the world by the moniker King Tuff – steers away from the blaring, dirty power-pop that marked 2014’s Black Moon Spell. While The Other, released just four years later, introduced a calmer, more cosmic version of his artistic self, Thomas leans into psych-folk with full force in his newest album, which serves as an expression of sincere gratitude for the simple things: wildflowers, pebbles and rivers, comforting romance, mindful meditation. Wrapped in rapture, the project comes as an especially welcome surprise in the middle of winter, with the sunny, hypnotising waves of Smalltown Stardust rendering it a portable summer. 

The love for greenery that lies at the heart of the album creates an especially charming listening experience, calling forth the intoxicating effect of Mort Garson’s Mother Earth’s Plantasia. The opening track ‘Love Letters to Plants’ does exactly what it says on the tin, weaving a laudatory tune as it stays afloat with Sasami Ashworth’s angelic ascending harmonies. With a neat blend of minimoog, orchestral strings and bursts of drums complementing Thomas’ smooth vocals, the track symbolises Smalltown Stardust at its best, mixing intriguing instrumental compositions with fun, true-to-self lyricism: “Microtones make my gardens grow/ I only feel at home/ In wildflowers,” Thomas croons.

Unfortunately, much of the record’s lyrical space forgoes adventurousness altogether, too often veering to kitsch. “I’m ready to wake up/ Try to break up these fears” is one of several underwhelming songwriting moments on ‘How I Love’, soporific in its slow pace, something even the funky electric guitar strums can’t remedy. In fact, the tunes honing in on romantic love are precisely the ones that see Thomas fall into the traps of cliché. “We found each other/ Was it chance, or was it destiny?” he asks on ‘Pebbles In a Stream’ amidst Kinga Bacik’s soothing cello, leaving the listener aching for more specificity. 

Smalltown Stardust is far more encouraging when it offers introspection and explorations of spirituality. The third track, a voice recording of 8-year-old Thomas attempting to deliver a guided meditation, is amusing and endearing in its innocence. “I would like to take the time to do a little mind stretching,” little Thomas says, and he seems to do just that in the succeeding ‘Portrait of God’. Serving as the high point of the album, the ebullient song asks us to “imagine the shape of God” while portraying King Tuff’s own experimentation with painting in his garage. Bringing us along to “walk in the woods, wade in the river, breathe in the mountain air,” the track is a not-so-subtle appreciation of the sublime, celebrating the grandeur of nature and the release granted by artistic expression.

‘Bandits of Blue Sky’ is harder to decipher, with dragged-out syllables and buoyant energy reminiscent of David Bowie. “Have you heard the news?/ There’s bandits on the loose/ They’re sneaking through your psyche/ And drinking all your juice,” chants Thomas on his break from personal storytelling, while drums, piano and cello melt together in the background to create an air of mystery. The most touching track, though, arrives at the very end with ‘The Wheel’. The noises accompanying the end of the track evoke images of a train arriving at its final destination; the wheels stop moving, but right when you expect utter silence to set in, the gentle chime of bells delightfully fulfills Thomas’ expressed hope that “when it stops, it isn’t really the end.”

King Tuff’s Smalltown Stardust does more than reshape his musical identity and demonstrate the significant transformation that has taken place since his debut in 2006. Thomas succeeds at doing what few can: capturing fleeting moments in all their glory. Whether extending love to a greenhouse, oil paint or crystal clear water, the songs feel like a tight embrace you didn’t know you needed, reminding you to pay more attention to little joys and – if at least for 38 minutes and 24 seconds – convincing you that everything is going to be alright.

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