Stew & the Negro Problem – Making It

January 01, 1970



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
. 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
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
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
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


is a Cult,” “Leave Believe,” “Pretend” MICHAEL TOLAND

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