Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

KRISTIAN HOFFMAN. VERY CHARMING. Of noble visage. An appreciator of vintage recordings. And the most skillful American pop songwriter under the age of 51. I realized that last thing after his publicist sent me a stack of his CDs. I shoved them in the changer, put it on random play and waited for something that wasn't brilliant. When that never happened, I knew.

I had stumbled over evidence before. I'd seen him at the Starwood back in 1977, when he was playing keyboards for the Mumps, the Lance Loud­fronted New York group for which he wrote nearly all the songs. I'd found him in the clubs periodically since, fronting his Swinging Madisons, or behind the keys with Congo Norvell, or during what he calls his “lonely acoustic-guitar vigil.” We listeners tended to guard our reactions. We'd swivel furtive glances at each other as we smiled and tapped our feet to his music — the wonderful helical melodies, the hilariously sad lyrics, the high, woundedly theatrical voice.

It was a simple case of not believing our ears. He couldn't have been as good as we thought he was, or he wouldn't have been playing these closets.

Nevertheless, many have rallied to the Hoffman standard. His fans tend to be individuals who really, really like music — not the majority of the population, perhaps. And musicians, of course. Hoffman has now gathered no less than 15 guest artists to duet and collaborate with him on his new Eggbert Records release, the frighteningly excellent Kristian Hoffman &.

Maria McKee (Lone Justice). Ann Magnuson (Washington Squares). Darian Sahanaja (Wondermints). Michael Quercio (the Three O'Clock). Steven McDonald (Redd Kross). Anna Waronker (That Dog). Stew (the Negro Problem). Paul Zone (Man2Man). Van Dyke Parks. El Vez. Paul Reubens?! Lydia Lunch??!! Don't want to leave anybody out, because they all make meaningful contributions. But I don't want this to go on forever, either, so let's consider three representative selections.

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Devil In My Care

We must begin with Russell Mael, because he's the album's leadoff hitter, and one of Hoffman's main inspirations. Given Hoffman's tastes, it was inevitable that our hero would eventually become the catalyst for a cordial reunion — of singer Mael with a Mael brothers bandmate on the first two Sparks albums (1971 and 1972), guitarist-producer Earle Mankey. Mankey has long drawn worship for his genius at making cheapness sound grand, and his teamwork on all Hoffman's solo CDs is a marriage made in heaven. On “Devil May Care,” a romping “Gimme Some Lovin'” beat thrives adjacent to the staccatos of a twisted classical bridge, and Mael applies his patented falsetto to a chorus that suggests, “Irony check — have an éclair!” while grotty guitar slashes put the power in the pop. Perfect.

“God, If Any, Only Knows” escorts you to an entirely different era, Hoffman's beloved '30s — but he's always taking you somewhere. Guest Abby Travis manages to be both girl next door and irresistible seductress, trading verses with the pitifully cheerful Hoffman as they wonder, “Inexpressible fear — is that all that we shared?” The drama's accompanied by a hat-waving barrelhouse-piano whump-up: Kontradiction is Hoffman's middle name.

Lest you be distracted by his glossy surfaces and fail to peer beneath, Hoffman conjures one nightmare you can't wake from: “Scarecrow,” with Rufus Wainwright. Founded on stately Procol-Harum-stealing-from-Beethoven piano arpeggios, it jump-cuts through a number of artfully jarring changes before settling into a celestial coda worthy of Brian Wilson; the theme, without calling too much literal attention to the fact, is the 1998 Wyoming gay-bash killing of Matthew Shepard. You won't often encounter something this beautiful and this devastating. And damn, that Wainwright sings pretty.

Overflowing with violins, harpsichords, French horns, surprising progressions and divine melodies, Kristian Hoffman & is the record that every fan of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Kinks and great songcraft in general has been pining for over the long decades between. Barring a few overquirked moments toward its end, anyway. But those are part of the tradition, too.

SO WHY IS IT THAT HOFFMAN CAN roll his cart down the aisles at Albertson's without bodyguards?

“I don't have that Madonna-like drive to sell myself at all costs,” says Hoffman, adding that he admires what he lacks. “And what I do has consistently been unfashionable.”

Unfashionable maybe. But in fact, Hoffman has been influential. Compare recordings of the Mumps with the first albums by their friends Blondie, and you'll notice quite a few similarities: the vertical melodies, the classical piano touches, the spy-movie guitar lines. The Mumps, regulars in mid-'70s New York, were also that scene's first ambassadors to Hollywood, reinforcing an L.A. pop trickle represented by the Motels, The Pop and the Quick (the last recorded by Earle Mankey) that would soon leave its originators behind to drown the world in new wave.

New wave, though, despite its roots in glam and geek, quickly became unrelentingly hetero, which the campy Mumps were not. Singer Lance Loud, for godsake, had worn lipstick on national TV — in An American Family, the template for The ä Osbournes. And Hoffman wasn't exactly Clint Eastwood. The Mumps were thus misperceived by many as just a novelty act, and Hoffman's subsequent coy band names (Swinging Madisons, Washington Squares, Bleaker Street Incident) did little to dispel that impression.

Now that Hoffman has released three CDs under his own name, however, anyone who's heard them should be recognizing a mature, serious (though not grave) songwriter.

“I still value the song above all,” he says, in a rare moment when he's not making fun of himself. “You want to be as adventurous as you can, and still perfect this wonderful thing. And I don't embarrass myself lyrically as much as I used to — my precepts are similar, but my aspirations are higher. I love something that will catch your ear on first listening because it seems ridiculous or untoward. But I also like it when you scrutinize the lyrics and they'll reveal more layers of meaning.”

Take these: “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 . . . Scarecrow, I know you.”

In some ways, Hoffman's talent has gotten in his way: Thanks to his skill as a piano accompanist, he's spent a lot of time away from his own music, touring with the likes of Rufus Wainwright, El Vez, Abby Travis (one of whose CDs he co-produced) and Kinks guitarist Dave Davies. Supporting Davies was a special temptation: “When I was a kid in my bedroom, I listened to Face to Face with the lights out on my little portable stereo, just obsessing over every word, and here I am now touring with that guy.”

Hoffman must have felt he could do anything after he traveled Europe twice in the early '80s with Lydia Lunch — as her drummer. He claimed no kit proficiency, “but at that time in history it didn't matter. She did tell me, which I feel kind of proud of, that her tour with me was the most embarrassing thing she'd ever done in her life. And that's something coming from her!”

Hoffman will soon hit the asphalt to promote his new album, a duty he feels he's shirked somewhat in the past. Till then, you'll find him watching movies, but avoiding the newspapers. They're too depressing: “I've been a knee-jerk liberal all my life, and I'm ready to fight anybody about that!” He believes we should leave something for our children's children, though he declines responsibility for fathering any: “I'm not going to partake in planting my seed in those particular orifices.”

Hoffman says he'd like to live in New Orleans, or in New York again, but he can't afford it. No problem; he's truly at home in his Montecito Heights 1911 Craftsman-lite house, packed with artifacts — kitsch memorials to dead children, an umbrella stand made from the foot of an elephant killed by his white-hunter uncle. When it comes to planting seeds and putting down roots, “L.A.'s the place where you can have a wonderful old haunted house and a garden.”

Look out the window. What's he growing out there? “Weeds.”

Kristian Hoffman's CD-release party is at the Derby on July 10. His Web site is www.kris

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