Kristian Hoffman & was released 11 June 2002.
Kristian Hoffman’s mastery of classic songcraft is front and center on his remarkable album of duets called simply &. Culling his not-so-ragged band of partners from the multitudes of colleagues, influences and friends he’s amassed over the past 25 years as a musical adventurer, he’s assembled a CD of extraordinary breadth in style and delivery. Opening up his songbook to the fabulous array of voices who collaborated only serves to confirm the timeless appeal of the material.
As a tunesmith, Hoffman is perhaps best known for the song "Total Eclipse," the cult hit he wrote for early '80s legend Klaus Nomi (and a Top Ten single in Germany in 2000 for Rosenstolz with guest vocals by Soft Cell’s Marc Almond) and the smart aleck pop craft he displayed with his groups the Mumps (1974-1980) and the Swinging Madisons (1980-1985) not to mention the much-praised folk parodists Bleaker Street Incident. His two solo records, I Don’t Love My Guru Anymore (1994) and Earthquake Weather (1997) cemented his appeal, while taking a more earnest singer/songwriter approach. In the meantime, he has labored as a sideman and collaborator with artists as diverse as El Vez, Congo Norvell, and the Kinks' own Dave Davies, and took on the title of Musical Director for Rufus Wainwright and Ann Magnuson. The countless connections made and mutual appreciation societies formed have led to the full flowering of &. Lining up fifteen of his most talented friends, he’s decided to share the load and focus on THE SONG. & is a summation of his gifts as a songwriter - from the epic to the intimate - all suffused with emotion and whimsy and sex and style, not to mention an unerring knack for the perfect pop melody. With longtime producer Earle Mankey (the Runaways, Helen Reddy, El Vez, the Jupiter Effect) on hand once again to provide his patented hook-happy gloss, and with arrangements that range from dark and robotic, to delicate and soul-searching, to bombastic and gushy, & may just be Hoffman’s finest work yet.
"Devil May Care" (with Russell Mael from Sparks): Track #1 finds Hoffman rocking out in the style of his early '70s heroes Sparks, with none other than the inimitable Russell Mael on guest vocals. And let’s not forget the contributions of producer/original Halfnelson/Sparks member Earle Mankey. Very much an "if it feels good, do it" anthem - it's up with the reprobates and free spirits, down with the squares and the milquetoasts. "Irony check! Have an éclair!"
Sparks - singular '70s holdouts for clever, humorous, ultra-catchy song craft in a sea of dressed-down bloozers and whining confessionalists - have continued their genre- and decade-defying career with the 2000 release of Balls. Russell Mael is the lead singer of this immensely influential group, best known for their timeless songs "This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us," "I Predict," and "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'." Their self-produced tribute album Plagiarism (1997) features re-recorded versions of their biggest hits (with guest appearances by Faith No More and Jimmy Somerville) and is a testament to their eternal allure.
"Get It Right This Time" (with Anna Waronker)- Get out your handkerchiefs, if you please. Anna Waronker’s classic '60s Lesley Gore vocals are a seamless fit in the Bacharach-flavored choruses, adding just the right touch of sincerity to the proceedings. A little harpsichord is icing on the cake, with a break straight outta Jeff Lynne-land. "Get It Right This Time" captures the thrill/dread of a second chance affair in a beguiling fashion.
Anna Waronker was the leader of the critically acclaimed That Dog, and writer of the catchy, Buzzcocks-styled "I Wish You Well" from the Josie & the Pussycats soundtrack. Recent projects include a label - 5 Foot 2 Records - that she's started with Go-Go Charlotte Caffey and the album Sound It Out with Ze Malibu Kids, a group she formed with husband Steven McDonald and brother-in-law Jeff McDonald (both from the legendary Redd Kross), along with Jeff's daughter Astrid. She's also ventured into production, handling the knob-twiddling (along with Steven) on Imperial Teen's 2002 release On. Next up - Waronker’s first solo album, called simply Anna.
"Anybody But You" (with Stew) - Oh, sweet hubris! A subversive anthem from the Mumps days, revamped with the gravelly, melodious pipes of Stew along for the ride. The essence of jingle-jangle handclap singalong pop. Atheism has never sounded so footloose and fancy free. Madalyn Murray O'Hair is bopping in her grave, no doubt.
Stew, whose 2000 solo CD Guest Host was named album of the year by Entertainment Weekly, also leads Silverlake breakout sensations the Negro Problem, whose Nino-Rota-by-way-of-Talking Heads stylings, and eccentric and evocative yet topical lyrics, have made them the toast of International Pop Scene. Their ambitions and ever-changing live shows exhibit a flair for at once sending up and celebrating all that is ridiculous and sublime in pop.
"Scarecrow" (with Rufus Wainwright) - A chilly, stark verse evokes the empty plains of Wyoming, the scene of the death of its subject, Matthew Shepard. From its bare beginnings, the song builds into an epic number of anger, loss and regret (with the help of Rufus Wainwright's passionate vocals) and concludes with a soaring Wizard of Oz-referencing coda. "Only God can make a man, it's true/But only man can make a scarecrow out of you/and only man can make a god who might approve." Indeed.
