Shortly before King Tuff released Black Moon Spell, his third album, the Los Angeles-via-Vermont power-pop savant shared “Danger in the Dark,” a new non-LP track. Tuff mastermind Kyle Thomas’s increasingly confident coo fit wonderfully with the psychedelic expanse of his one-off collaborator on the song, Brooklyn hip-hop producer Harry Fraud. But the arrangement, sponsored by a rum company, drives home how far Thomas has come since his recently reissued 2008 debut album, Was Dead, achieved “overlooked classic” status, and how many other possibilities he still has left to explore.
Black Moon Spell at once satisfyingly refuses to clean itself up for the suits and tantalizingly holds back from engaging with more contemporary sounds such as Fraud’s. Was Dead, which infamously used to trade on eBay at extravagant prices, established Tuff’s signature: sugary melodies, ripping Strat solos and impish charm. Where the 2012 follow-up, King Tuff, moved both toward more straightforward rock ‘n’ roll and gentler, acoustic-leaning sounds, the latest offering ends up in some dank ’70s basement where classic rock and bubblegum punk have grown like mold until almost becoming self-aware.
T. Rex boogies, Zeppelin-grade riffs and Thin Lizzy guitar duels bump into goblin-voiced backward messages, but what once again saves Tuff from mere pastiche is his tuneful set of songs. Some, such as devilish “Johnny B. Goode” reply “Demon From Hell” and “Headbanger,” which reclaims Homer Simpson-style rocking out as sweet romantic intimacy, are about music. Others, including astral anthem “Staircase of Diamonds,” look toward space. And now and then, as on “Black Holes in Stereo,” Tuff covers both bases.
As with fellow L.A. transplant Ty Segall, who plays drums on the witchy title track, it’s fair to wonder what Tuff’s talents could do if he keeps opening himself up to more contemporary influences. But for now, he rules his demented kingdom with benevolent aplomb. Or, to put it the way the people in his songs probably would: He rules.