King Tuff — Smalltown Stardust

Jason Ferguson
2 min readMay 24, 2023

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Qobuz new release review (January 2023)

https://www.qobuz.com/us-en/album/smalltown-stardust-king-tuff/xnfats3owl71a

When King Tuff (né Kyle Thomas) released The Other back in 2018, the self-produced, somewhat laconic album seemed like an understandable reaction to the intensity of the previous decade of his career. He had quickly rocketed from scruffy, micro-label garage-rocker to a radio-friendly unit-shifter, as his first two Sub Pop albums established him as a cornerstone of the 2010s’ indie landscape with the attendant touring and promotional duties. Indulging in some low-key psychedelic woo-woo for a minute was a well-deserved break. Still, one might expect, after a few years of (voluntary and lockdown-required) recuperation, that Thomas would greet 2023 with a forceful and electric return to form. He did not. If The Other was the sound of exhaustion, Smalltown Stardust is the sound of gentle joyfulness. With strong Harry Nilsson vibes throughout and produced in collaboration with his housemates Sasami and Meg Duffy (Hand Habits), it wanders around exploring midtempo, hippy-dippy vibe-iness for its duration. (Among the 11 cuts is a sub-one-minute meditation piece called “A Meditation.”) Thomas has fully evolved into the rock ’n’ roll hippie he was always destined to be; as an L.A. transplant from Vermont, his fate was sealed. While there are a few moments that can tangentially connect to his earlier garage-pop, Smalltown Stardust does start out with a song called “Love Letters To Plants” and explores granola topics like “The Wheel,” and “Pebbles In A Stream” in a way that’s so sincere and on the nose that one wonders if he wasn’t solely listening to private-label ’70s Christian rock during lockdown. Things get a little electric here and there, most notably on “Portrait of God,” but even then, the peaceful spirituality of the number ultimately keeps it from any sort of reckless abandon. “Rock River’’ similarly feels like it wants to be an explosive rocker, but despite the jaunty guitar and hand-clap-ready rhythms, the “let’s walk along the river and look at the stars” lyrics are so pure and daffy that it’s hard to think about cutting loose. Cuts like “Pebbles In A Stream” are just straight-up, Bread-style acoustic soft rock. While the sweetness of some of the material here is a little cloying, and the absolute lack of ironic detachment is a little disorienting, the gleeful sincerity that courses throughout the record is infectious in its own way. This is an album that’s ultimately a beacon of positivity in a world that could absolutely use a supercharged dose of good vibes.

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Jason Ferguson

I endorse listening to 45s, Florida summers, Bollywood, soccer, and people who are smarter than I am. I write and edit things.