In the glory years of Broadway, the "great white way" was the only game in town. Big-time musicals once attracted the very best in songwriting talent -- musicians skilled in the creation of memorable tunes that could span any number of popular musical styles, offering variety and interest within the course of a whole together with lyrics heavy with wordplay and clever phraseology, proud and innovative and witty.
Over time, different modes of entertainment drew musical talent away from theater, and sadly, other than a few notable exceptions, there's been a real void now and for some time in that place where giant talents once roamed freely. While some pop music giants have tried and failed, and others have had their pop hits fashioned into pseudo-musical or dance pieces, others like Adam Guettel and David Yazbek offer hope on the horizon. Still, many bemoan the dearth of talent for the musical stage, and daily ask the gods for some kind of old-fashioned talent to appear magically.
Ladies and Gentleman, your search is over. The creative force behind Congo Norvell, the Mumps, the Swinging Madisons, and Bleaker Street Incident (not to mention a formidable solo career) is your man. His name is Kristian Hoffman, and at age 50 with his new release of duets &, he has inadvertently written the best soundtrack recording from a play not yet written.
Launched from an idea to duet with Belinda Carlisle (they had planned to cover "Having My Baby" -- it never happened), Hoffman pairs his talents with a host of talented friends and musicians and what emerges is an impressive mélange of mixed musical styles and tones wherein only the strength of the songs themselves manages to outshine the individual performances. If all you know about Kristian Hoffman is that he wrote "Total Eclipse" for '80s Euroglam popstar Klaus Nomi, you are in for a remarkable surprise. Talk about gifts that keep on giving -- this is a veritable parade of literate pop vernacular.
"Devil May Care" pairs Hoffman with vocalist Russell Mael of Sparks (the CD is produced by Sparks guitarist Earle Mankey) for an upbeat jaunt that urges one to revel in all the allegedly evil and fun things in life in a free-spirited way: "Devil may care / But just suppose that the reverse is true / Isn't it fair to bless the instinct that immerses you in life? / Irony check -- have an éclair!"
That Dog's Anna Waronker (recently out with a solo album) joins Hoffman in "Get It Right This Time", a baroque exploration of trying hard to learn from past love experiences, akin stylistically to some of the Brodsky Quartet/Elvis Costello songs. Her perky pop voice provides a great contrast on the chorus, where she prays that maybe she can get it right this time. This song features a lush string arrangement, harpsichord and fine cornet from David Washburn, as well as a very Beatle-esque harmony at the coda.
Hoffman digs into his past with "Anyone But You", a catchy jangle of a perfect pop song from The Mumps heyday, now sung by Stew of The Negro Problem, who makes it very much his own. This is about attitude, easily discerned when all too familiar: "They can say that you're a lazy king without the nerve to abdicate / And I know it's true because I'm just like you".
The real dramatic highlight here is "Scarecrow", the seven-minute epic duet with Rufus Wainwright. This musical examination of the 1998 Matthew Shepard hate murder in Wyoming couldn't be more beautifully poignant. The spare arrangement paired with Wainwright's voice manages to deliver Hoffman's hard words with the necessary anger, outrage, and passion: "What penalty must we perform for craving someone warm somewhere upon this chilly planet / A rifle butt against the head because we'd heard it said that 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". All this and some Wizard of Oz references make this one powerful performance.
Next up is talented bassist and chanteuse Abby Travis, who puts her smoky vocals to great use with Hoffman's harmonies in "God, If Any, Only Knows", another musing on the mystifying matters of the heart: "They say that love is letting go / Well I agree that that's a sensible them / But what I do and what I know -- well, they don't often work as a team / I tried to trust, but I didn't know how / But I'm getting it now: God, if any, only knows".
Paul Zone (The Fast) gets his funk groove on with modern "Series of You's", a musical cousin to Bowie's "Fame" with far more highfalutin' words and a sitar lead courtesy of Mr. Mankey. This song examines with a jaundiced eye the way that bad relationships manage to repeat themselves.
Renowned composer/arranger Van Dyke Parks does his magic on Hoffman's piano ballad "Revert to Type". This pretty poetic love song is made all the more so by the cinematic string and horn arrangements (and you can almost visualize the accompanying dance sequence).
Hoffman again reprises a past standard for this new project, reworking the Swinging Madisons' theme song "Madison Avenue" for the Mexican Elvis, El Vez. The new arrangement contains a bassline in the lounge style of a "Peter Gunn" and offers up its loving tribute to the hard sell industry: "No human hand ever touched what's in Sanitex / No human heart can resist what your art directs / So take my love and send it to Madison Avenue".
The delicate voice of Michael Quercio (Three O'Clock, Jupiter Affect) graces "Just in Time", another thoughtful contemplation on the difficult task of letting go of the past and being here now, all wrapped in a sweet melody.
"Palace of Corn" is Hoffman playing clever with lyrics in a song about letting your snob factor down and embracing all those good old-fashioned middle American values: "If I pleaded the fifth, could this be prevented / My cynicism deserts me now / I called you cute and I meant it". Wondermint Darian Sahanaja and his high hair does a nice job with the tricky lyrics, wending his vocals through Lisa Jenio's flute leads (and extra points for the mention of Chanticleer).
Things go from clever to heartfelt with the quiet and lovely "Tender Even Then", featuring some fine acoustic guitar from Dave Bongiovanni. Here Maria McKee's sweet voice is the perfect harmonic counterpoint to Hoffman's own emotional performance and oh, such great words: "I slam the door upon your thumb / What's unbecoming, I become / And so with each and every awkward kiss, I pray a silent prayer that this can't be as stupid as it looks / And if we're both on tenterhooks again, can we be tender even then?"
Steve McDonald (Redd Cross, Ze Malibu Kids) takes a vocal turn on the campy delight of "I Could Die for Cute", a playful number that could fit comfortably into a Grease-type stage show. Singer/writer/actress Ann Magnuson helms the vocals on "Sex in Heaven", probably the only musical examination of soprano castrati ever written.
Long time friend and collaborator Lydia Lunch takes on the co-written drama of "I Can't Remember My Dreams", an acid Brechtian half-spoken talking down at the end of the long decadent road. It's bleak and charming both.
The CD ends with a short touching minute-or-so lullaby tribute from Hoffman to the memory of former best friend and band-mate Lance Loud (to whose memory, along with that of Will Glenn, this album is dedicated).
The 17 tracks are ably executed by Hoffman on keyboards and percussion, a number of guest musicians, and his more than able band: Pierre Smith on lead and rhythm guitars, William Bongiovanni on bass guitar, and Chuck Mancillas on drums.
& is proof of Kristian Hoffman's amazing songwriting ability. These duets cover a wide range and do so remarkably well (you even get a prologue from Paul "Pee Wee Herman" Reubens). I do hope someone out there gets wise to Kristian Hoffman's many talents and gives him a shot at writing for the stage. In the meantime, treat yourself to a delightful night at the theater with a good long listen to the epic & -- but BYOL (bring your own libretto).