by James Marshall
Kristian Hoffman has had a long and quite fabulous, almost Zelig-like career, beginning in the early 70’s, where as a high school student in Santa Barbara, California, he hooked up with a young Lance Loud, often appearing as Loud’s best pal on the first ever reality TV show - An American Family. I remember the first episode I saw, he was playing keyboards, and rocking out on "Brown Sugar" in a garage band that featured Lance as the lead singer. Kristian moved to NYC with Lance in the early 70’s to form the Mumps, for whom he played keyboards and wrote most of the songs. The Mumps were a Kinks/Move/Sparks inspired group that also included future Iggy Pop guitarist Rob DuPrey and (briefly) Patti Smith Group drummer J.D. Dougherty. Although these days the Mumps seem practically written out of NYC rock’n’roll history, the Mumps were the fourth group to ever appear at CBGB (after Television, Patti Smith, and the Ramones). They had a good size following, and played on bills with just about every group of the era. They would eventually cut two singles - "Crocodile Tears" b/w "I Like To Clean" (Bomp, 1977) and "Rock & Roll This, Rock & Roll That" b/w "Muscle Boys" and "That Fatal Charm" (Perfect, 1978) - but were never signed to a real label and the bulk of their 70’s recordings wouldn’t be released until 1997 when the Eggbert label released That Fatal Charm. A 25 song CD (also featuring an eleven song live DVD) was issued in 2005 by Sympathy For The Record Industry under the title How I Saved The World.
Hoffman also put in a brief appearance playing slide guitar in the Contortions, dueting with Anya Phillips on an amazing version of "(Tropical) Heat Wave" that appeared on their second album which was issued under the name of James White and the Blacks. Around the same time Kristian recorded a mind boggling version of Janis Ian’s "Society’s Child" for Charles Ball’s Lust/Unlust label which went unreleased (where is that tape today?). He also wrote songs for and produced discs by pastry chef turned new wave kook Klaus Nomi, and played in Lydia Lunch’s blues band the Devil Dogs. With the demise of the Mumps, Hoffman stepped into the role of lead singer in his next band-- the Swinging Madisons (which also featured guitarist Robert Mache, later of the Continental Drifters), an ahead of their time group that mixed swinging Louis Prima type arrangements with hard guitar rock. The Madisons released one five song EP in 1981 before packing it in. Hoffman also worked on several projects with actress/performance artist Ann Magnuson, starting with the folk revival spoof the Bleecker Street Incident (which also included Robert Mache), and a pre-Spinal Tap heavy metal parody Vulcan Death Grip.
Relocating to Los Angeles in the early 80’s, Kristian Hoffman formed Congo Norvell with ex-Cramps/Gun Club/Bad Seeds guitarist Kid Congo Powers and actress/singer Sally Norvell, appearing on all four of their albums, and also recorded two solo LP’s-- the Donovan inspired I Don’t Love My Guru Anymore (1993) and more guitar rock oriented Earthquake Weather (1996). Never one to sit around for long, Hoffman also put in time playing keyboards in Dave Davies band (who were great both times I saw them, much better than Ray Davies goofy “The Storyteller” shows), backed up El Vez and more recently worked as Rufus Wainwright’s musical director and keyboard player. I’m sure I’m leaving out a half dozen other bands and “projects” he’s been involved with over the years, but that’s the short version, although I guess I can also mention that Hoffman is also a talented graphic artist who designed the famed New York Dolls logo (their name written in lipstick under a bend over nubile, goth girl) that appeared on the inner sleeve of their debut LP and millions of t-shirts ever since, as well as illustrating books by Lydia Lunch and Iris Berry.
Which brings us to today's subject.
Kristian Hoffman’s latest album-- the lavishly produced and packaged Fop (Kayo) is a full fledged, over the top, pop masterpiece. For fans of 60’s pop and early 70’s UK pomp, Kristian Hoffman’s Fop (Kayo) is an embarrassment of riches. With soaring guitars, swelling strings and choruses, layered keyboards, and perfectly crafted tunes, Fop mines the territory somewhere between Scott Walker, early Bowie, Pet Sounds era Beach Boys, the Kinks from Face to Face through Arthur, T. Rex, Sparks, the pre-disco Bee Gees, the Elton John of Madman Across The Water, and, while you’re at it, throw in some Procol Harum and Van Dyke Parks.
Opening with (sorry readers if I indulge in a spew of rock crit 101 cliches, try not lose your lunch, this is a hard record to describe simply because there’s so much to describe) what can only be called an opus (any pop song over seven minutes that isn’t a jam qualifies as an opus in my book), full of Pet Sounds like orchestral swells, elaborate harmonies, and musical mood swings, it carries that melancholy feeling of Brian Wilson with the covers pulled over his head. "I Can’t Go There" begins with a similar Heroes & Villains type keyboard part, although it quickly turns into a rocker of no little majesty (I’m no Queen fan, but I do hear a lot of Brian May parodies in guitarist William Bongiovanni’s playing on Fop). Fop, which with no less than seventeen tunes and running nearly seventy five minutes is a record that really throws the kitchen sink at the listener.
"Imaginary Friend" begins with a melody that you can see Fred Astaire tap dancing across the screen to, until the change up, where it turns into a completely different movie, one where Joan Crawford looks at herself in the mirror and shatters it with her whiskey glass.
"Mediocre Dream," a tune that began life in the Swinging Madison days, has a full on British guitar hero riff that follows the string intro, could fit into Alice Cooper’s Killer or Love It To Death. There’s a few novelty style rockers, including "Hey Little Jesus," which turns the riff to "Money" into a heavy rock workout (most of Fop’s guitar work comes courtesy of David Bongiovanni, from El Vez’s band, his brother William is on bass). The video features Prince Poppycock the glam rock contestant from America’s Got Talent TV show. Little Brother sits proudly on the same shelf as the Kinks's "Harry Rag".
"Mockingbird', on which Hoffman plays all the guitars, tremolo on full, is another rocker, this one asks the musical question “what becomes a bird brain/when his song is just a lie?" Kristian Hoffman certainly has a way with words. The finale "Strange Seed", where he announces “It’s a strange seed I’m sowing/It’s still growing”, is a good summation of Fop, both musically and lyrically, each heavy rock guitar and thundering drum build up cuts off to silence, then turns back in on itself as a witty, pop ditty.
I think my favorite song is "Blackpool Lights," where consecutive chorus's add a little more with each go around - more voices, more cymbal crashes, more piano and organ flourishes, more everything, until it leaves you breathless. Many of the people I’ve played Fop for have used the word baroque in describing it, but if I remember anything from my college art history classes, I think that’s a bit off the mark. I think the correct term might be rococo. If Ludwig III of Bavaria got to make a rock record, Fop would be it. Could Kristian Hoffman have invented Art Nouveau Rock? I think he just may have.
"Hey Little Jesus" mp3
by Kristian Hoffman, 2010.
available on Fop
"Strange Seed" mp3
by Kristian Hoffman, 2010.
available on Fop
"Rock & Roll This, Rock & Roll That" mp3
by The Mumps, 1978.
available on How I Saved the World
"(Tropical) Heat Wave" mp3
by James Chance and the Contortions, 1979.
available on Off White
"Ready or Not"
An American Family: