The Negro in question is songwriter Mark Stewart, more commonly known as Stew (but occasionally answering to the name Burt Blackarach); the Problem (which is, of course, no problem at all) is that Stew is culturally his own man. The Los Angeles cult star favors baroque, mildly psychedelic pop along the lines of Robyn Hitchcock, XTC, They Might Be Giants and his hero, Burt Bacharach. Possessed of keen insights and a quirky sense of humor, Stew is one of the best songwriters working today.
The Negro Problem, which has evolved into Stew and a rotating cast of accomplices, recorded its debut, Post-Minstrel Syndrome, a joyous album of off-kilter pure pop, as the original band was disintegrating to a core of Stew and drummer Dave Pagano. Stew possesses a pleasant baritone and a sure sense for melody, and the band keeps pace with creative and playful arrangements. He takes shots at Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn in “Birdcage” and skewers racial expectations in “Doubting Uncle Tom” (giving God a credit for some thunder that made its way onto tape) and “Ghetto Godot.” A cover of “MacArthur Park” adds to the surreal fun, with the mischievous maestro urbanizing the song by replacing “cake” with “crack.”
Stew then hooked up with Heidi Rodewald, formerly of the Pandoras and Wednesday Week, and formed his most crucial artistic partnership. The two have been joined at the hip musically ever since. For Joys and Concerns, Stew, Rodewald and Pagano are joined by a large cast of auxiliary band members, most notably Probyn Gregory of the Wondermints and Lisa Jenio of Candypants. The album is outstanding from start to finish, full of lush pop melodies coupled with generally hilarious lyrics and over-the-top instrumentation, extolling the virtues of absenteeism from work, comic books, chemical companies and confirming what everyone has always suspected about Barbie’s boo, Ken.
Pagano’s departure, along with Stew’s decision to release the next album under his own name, led to speculation that he was retiring the Negro Problem. Not so, he said — he was merely saving the name for his more outrageous work, while more subdued albums would be released as Stew. Still, given the involvement of Rodewald, Gregory and Jenio, Talk Show doesn’t sound that different from prior releases as the Negro Problem. Stew’s songwriting is as sharp as ever: “Re-hab” starts out taking humorous aim at a habitually relapsing drug user and ends with a cynical turn; the gleefully obscene “Into Me” sounds like Stew’s tribute to Jenio’s work with Candypants (she contributes the song’s catchy flute hook); and the anthemic “C’mon Everybody” should be blasted out of the speakers of every convertible in the nation all summer long.
The live, piano-centered The Naked Dutch Painter (and Other Stories) casts Stew as a modern-day cabaret crooner, fronting a small combo with Rodewald and drummer Clem Burke. Smaller and more intimate than Stew’s usual work, this album takes longer to sink in, although the lyrics are laugh-out-loud funny on first listen: “A giant cat sleeps on her bed / It pissed once on my head / What was it fed? / I think cats are stupid.” The songs are all first-rate, but the live setting is a letdown — songs that might sparkle in a studio feel flat here. But that’s the only quibble with an otherwise excellent album.
The Negro Problem — Stew, Rodewald, Gregory, Jenio and others — returned in 2002 with Welcome Black. It’s more of the same wonderfully fractured, insanely catchy pop. The music-industry-skewering “Is This the Single?” would, in fact, have made a wonderful one; elsewhere, Stew pays tribute to the late actor Sebastian Cabot of Family Affair as well as Julian Cope (in “The Teardrop Explodes”).
Despite the humor of “Mind the Noose and Fair Thee Well” and “Kingdom of Drink,” things turn more serious on Something Deeper Than These Changes. But “The Sun I Always Wanted” is forthrightly touching and romantic. Musically, Changes is Stew and Rodewald’s most straightforward album, dispensing with the ornamentation and tricky song structures that characterize much of their work.
In addition to the Negro Problem, Stew and Rodewald also became involved in the LA songwriters collective the Lullabies, with PG-13’s Jeff Merchant and Whitmore Some’tet/Listing Ship’s Michael Whitmore. The quartet’s lone album, the good-natured, mildly psychedelic Lullabies Lullaby, showcases four distinctive talents who mesh well. Rodewald’s twinkling “Received the Message” is the standout track.
The Boot series are limited-edition online-only releases of live tracks and rarities. To pay the bills, Stew also takes commissions for song portraits, as well as social function gigs around LA (as the Cover Problem) — the patrons choose the set list, but the band interprets the songs however they please.
Stew’s literate and tuneful pop managed to catch the ears of Broadway money men who were willing to bet that he had a story worth telling. After an initial off-Broadway run, the autobiographical Passing Strange debuted on the Great White Way in 2008 to critical acclaim and multiple Tony nominations. Tracing the story of a permanent odd man out, Passing Strange follows Stew as he manages to never quite fit in with the African-American Baptist church of his youth, the free sex and drugs culture of Amsterdam or the alternative rock scene of his chosen career. Although it’s of necessity more show-tuney than their usual work, Stew and Rodewald largely succeed in their vow to craft a rock-based Broadway musical which would actually appeal to rock fans as opposed to sending them running for the exits in horror, as such previous “edgy” fare like Rent did. A well-deserved sensation, Passing Strange introduces Stew to an unlikely but enthusiastic new audience while vindicating longtime fans’ faith in him. Who’d have thought that one of the more (perceived) stodgy and conservative music scenes would end up having the least problem knowing how to deal with such an original?