(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #65 – released September 12, 2000)
Track listing: Cavity / She’s Really Daddy Feelgood / Essence / Re-Hab / Into Me / Ordinary Love / Man In a Dress / The Stepford Lives / Bijou / Sister/Mother / C’mon Everybody
Best known for his 2008 Tony Award-winning musical Passing Strange, Stew doesn’t neatly fit into one particular genre or category. Born Mark Stewart in Los Angeles in 1961, he spent his 20s in Amsterdam and Berlin (as the autobiographical Passing Strange documents). By the mid-90s, he had returned to his hometown and formed a band called The Negro Problem—the mere name tips you off to his irreverence and quirkiness and also forever requires one to immediately mention to others that it’s inoffensive because Stew is black. He doesn’t especially sound black, in part because his music gravitates more towards rock and roll and musical theatre than R&B. His gruff baritone can be suitably soulful when needed, but it usually falls somewhere between Van Morrison and Burl Ives. Psych-pop, folk rock, new wave, krautrock, chanson, lounge, bubblegum, prog—all of these (and various permutations of such) are fair game for a Stew song.
Before work on Passing Strange altered his career course, he put out six albums between 1997 and 2003: three under The Negro Problem, the other three as “solo” Stew records (although the distinction between the two monikers is ephemeral at best). TNP’s debut, Post Minstrel Syndrome (another pun!) was rather messy but totally by design, in its more rambunctious moments resembling XTC if they had actually taken Ecstasy. Its follow-up, Joys and Concerns made a far better case for his talent, reeling off a dozen hummable, near-perfect pop miniatures about everything from Monday mornings to a sexually-confused Ken doll. Its sharpened musical focus was the result of him reigning in the band from a sprawling collective to a core trio including bassist Heidi Rodewald, who became his chief songwriting collaborator (and for a time, romantic partner) through Passing Strange and beyond.
Like all but the most obsessive record buyers, I never heard of Stew or TNP until his first solo album, Guest Host (perhaps simply named for how pleasing the words sound out loud?) ended up at number one on Entertainment Weekly music critic Tom Sinclair’s year-end list of favorite albums. At the exact moment the likes of U2, Eminem and Outkast all dominated such lists (okay, PJ Harvey too), it was intriguing to see one headlined by someone so relatively obscure, recording on tiny indie label Smile Records, no less. The following year, I found a cheap used copy of it; as second-hand record store finds go, it’s nearly up there with Apartment Life, which came into my life at roughly the same time.
Given Rodewald’s extensive involvement on Guest Host, the real difference between it and a TNP record obviously has less to do with personnel and more with approach. Whereas those two TNP albums (particularly the debut) often feel like the work of a full band, Guest Host comfortably slips into singer/songwriter territory, favoring stripped-down acoustic arrangements over Big Pop Spectacle set-pieces. Although quieter TNP songs like “Bleed”, “Ken” and “Doubting Uncle Tom” could’ve easily fit on it, none of its tracks would’ve fully worked on those preceding records. Even the most traditionally soulful (“She’s Really Daddy Feelgood”) or poppiest (“C’mon Everybody”) selections exhibit a newfound maturity and intimacy.
“Cavity” opens Guest Host on a bed of lovely Bacharach-esque piano and languorous, breezy major-7th chords. “Sister, there’s a cavity in me / Your sugar causes me such endless pain,” Stew announces in his inimitable bellow; he develops the song’s central metaphor through multiple verses, switching from the song’s title to, in the second verse, “Brother, there’s a comedy in thee.” He introduces various wordplay (“Sugar goes to Cain” instead of “cane”), then finally arrives at a chorus where he repeats the lyric, “I was blind till I ate your sweet thing.” At that moment, we first hear Rodewald’s sweet, wordless backing vocals—the secret weapon in this album’s arsenal. As subsequent verses make use of imagery both religious (name-dropping John the Baptist and Lazarus) and psychedelic (“Nobody even noticed when I floated down Main”), the song builds in complexity while remaining gently, agreeably hazy, its unfussy pop hooks wrapped in understated mystique.
