(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #70 – released April 2, 2002)
Track listing: Single Woman Sitting / Giselle / Reeling / The Drug Suite / Love is Coming Through the Door / The Cold Parade / North Bronx French Marie / The Smile / The Naked Dutch Painter
In an era of digital file sharing and streaming, there’s a popular misconception that the album’s days are numbered. Granted, sales have dwindled to an extent where, just a few years ago (before they amended their rules to include streaming counts), a title could top the Billboard 200 on sales of only 40,000 physical units. Fortunately, the album is far from dead; it’s not really even on life support. Just look at how Beyonce’s Lemonade dominated cultural conversations in 2016 (or Adele’s 25 the year before.) At this writing, print and web media is agog with think pieces on the 20th anniversary of Radiohead’s OK Computer spurred on partially by a new, expanded edition released to commemorate it. Although an album is no longer the be-all, end-all way of consuming music (as it was in the immediate pre-iTunes age when labels deliberately withheld releasing popular songs as singles, giving you no other choice but to buy the whole album to own the song), people still listen to, write about and occasionally buy them, while most artists (save the occasional outlier like Robyn) still release their music in this format.
An album usually consists of an average of ten songs spanning 30-45 minutes in deference to what could fit on its original physical format, the long-playing vinyl record (or LP). Naturally, one can place more than ten songs on an album if they’re shorter (They Might Be Giants averaged 20 on each of their first five LPs) and less if they’re longer (Afro-beat legend Fela Kuti often crafted songs long enough to fill one entire LP side.) An overwhelming majority of these songs are new studio recordings, although in addition to that type of album, there are also live albums, remix albums, cover albums (consisting of nothing but new versions of songs recorded and made famous by other artists) and for those who just want the hits or a career-spanning overview, the compilation album—arguably the primary format that has suffered considerably in the download era, as iTunes and streaming services allow (and encourage) anyone to compile a playlist of their own choosing.
Going back to studio albums, they tend to feature anything from an assortment of hits plus filler to overarching concepts unified by themes or stringing along a number of tunes to form a medley. By the early part of this century, every possible permutation as to what a studio album could contain seemingly had been attempted, from allowing an aural motif to run through all of its songs to beginning every song title with the same letter to even compiling a dozen different cover versions of the same song. Around this time, singer/songwriter/The Negro Problem leader Stew followed up his solo debut, Guest Host with an album that, while not as audaciously conceptual as those examples mentioned above, defied easy categorization. Much of it was recorded live onstage, complete with spoken introductions and snippets of between-song patter. Still, it’s not exclusively a live album, for a few tracks feature noticeable studio overdubs and at least three were likely entirely recorded in a studio.
With this deliberate blend of settings, The Naked Dutch Painter… and Other Songs comes off as a true hybrid. I don’t know why Stew and his bassist/co-songwriter Heidi Rodewald decided to construct an album this way—they could’ve simply made the whole thing strictly a live record full of new, previously unreleased songs. However, once you get past the novelty of hearing what’s essentially a live album with a few studio diversions, you’re left with a collection that features a singer/songwriter at his creative peak. The live bits highlight his strengths as a bandleader/performer/personality, while the studio bits manage not to detract from any of this (in some cases, they even enhance it.)
“Single Woman Sitting” begins not with an onstage introduction, but a studio trick: its circular piano melody gradually fading in for nearly thirty seconds. Then, Stew begins singing about the titular figure who lives in “a very nice one room flat,” which has “paintings, photos, some mementos, a bookshelf and a cat.” As the song proceeds, his descriptiveness and wordplay turns droll and playful (“coffee cups in the sink, letterbox, litter box”) but it’s just (admittedly) clever window dressing to his fervent declarations of “I’m in love, now I’m in love, love, love,” in the chorus, alongside his heavenly “ahhh’s.” He sounds so intimate, so close-you-can-almost-literally-touch-it that it’s practically no surprise to hear the audience’s applause at the end, confirming that this is indeed a live recording.
The applause recedes and he delivers a spoken introduction to “Giselle” which he describes as “a song about girls who carry switchblades and are very well-read.” It retains the cabaret vibe of the previous track but with a full band and a jauntier, Kurt Weill-like two-step beat (not entirely dissimilar to the vibe of our last entry.) If anything, “Giselle” outdoes “Single Woman Sitting” in the clever wordplay sweepstakes, rattling off such tongue-tied feats of fancy as, “Whether spying for the Russians / or rushing to a plane” and “A transgender rendering of Helen Keller (!)” or pun-laced observations on the order of “Her rabbit won’t pose for Hef,” delivered with an exaggerated aplomb. Throughout, his one-of-a-kind wit is gleaned through strings of phrases no one else could likely come up with, the most immortal of them being, “Terribly rude to waiters, / Overtips like Sinatra, / Quite fond of Stiv Bators, / She drops acid and goes to the opera.”
And yet, one not need look further than the next track to see Stew as more than just a jokey raconteur. “Reeling”, with its mid-tempo, soul-funk strut stands in direct contrast to the previous songs—it’s like a mash-up of early ’70s Al Green or Marvin Gaye with The Beatles’ “Something”. Driven by an eight-note piano hook that ascends then descends (the only piano on the LP played by Stew himself), it’s an utterly awed, genuine declaration of love and lust. When he sings, “I’m dumbstruck ’cause it’s real / really, really real,” you believe he could nearly hold his own with Green and Gaye. His empathy, wonder and ease are all infectious.
