Even only a partially successful experiment deserves credit. Guitarist Eric Hofbauer, recently reviewed as a member of The Blueprint Project , has the guts to put out his first album as a leader as (a) a solo guitar record, (b) a concept album, and (c) an exploration of the concept of pride in American culture. By blending free-style improvisations with songs that have in some cases become part of the American gestalt, Hofbauer has fashioned a record that attempts to get at the nub of American popular culture, American hubris and the concept of conformity in the American collective subconscious.
Lofty ambitions? Unquestionably, and American Vanity only succeeds in part at creating an integrated whole that articulates a shared experience. But that being said, kudos to Hofbauer for having some vanity of his own to try reaching into the listener's life experience, making a statement that may not be completely cogent, but clearly articulates one man's view in a unique and clever fashion.
Stylistically Hofbauer owes a great deal to Derek Bailey and guitarists who have come from that space, including Marc Ducret and at times Marc Ribot. His acoustic guitar tone is thin, and he plays with a percussive style that has some of the quirkiness of Bill Frisell's earlier work without the more lyrical disposition that has always made Frisell so approachable. He uses prepared techniques to create unusual textures, as on "New Coke (part 1)," where it sounds as though he has attached something to the strings to give his already percussive style even more impact. His version of the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale" uses a slide to create a skewed look at this cult tune.
Hofbauer may, however, be a little too clever for his own good. By combining "Greensleeves" and "Moonlight in Vermont" into "Greensleeves in Vermont," and Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" and "Little Drummer Boy" into "Ode to Little Drummer Boy," Hofbauer demonstrates a warped sense of lateral thinking. By performing two tunes essentially at once in both cases, he creates a feeling of unease that retains its satire and sense of the absurd. Equally outrageous is his version of Erik Satie's "Gnoissienne #1," where he manages to secure the melodic beauty of the piece, while at the same time forwarding a more abstruse rhythmic and harmonic sensibility. But the question at the end of all this is: does it work, and is it something one would return to listen to time and again?
The answer is a somewhat conditional yes. Clearly a challenging record, American Vanity demands complete attention at all times. But while there is a certain academic wit, it fails for the most part to touch the soul. It makes its points, but in the final analysis comes across as more of an interesting concept that almost makes it rather than something to return to for repeated listens.