First Look: Stew & the Negro Problem

 

 

Released next week on
the TNP label, Making It is the culmination of a life in art and music (and a
good bit of theatre, too.)

 

By Michael Toland

When last we heard from Stew, erstwhile leader of
underground indie pop darlings The Negro Problem, he was busy conquering
Broadway with his metafictional musical Passing
Strange
. Several awards (including a Tony for Best Book of a Musical) and
one Spike Lee-directed film later, it seemed the long-struggling songwriter had
finally found his niche in the popular consciousness, along with success his
fans justifiably felt was long deserved.

 

As brilliant as Passing
Strange
is, it seemed to close the book on any further records with Stew’s
much-missed band. Not so, as it happens – he and his stalwart musical partner
Heidi Rodewald merely folded TNP into their current endeavors. Originally commissioned
as a song cycle by St. Ann’s
Warehouse, Making It picks up where Passing Strange left off – not so much
literally, as it doesn’t continue the first musical’s story, but
metaphorically, as it surveys the changes in Stew’s life following artistic and
financial success. That includes the damage done – the romantic relationship between
Stew and Rodewald disintegrated as their professional one thrived, a situation
chronicled with genteel bitterness in “Love is a Cult” (sung, in a smart twist,
by Rodewald herself) and the duet “Leave Believe.” “Love is a great gig/But the
pay is crap” indeed. Meanwhile, “Speed” laments both the use and loss of its
title drug (an ambivalence toward drugs Stew has explored before), while
“Therapy Only Works If You Tell the Truth” rolls its eyes at its narrator’s
emotional reticence. “Treat Right,” “Suzy Wong” and “Pretend” take on the
creative process itself, connecting Making
It
thematically and more explicitly to its predecessor.

 

Musically Stew and Rodewald hit a new peak, deftly mixing
the psychedelic pop that’s TNP’s usual stock-in-trade with the musical
sophistication acquired from writing for Broadway. Lush melodies slow-dance
with quirky textures and vice versa, each musical universe merging with the
other. Stew’s lyrics likewise combine the streamlined approach of stage lyrics
with his love of wordplay; the latter gets the better of him occasionally (cf.
“Black Men Ski”), but otherwise this is his most trenchant storytelling yet. That’s
indicative of Making It as a whole,
frankly, as Stew and the Negro Problem apply every lesson learned in a lifetime
of art and music to a record that feels like coming home after a long, fulfilling
journey.

 

 

 

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