The only one of the new crop of singer-songwriters to show the promise of a young Jerome Kern or Irving Berlin, the amused but empathetic detachment of young Lou Reed and the courage to be openly gay before achieving the security blanket of mainstream acceptance, Rufus Wainwright’s golden voice rivals his impressive songcraft for being his most noteworthy gift.
"God, If Any, Only Knows" (with Abby Travis) - Oh, no, not Her again! Yes, making a third appearance in as many songs here at Casa de &, it’s the one and only God! Although I do believe Love's in there somewhere, as well. It seems Hoffman's take has evolved from hubristic atheism to befuddled agnosticism over the past 20 years or so. With a happy-go-lucky melody and the poised chanteuserie of Abby Travis, the song is a befuddled plea to somebody’s higher power. Possibly.
Abby Travis, who would already be a cult goddess for her work with the legendary Lovedolls, made more waves as bassist of choice for both Beck and Elastica on the same Lollapollooza tour! A singer-songwriter in her own right, with a lovely smokey, torch-singed voice, Abby and Kristian co-produced her second solo CD Cutthroat Standards & Black Pop, with Kristian also helping out on keyboard and contributing the song "Hope." Abby can be seen every month as a member of the house band of the wildly popular L.A. neo-glam event Makeup.
"Series of Yous" (wih Paul Zone) - The album's boldest sonic departure, with its Xerox machine groove, "Fame" chords, a raga-rockin' solo and the breathy vocals of Paul Zone. Tres moderne and all that. Do you believe in life after love? Or is every rebound affair doomed to be a shoddy rehash of the last? "Series of Yous" fails to provide the answers in supremely witchy fashion.
Paul Zone, usually with his brother Miki Zone, is the producer/performer/mastermind behind the Eurodisco sensations Man 2 Man and Violent Life. Man 2 Man had a Top 10 hit across Europe with the Village People send-up "At the Gym" and continues to release albums and contribute to hipster compilations on the Continent and in Canada. Kristian, however, knew Paul from his days as lead singer of NYC power pop pioneers the Fast, who were already causing teenage riots when the Mumps were just germinating and gained cult approval for their Ric Ocasek-produced Boys Will Be Boys.
"Revert to Type" (with Van Dyke Parks) - On the surface, a conventional showstopping ballad, bathed in the cinematic glow of Van Dyke Parks' stunning arrangement. Lyrically, it’s another tentative, hopeful love song, epic, sweeping, magical. Just plain gorgeous.
What is there to be said about Van Dyke Parks? That the stamp of approval of his participation is the kiss that leads Kristian safely through Oz? His stellar arrangements for the Mojo Men and Harper's Bizarre are flamboyantly opulent and eccentric exercises in warped Americana, his lyrical contributions to the Beach Boys "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains" lifted them into a word of otherworldly poesy. His "statement of intent" first album Song Cycle remains the definitive masterpiece of the Waronker/Newman tenure at Warner Brothers. And his achingly gorgeous string arrangements for Rufus Wainwright's debut album show that the magic continues to grow.
"Get It Right" (Carnival Reprise) - A home 4-track recording seguing into the perceptual second side of the virtual album.
"Madison Avenue" - An ambivalent love song to the awesome might of the advertising industry. Written in the early Eighties - it was the Swinging Madisons' theme song - it's a spookily prescient take on the art of the hard sell. With a sinister, loping bassline, and a scintillating guitar solo, it's subliminal and sublime, just like its subject matter - and the seductive crooning of El Vez drives the point home.
El Vez, the Mexican Elvis, is the only performer inspired by the King to have become a sociological phenomenon, giving rise to courses in several universities. With his sometimes acidic social commentary on the Latino experience in America, his outrageously glitzy (but rockin!) Las Vegas revue and his matinee idol looks and his guardedly hopeful call for the brotherhood of all races, he's taken a seemingly one-joke exercise in camp and given it a depth and complexity reflected by the longevity and popularity of his career, tours and albums. And, to his delight, he's finally a question on Jeopardy.
"Just In Time" - Another meditation on the unpredictable nature of love, promises unkept and unkempt, bare bones and lucky breaks. Super melody, of course, and the delicate vocal technique of the eternally youthful Michael Quercio. La la la la la la la.
Michael Quercio founded and quickly transcended LA's Paisley Underground psychedelic revival at the tender age of 15 with his band the Salvation Army, which became the cult pop favorites the Three O'Clock, one of the few outside projects ever signed to Prince's Paisley Park Records. He has continued to be a force in classic pop melodiousness (with some Arena Rock gestures thrown in for good measure), first with Permanent Green Light and more recently with the Jupiter Effect, whose 2000 release Instructions for the Two Ways of Becoming Alice made several local Top Ten Lists.
