Making It – Stew And The Negro Problem

Singer/songwriter Mark “Stew” Stewart and bassist/vocalist Heidi Rodewald put out some of my favourite albums of the late 90s and early 2000s, both with their band The Negro Problem (a baroque-pop group whose ex-members have gone on to be, among other things, in Candypants, Cosmo Topper, the Wondermints and the solo artist Carolyn Edwards, all of whom have made wonderful music as well) and under the name of Stew – used for more acoustic, singer-songwriter type records. (This album uses both names, but doesn’t feature many of the musicians on previous Negro Problem albums, and has more of a ‘Stew’ sound than a ‘Negro Problem’ one).

But until today, they hadn’t released a proper album of new material since 2003’s Stew album Something Deeper Than These Changes. To put that in perspective, not only was I single, unemployed and in my twenties when Stew’s last album came out, but I actually went into a shop and bought the CD. An actual shop. Like people in the olden times used to do. So you can imagine how much I’ve been looking forward to this.

This is not to say that they’ve not been busy. A number of ‘official bootlegs’ have come out over the years (and been deleted too quickly for me to buy copies). Stew’s worked as a jobbing songwriter, doing everything from a song for Spongebob Squarepants (Gary Come Home) to one for my wedding (he used to take commissions for songs by email. The song he wrote for our wedding, Now’s Eternity, is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard even without the special context for me). Stew and Heidi wrote a piece for The Asphalt Orchestra, and Stew’s put out a CD of music for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Various tracks have been made downloadable over the internet.

But mostly, they’ve been doing theatre work – in particular, the wonderful Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Passing Strange, for which Stew wrote the book and lyrics and starred in, which Stew and Heidi wrote the music for, and for which Rodewald was musical director. The soundtrack album for this is a de facto Stew album, and one of the very strongest, and a film of the play, directed by Spike Lee, is now available on DVD.

But this has meant that those of us outside the US – or even, for the most part, outside New York, have been deprived of much from them for the best part of a decade now. Until Making It, which is their break-up record.

During the theatre run of Passing Strange, Stew and Heidi’s personal relationship broke up, and they had to keep performing on stage together while their private life was falling apart. Making It is the album that came out of that, and it sounds like the kind of album you expect from a couple who split up before making it.

(In fact, Making It is another album of songs from a theatre show, like Passing Strange, but where that was a full-cast recording, this only features Stew and Heidi on vocals.)

Thus, while the album is as good as anything they’ve done, there’s little of the joy of some of their earlier albums, only concerns. There’s nothing as light or laugh-out-loud funny here as Ken or Man In A Dress or Into Me, and in some ways that’s a shame, as those songs are always the best ‘in’ to a Stew album. Stew is a very subtle lyricist, and for someone like myself who’s more musically oriented it often takes many listens for me to really get what he’s doing in his more serious songs.

Which is not to say there’s no wit in this album – very far from it. But lines like “When did you first realise there was a problem with your relationship?” “When she left me” are a far cry from the playfulness of some of Stew’s earlier work.

At times, in fact, this can almost sound like the Beautiful South, with very pleasant melodies but utterly bitter, nasty lyrics sung as male/female duets – on possibly the best song, The Curse, Stew and Heidi both sing the exact same words, but just the different inflections, from two singers on opposite sides of the event, give very different impressions of what went on. But the music has far more bite than that, and also features things like some of the best saxophone skronking in rock music since the first two Roxy Music albums (on Speed, a song about methamphetamine).

Some of this material will be familiar to fans – Black Men Ski has been circulating on the internet for nearly six years now, and is utterly brilliant (I actually used it as one of the through-lines in my chapter on Mister Miracle in An Incomprehensible Condition, it has so many good lines in it about race and society), while Tomorrow Gone is a remake of a song from the last Stew album, Something Deeper Than These Changes.

I’m not doing a very good job of selling this album, I know – it only came out today, and it takes at least a year for me to get enough of a sense of perspective on a Stew album before I can talk intelligently about it. What I will say is that Stew is one of the great songwriters of all time – up there with Jimmy Webb or Ray Davies or Paul McCartney or Jake Thackray or Arthur Lee. (I’m referring to Stew as the songwriter here, but Heidi may well have contributed – she is an excellent songwriter herself, and has often collaborated with Stew. I don’t have access to the songwriting credits, and don’t want to underrate her contribution. The fact that Stew and Heidi still work together after their split shows that they are better as collaborators than either would be alone).

I have absolutely no doubt that this will be one of my two or three favourite albums of the year, and it’s almost certain to be the very best, once it’s had more chance to grow on me. It’s not the best introduction to Stew’s music – that would still be either Joys And Concerns or Guest Host, both of which are far more immediate, but it’s a subtle, heartbreaking album, but with an underlying touch of hope.

Stew and Heidi are currently working on a musical adaptation of the great graphic novel Stagger Lee, and I can’t imagine a better match for them. I hope a soundtrack or DVD of that will be forthcoming very soon, but I also hope we don’t have to wait another nine years for the next album like this.

But it’s worth the wait.

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2 Responses to Making It – Stew And The Negro Problem

  1. I should definitely check this out once I get a few bucks together. The last Stew album I bought was The Naked Dutch Painter back in 2002 … at the now defunct Tower Records no less.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Meant to reply to this earlier. If the last Stew thing you bought was NDP, I’d suggest getting at least Welcome Black (Negro Problem) and probably also Something Deeper Than These Changes before this – they’re both more varied albums, and also there’s a definite progression in his style.

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