It also clears the slate for “The Drug Suite”, a nine-and-a-half minute, three-part mini-medley that now sort of reads as a dry run for his eventual Broadway musical Passing Strange—indeed, two-thirds of it would end up in that production. The dreamy, blissful remembrance of “I Must’ve Been High”, gently sweetened by Rodewald’s backing vocals gives way to the more sprightly-paced, violin-accented, Noel Coward-esque “I’m Not on a Drug” (about being the only sober one at a party because you’re the host) which in turn leads into the blissfully stoned “Arlington Hill”. Fun, if somewhat arch, the Suite’s saving grace is the (assumedly) personal details Stew layers in throughout, like the fact that “Arlington Hill” is about getting high for the first time in a VW bug parked at the titular place or the “coked up debutantes” and the “nine foot, two inch bong” the narrator host of “I’m Not on a Drug” must reckon with.
“The Drug Suite” concludes not with audience applause, but Stew counting off the album’s first full-bore studio recording, “Love is Coming Through The Door”. Positively gleaming with keyboards and propulsive drums (the latter courtesy of Blondie’s Clem Burke), it’s retro-anthemic sunshine pop with Rodewald’s “Look out, looook, look out” on the chorus the album’s most indelible earworm. Again, it’s conceivable that a live version of this song would’ve passed muster here, but the rich, expansive production is well-suited for a song so impassioned and life-affirming; the sonic disparity between it and the other songs ends up seeming irrelevant.
“The Cold Parade” returns Stew and co. to the live stage. Following an extended spoken intro delivered over a slow, somewhat pensive instrumental backing, the song’s almost childlike melody uneasily co-exists with the lyrics where, in the first person, Stew constructs a character sketch about “a harmless fellow” who “has been known to scare the hell out of a dame.” Drawing on themes of loneliness, anonymity, social awkwardness and existential dread, it’s far from a typical pop song, but Stew sells it, the pleading in his vocal leading the listener to believe he easily could be this man he’s describing, even if he isn’t.
Both “North Bronx French Marie” and “The Smile” opt for a sunnier palette and the more amused persona that is Stew’s forte. The former is another lustful ode to a particular gal that pushes all his buttons (or, in this case, “Shakes my tree / sticks to me / French Marie”), laden with soulful piano, melodica and such psychedelic imagery as “You’re a punk rock t-shirt melting in the sun.” The latter could be a love song specifically for Rodewald (the two were romantic partners at this time) with its plaintive but loving chorus that merely repeats the phrase, “I see the smile on your face.” However, there’s more to each song than what initially meets the ear. After laughing at him and stealing his cigarettes, “North Bronx French Marie” suddenly, pointedly asks Stew if “all the negroes are like” him, somewhat altering his idyllic illusion of her, while in the verses of “The Smile” he attempts to “crawl into the window of your mind” and admits, “I just lost my mind today / it was starting to drive me crazy anyway.”
After a too-good-not-to-include snippet of stage patter where Stew ruminates on the multiple meanings of the word “garnish” (he approves it in the culinary sense, but not when it concerns his wages), the album returns to the studio for its title track and very best track. Over a delicate acoustic guitar riff and spiced with gentle “la, la, la’s”, Stew delivers an epic story song possibly gleaned from his younger days as an ex-pat in Europe, beginning with the attention-grabbing lyric, “The naked Dutch painter in the kitchen does not want to fuck you.” As usual, he depicts a desirable but unattainable figure with more than a trace of self-deprecation (“She says, ‘Gandhi used to sleep between two naked women,’ / but you’re not the Mahatma / that’s a whole ‘nother religion.”) As with any great songwriter, the details arrive fast and are deeply felt, rhyming “coffee amaretto” with “groovy black ghetto”, mentioning such talismans as a “Mingus tape” and a “freezing pay phone”, making astute observations about the painter’s professor who “can stretch her canvas tight.” Not only is the whole thing ridiculously catchy, it actually takes a poignant turn at the end when the titular figure is finally ready to admit her love for the narrator, only to discover “another naked dutch painter sitting in the kitchen” at his side.
If anything dates The Naked Dutch Painter… and Other Songs, it has nothing to do with the music. Of the six albums he put out under either The Negro Problem or his own name between 1997 and 2003, four have unlisted bonus tracks—a product of the CD era where artists occasionally did this simply because they could. Here, five minutes of silence separates the end of the title track from something iTunes identifies as, ahem, “The Proverbial Hidden Track”, which amounts to less than a minute of a carnival-esque instrumental (at least apart from Stew noting, “Now, here’s the part I like.”) Fortunately, the other hidden track, a studio recording called “Very Happy”, has much more sustenance in that it’s an actual song, and a good one at that. Kind of a sequel to “The Smile”, only with a fun, Rockford Files-like synth hook, it’s the type of pop gem Stew could rattle off in his sleep at this part of his career. The chorus goes, “Now, I know that / I didn’t know that / this could make you very happy,” and it’s both as specific and universal as any classic Beatles song.
After putting out another Negro Problem album later that year (the awesomely-titled Welcome Black), Stew and Rodewald spent the next six developing and expanding Passing Strange, from a tiny stage at Joe’s Pub to the Belasco Theatre on Broadway. I would never begrudge him this success, but it has come at a cost of putting out more albums as good as The Naked Dutch Painter. In the near decade since Passing Strange, he’s only released a soundtrack to a Shakespeare on the Sound production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream (2009) and one real album, Making It (2012), which disappointingly didn’t live up to its title. Although no longer a couple, he and Rodewald still regularly collaborate, most recently on a stage show about James Baldwin and a one-off single about Trump (as bitingly catchy as anything they’ve ever done.) I suppose when you have such a rich (if obscure) back catalog and a Tony Award, you have nothing left to prove. But I hold out hope that he still has another great, genre-defying album in him.
Up next: “Why don’t you shake a tail for peace and love?”
“The Naked Dutch Painter”: