Noir writing gets an unexpected literal twist in Charles Willeford’s brilliant and cynical 1955 novel Pick-Up. A relationship involving a couple characters out of an Edward Hopper painting flames up and sputters out with a friction whose cause is only revealed on the final page, where a single adjective identifies the male protagonist as a black man, forcing readers of all tints to immediately consider the novel anew. The SoCal singer-songwriter-bandleader Stew similarly drops large and small racial signifiers throughout his albums, especially his solo releases Guest Host (2000) and The Naked Dutch Painter . . . and Other Songs, which was released earlier this year. In them he works in bits of information that, as in Willeford’s book, transport us temporarily out of our heads and into his ample skin.
Stew tells detailed, nuanced stories conveyed in delightful hooks, whose confectionary nature camouflages deeper truth. The title track recounts an Amsterdam affair in which the titular artist asks the singer “stupid questions about my groovy black ghetto.” The mocking memory comes in the middle of a formally elegant narrative involving sex, drugs, art, rock, and race—the periodic table of Stew’s gimlet-eyed worldview. He ends up unfashionably straight at a coked-up debutantes’ affair in “I’m Not on a Drug,” invited because “they like having me around/I’m here to house the haunt.” And the naive outer-borough junkie girlfriend in “North Bronx Sweet Marie” wonders if “all the Negroes are like” him.
An exotic alternative to Los Angeles’s blandly segregated music scene, Stew is a race man in full ironic body armor: You don’t name your band the Negro Problem and expect to be perceived as the next Lenny Kravitz. “Playing very pretty or very dirty songs is my only way to be punk rock these days,” he mused at Tonic last month, adding, “I can’t play loud anymore.” Hard to imagine a 40-year-old African American with folk and cabaret leanings worrying about coming off as punk enough, but there you go. A high school Two-Toner way back when, Stew necessarily wrestles with contradictions and expectations that limit him and other happen-to-be-black rockers such as ’60s pop experimentalist Arthur Lee, for whose comeback tour Stew’s been opening, and New York’s critically validated Chocolate Genius, who followed him at Tonic.
Like Charles Mingus, Sun Ra, and, I guess, Meatloaf, Stew has a striking physical presence that mirrors his musical ambition and lends heft to his onstage persona. His relatively laid-back solo sets included a charismatic body language reminiscent of the big-man finesse of, say, Jackie Gleason. Watching Stew is as much fun as hearing Stew, and hearing Stew is like being transported back to a not-necessarily-misspent youth of well-read French girls with switchblades, hash-head conceptual-art babes, and perfect two-day acid trips taken while the folks are out of town. The Naked Dutch Painter—like Guest Host, whose cover depicts Stew as a portly, bringing-it-all-black-home Bob Dylan—shuttles between live and studio tracks. “I Must Have Been High,” “I’m Not on a Drug,” and “Arlington Hill (The Baby You Need Jesus Baptist Church Youth Choir Invites You Thus)” comprise “The Drug Suite.” You might even say he’s preoccupied with the subject in a no-bullshit way. “Re-Hab,” with its taunting chorus—”When she got out of re-hab for the third or fourth time, she was very very very very very very very very very very very optimistic”—is both ridiculous and funny because it’s true.
Stew’s “afrobaroque” combo the Negro Problem, on the other hand, records less personal and more flamboyant pop so deliriously tuneful it could raise your cholesterol, and so self-consciously literate and semiotically loaded it should appear on a Brown syllabus. The Negro Problem’s first two records, 1997’s Post Minstrel Syndrome and ’99’s Joys & Concerns, suggested a band steeped in the late-’60s swirl of Frank Zappa, Love, Brian Wilson, and Jimmy Webb. Clever to a fault, they exhibited a rocking rococo aesthetic that often got in the way of the simple pleasures of their nonstop interior rhymes and Sondheim-via-Costello lyrical twists (here comes “a sexy haiku on a bike who knew my face”). Like his solo work, only less personal, the music is site specific. MacArthur Park is both a civic metaphor and tongue-in-cheek touchstone. “Someone left their crack out in the rain,” goes TNP’s version of the Richard Harris hit.
Stew having ruminated primarily on himself over the course of two albums recorded over three years, the Negro Problem returns to electrify some less blatantly autobiographical characters and situations derived from the self-described HNIC’s imagination. Recorded in two weeks, Welcome Black exhibits a giddy sprezzatura missing from its predecessors. For the first time Stew’s earwig choruses and trippy fade-outs float clearly above the garnish. The frustration that led him to dis unjustifiably influential Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn on the first track of the first TNP album, though, remains. “Don’t want to put you in a pop coma,” bellows Stew by way of announcing himself. “Don’t want to put you in a popcorn machine!” Embracing the pop while eschewing the corn in “Is This the Single?” Stew spells it out like Scritti Politti: What’s being on tour like? “It’s a vacation with guitars, not enough beds, and too many bars.” And the working conditions? “They like the circus shit parade, jump through hoops and then get paid.” Subdued to a singer-songer simmer on his solo albums, Stew’s husky, powerful voice and “psychedelic backward merry-go-round” guitars vent full throttle on Welcome Black. And while Stew is undoubtedly the album’s auteur, the lush backing vocals and bass of his partner, Heidi Rodewald, add a willowy sort of punk-rock Joni Mitchell yin to counter Stew’s Falstaffian yang.
Few songwriters bring as much journalistic precision to their writing. The tingle of faux-baroque horns cloaks “Sebastian Cabot,” which details a delusional homeless guy’s piss-stained life. And the melody to “The Teardrop Explodes” may evoke Julian Cope, but the lyrics seem ripped from a satirical style section as Stew croons in a Sly Stone purr, “Mr. Mellencamp find me a hip small town that’s free of them serial rednecks and all, yeah/With a righteous deli, arty bookstore and Chomsky speaking down at the veterans mall, yeah.” The living-color memories of a “Batman cape and the Mentors tape and the hole that’s gapin’ in the bank safe” that drip like rain in “Bong Song” sound like a terrific Tarantino script, while “It’s Coming Out,” which describes a wild night, throbs with electro-kitsch beats and delicious Bones Howe-ish vocal arrangements. Impressionist (if not Dylanesque) imagery oozes freely elsewhere. “Ivory brain symbol windowpane, cut a rug whenever you like,” goes “All Time in Time,” Stew’s elegant lysergic homage to Thelonious Monk. But the album’s narratively linear final tune, “Bermuda Love Triangle (The Waterbed),” is as O. Henry a fabricated tale as the “Naked Dutch Painter” rings autobiographical.
“Coltrane in vain hanging in the rain,” sings Stew near the beginning of Welcome Black. The line alludes, I suppose, to some justified feelings of victimhood amid the pop marketplace. And he calls it like anyone with half a brain sees it. Music this smart and tart, this fussy and funny, will never hit either the segregated-as-ever black or white musical mainstreams in Stew’s lifetime. Nevertheless, his increasingly sophisticated dispatches from outside the game paint the world in considerably more varied hues than we’re used to. Spin him the next time you need to house the haunt. He comes in colors.
The Negro Problem, www.negroproblem.com;
Smile Records, 11410 Aqua Vista Street, Studio City, CA 91604, www.smilerec.com