Webster's: Stew: v.t. To cook slowly in a closed vessel
This definition speaks volumes about Stew, who emerged as one of Los Angeles's greatest musical hopes at the tail end of the 20th Century. His music both as the architect of The Negro Problem and as a solo artist is a sonic shotgun wedding of stylistic influences which include the likes of Arthur Lee, Jaques Brel, Jimmy Webb and Nina Simone.
Stew's resume reads like a skewed & stewed Antonioni film script. Los Angeles born & bred, he founded an arty/pop/punk band in high school. Moving to New York, he joined an all-percussion band/art project, The Attack Group, where his brief was to find any object on the street and clean it off well enough to bang along with the rest of the groups' 'found' instruments. From there, he lived throughout Europe for five years, supporting himself in a variety of experimental music and performance art projects. By the mid-90's, it was time to head back to LA where he formed The Negro Problem. Their brilliant and critically acclaimed 1997 debut Post Minstrel Syndrome put the band in the center of the local pop scene, brought them a modicum of national attention and most importantly - remains one of the finest debut albums of the period. Filled with a combination of joyous, ebullient pop buoyancy, excellent musicianship and Stew's surrealistic vision, it has become the Freak Out of the 1990's. The band toured country & county in support of the album, winning new converts at each gig. TNP's 1999 Joys And Concerns has a more expansive and refined feel, without sacrificing Stew's ingrained eclecticism. According to Los Angeles New Times, " . . .the ultimate effectiveness of Joys . . . is rooted in the fusing of madness with directness and a heavy heart." Rolling Stone, Pulse, Spin and The New York Press were just a few publications that embraced the album as a solution to what's become a rather colorless pop music landscape.
Temporarily taking leave of his Negro Problem, Stew released no, unleashed - his solo debut, Guest Host (The Telegraph Company) in September 2000 . A true singer/songwriter album, dealing with love and the politics of the present tense. Entertainment Weekly called it "Plangent and perverse" and said it "floats in the same rarefied aesthetic ether than envelops the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and Love's Forever Changes." It was also chosen as 'Album Of The Year" by EW's Tom Sinclair.
Stew's new album, The Naked Dutch Painter, is at once a live and studio album (on most of the songs, most of the time). The basic tracks were recorded during a residency at The Knitting Factory in L.A. during July of 2001. These live tracks are buttressed by some immaculate studio overdubs, which do nothing to take away from their live intimacy. On the contrary, it all sounds like one band playing one instrument: the song. According to producer (and co-founder of Dramarama) Chris Carter, "The idea behind this album was that I had seen Stew many times live, and a lot of his allure is that he has this great onstage personality that adds to the songs. I really wanted to have that come through on this record, so you can get the best of both "Stew worlds"."
According to Stew himself, "What we wanted to do was to get away from the 'live album syndrome', which is really the "fake" live album syndrome, with overdubs designed to make you think its all live. We figured, 'let's do a hybrid'. Instead of doctoring up a live record to make it "sound" live, we decided to doctor up a live record to make it sound like a studio album, and walk that line between the two. It was definitely uncharted territory for all of us. "
What the listeners get is the sweat, energy and urgency of a live cabaret performance oddly complimented by the sonic splendor of the studio and its attendant reverbs & echo chambers. On the Knitting Factory tracks Stew's vocals a mixed bag of plaintive croons, maniacal yells, suggestive whispers and arch Noel Cowardisms were sung from top to bottom in front of a live audience. And a lot of the warts have been kept in for honesty's sake. Says Stew "I could have easily gone in and doctored them up. But I was more into keeping some of the dirt in and then seeing what happened when we'd put a nice echo on it. There are more mistakes and screw-ups on this record than any I've made before, and I'm proud of every single one of 'em."
Stew fulfilled a life long dream by having Blondie's Clem Burke play drums on two of the albums poppier gems, "The Smile" and "Love is Coming Through The Door." "When I found out he was a fan some years ago I felt like I'd won the lottery. Having him play on the record was like living in an extended daydream leftover from my high school days."
Heidi Rodewald, who co-produced Guest Host and this record, is an equal partner in the Stew enterprise. Although she wears many hats, multi-instrumentalist, co-arranger, chief backing vocalist, perhaps her most important job is, as Stew puts it, "The song's bodyguard. I tend to treat tunes badly I subject them to all manner of torture while she tends to step in between me and the song and say 'Hey, look what you're doingleave it aloneits suffered enough'. She also has the crucial knack of recognizing a bad musical idea 24 hrs before anybody else does. Sometimes in the heat of the moment you can really think that a contra-bassoon going through a fuzzbox will really give the song that needed lift. She's got a sensitive bullshit detector. "
The songs on Naked Dutch Painter coalesce as one performance, from the cabaret bounce of "Single Woman" & "Giselle" to the burnished, knee-deep soul groove of "Reelin'", which sounds like Sly Stone sitting in during a session for "Abbey Road". The moody character sketch of "Cold Parade" is chilling. The gorgeous, three-part "Drug Suite" stretches the boundaries of what is commonly known as a "drug song" and is one of the album's centerpieces.
This whole record is an example of an adult artist speaking to an adult audience. "What I'm trying to do," continues Stew "is simply create a kind of entertainment that I would enjoy if I walked into a club. Something mature and funny. Smart and goofy. Edgy without being ugly. With plenty of sex and drug references for good measure, nice melodies, foul language, Che Guevara jokes, and you know, just everyday life as I see it. For me, my records are just hieroglyphs, cave drawings. It's like you leave examples of how you lived, so that other people can look say, 'Wow, I recognize that" or 'Geez, what was he on?' So, while it ain't exactly "If I Had A Hammer," my stuff is just folk music, to me anyway its just that the folks in question are a little weird."