Stew, “The Naked Dutch Painter… and Other Songs”

(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”:


Stew, “Guest Host”

(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.