Guest Host retains this vibe throughout its more acoustic, pastoral tunes. “Essence” is nimble folk-pop, ringing with an acoustic 12-string guitar and Stew’s hypnotic reading of the repeated phrase, “And I found her / everywhere,” elongating the “where” until it becomes completely embedded in all the prettiness surrounding it. “Sister/Mother” similarly ekes out considerable beauty in its gentility, with Rodewald adding lush, multi-tracked harmonies all over the song, most effectively in the final thirty seconds when a jumble of repeated phrases take on a mantra-like presence. Coming at the album’s exact mid-point, the swooning “Ordinary Love” reprises all of these qualities, enhancing them with gorgeous strings, but also with such unorthodox touches as Stew’s soulful melodic vamp on the second verse, or that effective pause when the piano drops out and the strings remain lurking in the background.
As lovely and accomplished as these songs are, if the album contained nothing else, then I might not be writing about it here. If Stew’s only ambition was to be the next Bill Withers (or Gordon Lightfoot, perhaps), he could’ve made a perfectly fine career doing so, but he’s far too original to limit himself to that. Thus, when he writes a folk-pop tune, it occasionally comes out like “Re-Hab”. After a Joan Baez-ish classical guitar slowly fades in, he begins relaying a tale of a woman who was “very, very, very optimistic” after she left re-hab for the first, then second, then “third or fourth” time. The verses teem with a bounty of lyrical puns and witty observations (“She traded mainline for online / and she took up web design”) but each one ends on the “very optimistic” lyric, with Stew repeating the word “very” up to eleven times, followed by a chorus of slightly off-key children immediately echoing that lyric—both a gesture of inspired lunacy and something of a sick joke. Still, it dissects the potential futility of rehabilitation with cutting precision, as does Stew’s revelation in the final verse (“When she got out of re-hab for the 22nd time”), wryly noting, “Funny how the maniacs who took the time to sob / seem to not mind a junkie with a well-paying job.”
This slightly warped, or if you’re so inclined, unconventional but utterly sane worldview is a vital part of Stew’s persona. At his most inspired, he takes a recognizable song form and makes it his own. He’s not a parodist or satirist, but much of his work conveys a rather wicked sense of humor filtered through an encyclopedic knowledge of popular music. “Man in a Dress” (as in, “Baby what you need is a…”) plays like a 1930s pop song complete with 4/4 swing rhythm but it’s also put through a scratchy filter that makes it actually sound like a song recorded in the 1930s (and does so not for just the first verse and chorus, but for the whole damn thing.) “Into Me” is musically such anodyne bubblegum pop (dig that fake perky flute!), you’d never expect it to be about consensual, heterosexual sodomy with a manly, unapologetic Stew on the receiving end (the chorus hook: “She got into me!”), but that’s exactly what it is. “The Stepford Lives” aims for full-on baroque psych-pop on the order of The Zombies or The Association, piling on oboes, harmonica and chime-like keyboards while remaining melodic and approachable. Still, it’s not above getting a little weird in the middle-eight, where Rodewald’s heavily filtered, echo-y, unintelligible spoken word interjections vie for space with a few unexpected sci-fi synths.
Still, just as Stew could’ve easily forged an alternate path devoted to Syd Barrett and Frank Zappa-esque freakouts, it’s his obvious love of pop that renders the bulk of his output accessible and inviting. Even when he’s playing the smartypants (dropping lyrical puns like “LaGuardian Angel”) or being deliberately ornate (the quietly beguiling “Bijou”, which could be a Fairport Convention folk hymn narrated by Shel Silverstein), he still stacks his songs with ample hooks. He saves a few of the juiciest ones for Guest Host’s final track, “C’mon Everybody”: exuberant doo-doo-doo’s, a bright-eyed, call-and-response chorus between himself and Rodewald and Technicolor strings that gloriously flare up at just the right moment—they all make for cheery, sunshine-y power pop of the highest order.
We will return to Stew in another few entries—not with Passing Strange, but another record he made prior to it that did nothing less than redefine what an album can all contain.
Up next: Goodbye, 20th Century.