Graded on a Curve:
Stew and the Negro Problem, Making It

Stew and the Negro Problem seem to take delight in throwing roadblocks in their own way. First there’s that name, which many will find off-putting despite the fact that Mark Stewart (aka Stew) is an African American. And it’s not as if he’s making the kind of provocative and often offensive music that bands with controversial names (e.g., Rapeman, Anal Cunt) specialized in producing.

Indeed, The Negro Problem’s LPs are rated G. But Stewart further complicates his life by creating the albums he does, which are all over the place, making it difficult to pigeonhole him into a genre. Soundtrack music, power pop, folkie pastorals (complete with flute) about William Holden, speedy tunes with straight-up hard bop interludes, songs that time travel from ska-lite to New Orleans jazz, other songs that sound like they were recorded in 1972—and we’re only talking about one LP, 2011’s Making It.

But it’s that eclectic approach that makes Stew—who has recorded solo albums alongside LPs with The Negro Problem—so great. Take the instrumental title cut. It’s a groovy blast of early seventies soundtrack music, featuring one happening organ by Joe McGinty and a great—and I mean great—saxophone played by Mike McGinnis. There’s only one band out there that might attempt something similar, and that’s Lambchop. “Pretend” opens as a slow guitar-based tune, until McGinnis returns to play some top-notch saxophone skronk.

He’s not Albert Ayler, mind you, but he’s damned good, and he goes on until Stew and his long-time collaborator and former girlfriend Heidi Rodewald (the LP deals loosely with their break-up) take their turns on vocals about a “Stupid little song that’ll make you break down and cry/Stupid little song did you ever stop and wonder why?” “Stupid little songs all stay true,” sings Stew, before Rodewald comes in with the rest of the band to bring the song to a fantastic climax complete with one very cool guitar played by Jon Spurney.

“Black Men Ski” is a humorous piece of social commentary, with Stew singing about said black men going to ski resorts (“the belly of the beast”) where they get “taken for men they don’t resemble in the least.” It boasts lots of synthesizer noise and throws lots of racial assumptions out the window (Asians can jump!), and in general marches along for your amusement, unless you’re some kind of racist or sumpin. “Curse” is a very pretty tune about a traumatic break-up, and boasts the inspirational lyrics, “And now you don’t need a new girlfriend/What you need is a nurse/We won’t flag you a taxi/We’ll just hail you a hearse” before exploding into some great horn squonk followed by Rodewald, who repeats the first verse. Great stuff, this one, especially with its wonderful climax.

“Speed” opens an a slow note, with just Stew and Spurney’s repetitive electric guitar riff, Stew tossing off lines like, “Mary stayed up two weeks straight working on one song/That one ended up lasting 30 seconds long.” Then the song kicks into gear, with some really brilliant keyboards by McGinty and Stew and Rodewald singing like their lives depend on it. Then it slows and the whole thing happens all over again, and I love the fast section so, so much. Then a whole horn army comes in, to play probably the best jazz I’ve ever heard on a pop record. EVER! And I swear if you don’t like this swan song to the lures of methamphetamine you’re dead! Mort! Kaput! Six saxophone feet under! “Love Is a Cult” is a kitschy Carpenters-style number that comes complete with a flute solo by McGinnis and is sung by Rodewald, and you can take it seriously until you listen to the cynicism in the words, e.g., “Love is a great gig/But the pay is crap.” And the ending, which builds and builds, is niiiiiice.

“Suzy Wong,” Stew’s paean to William Holden’s 1960 film The World of Suzie Wong, opens with McGinnis’s’ flute and Spurney’s acoustic guitar, then flutters around you like a butterfly before Stew goes into specifics. “Don’t judge him by his desires,” sings Stew, “The puppet wires are strong.” It’s a pretty little ditty, in which Stew concludes, “There ain’t no Suzy Wong.” Stew throws a lot of soul into his vocals, but they’re more Richard Harris than James Brown, which gives his LPs a slightly dissociative bent. Meanwhile, “Tomorrow Gone” is half lounge funk, half New Orleans jazz, and includes lots of rad horns and one frenetic guitar solo by Spurney. Spurney’s playing throughout is great, and reminds me of the tone Steely Dan used to look for in their guitarists. Meanwhile the horns are tres polite, as Stew sings with Rodewald backing him up, the melody ambling along until Stew shouts, “Hey!” and the Dixieland horns take over.

“Leave Believe” is a soulful and beautiful ballad about the loss of belief, with first Stew, and then Rodewald, singing to sparse guitar accompaniment. “It took a very long time to see,” sings Rodewald, and then the band comes in, Spurney’s guitar distorted and great. The Negro Problem throws everything into this one, and it will make you throw your arms into the air and shout hallelujah. Meanwhile, “Therapy Only Works If You Tell the Truth” is a great power pop tune, with Rodewald and Stew singing, a freaked out but too short guitar interlude, and a slow instrumental passage on which Spurney shines like a pair of newly polished shoes. It ends in feedback, followed by some conversation, before fading out and bringing us to the LP’s final cut, “Treat Right,” which opens with some bright organ by McGinty and Spurney tossing off notes before Stew and Rodewald sing, “This is the treat right song/We may not agree but we see what went wrong.” Then the horns come in, adding color to the palette, and while it’s probably my least favorite song on the LP, it has its virtues.

Stew and the Negro Problem do so many things so well that I’m flabbergasted they’re not better known to a mass audience. Stew has certainly received critical plaudits, especially for his solo albums, but this guy and this band are producing great music, music everyone should hear. Why, he deserves praise galore for his use of jazz—which makes Steely Dan’s dabblings sound like the easy-listening jazz lite fops they are—alone. “Songs are dumb but they don’t lie,” sings Stew, before contradicting himself by name-dropping (implausibly) the great Irish author Samuel Beckett, and it’s touches like this one (I love Samuel Beckett!) that keep me coming back for more. Mark Stewart is both a bohemian with a knack for writing powerful and beautiful tunes and a black man producing great rock in a white man’s world, and if you don’t believe me a couple of listens to “Pretend” will convince you, as will the rest of the songs on this profound and remarkable LP.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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