"Palace of Corn" - Here we find the narrator smitten and delusional, lovelorn and mopey. Or is he? Maybe he's just in a self-deprecating mood. Smarty pants pop with tinkertoy melodies, with the smooth yet heartfelt performance of Darian Sahanaja and a nice combo of witchy flute and harpsichord. Sometimes you just have to give in.
Darian Sahanaja is the lead singer and one of the two fabulous songwriters of L.A.'s own Wondermints. Best known as Brian Wilson's touring band, they are bona fide pop stars in Japan because of that country's receptiveness to their Beach Boys/Beatles/XTC/Raspberries inflected songcraft. Even a casual listen to their two essential CDs Wondermints and Bali reveals that their inspiration transcends reverance and their gifts challenge those of their forbears. Lisa Jenio, singer of the wonderfully sarcastic pop combo Candypants provides the perky Donovanesque flute stylings.
"Tender Even Then" - The most bare arrangement on the record, and possibly the most emotional song. A song for the hapless romantic in us all. Maria McKee delivers a heaping helping of heart-on-your-sleeve country folk vocalizing. Earnest and soulful, "Joni" chords and all.
Maria McKee is often considered the female voice of L.A. for her singing in Lone Justice, her solo albums, and, most recently on the Songcatcher soundtrack. One of the few voices that can rival Emmylou Harris' for ethereal beauty, she often uses it for dramatic effect, but here she shows heartrending restraint that rendered the thought of any showier production tricks pointless.
"I Could Die for Cute" - A spooky guitar riff heralds the arrival of a playful attack on the object of Hoffman’s affections, whose "shopworn little jailbait charms" have lost their appeal. Another Sparks-ish melody and Steve MacDonald's charming chorus vocals help soften the blows.
Steve MacDonald began his show business career as a pre-teen babe in influential punk pop culture vultures Redd Kross, along with his older brother Jeff. Since their breakup several years ago, Steve has lent his talents to Ze Malibu Kids (see mention in the Anna Waronker bio) and is producing, along with Anna, the latest Imperial Teen record, On. He is currently performing with his own Steve MacDonald Group.
"Heavenly Interlude" - OK, no more messing around. Say hello to your heavenly tourguide/warden Paul Reubens, who's taking the angelic host to task for their loose morals. With a bit of decorating advice, as well.
Few know that Paul Reubens introduced the Mumps onstage at the Whiskey dressed in a cat suit as one of Les Chats, his pair of French cat burglars who appeared on The Gong Show three times! His words: "Meow meow meow meow Mumps!" In that spirit, he contributes this introduction to "Sex in Heaven" as one of paradise’s immigration officers, addressing a crowd of the clueless recently deceased.
"Sex in Heaven" - A hymn to the unearthly purity of the young, the beautiful and the castrated. Is that the price one must pay to sing with a voice so pure and so divine? To have one’s balls cut off? Or is it simply a meditation on an afterlife shorn of passion and lust and testosterone? Hmmm. Featuring the celestial stylings of Ann Magnuson, who knows a thing or two about sex.
Another friend of Kristian's from "the old days," multi-talented singer/writer/actress Ann Magnuson first came into the public eye in the early Eighties as part of the East Village performance art scene in New York. Not one to rest on her laurels, Magnuson has excelled in film (Making Mr. Right, Caveman's Valentine) and television (Anything But Love). She has lent her fabulous pipes and songwriting skills to the folk tribute/parody Bleaker St. Incident (with Kristian), the faux-metal act Vulcan Death Grip, and the acclaimed cult rock group Bongwater. Her challenging one-woman shows (You Could Be Home Now, the Luv Show, Rave Mom) have been both critical and popular successes with their entertaining blend of insightful cultural criticism and wild 'n' wacky show biz chutzpah.
"I Can't Remember My Dreams" - Noir nyah nyah. With Lydia Lunch as his taunting muse, Hoffman explores the expressionist world of a man haunted by something resembling "a hideous chorus by the post-Mary Wilson Supremes" - very scary! Lunch's sidesplittingly derisive spoken word bits battle it out with the ghostly allure of the chorus in a most delightful way.
Kristian has known Lydia Lunch since he dated Bradly Field, the drummer in her hilariously and succinctly confrontational No Wave outfit Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. She subsequently set about on a career of exhilaratingly seductive early solo work (Queen of Siam), neo-psychedelia (1313), swamp rock (8-Eyed Spy), and a flurry of assaultive harangues and spoken word soul searching in the depths of the heart's basement where few others have dared tread. Her most recent CD, Torcher, finds her once again shockingly listenable in an almost slick swing jazz setting, but her withering observations remain gleefully intact. In &'s only songwriting collaboration, Kristian told her, "The song is about a man who's lost his power to imagine" and she supplied the rest.
"Lullaby" - The album ends on an elegiac note with this melancholy tribute, a home-recorded coda and bittersweet farewell to Kristian's longtime best friend and American Family cohort, the late Lance Loud. A restless spirit and as capable a duet partner as anyone on this record -R.I.P Lance.
& may be ordered from CD Baby.