Round and Shiny: Art Lovers

ImageBefore Stew — like Cher, Madonna and Charo, he goes by one name — was a Tony Award-winning playwright and darling of pop critics at the New Yorker, he was the frontman for an L.A. band called the Negro Problem. The NAACP once planned to picket an appearance by the group, until it learned Stew was African-American.

I first saw TNP at a grungy San Fernando Valley club in 1994. Their sound, insofar as it could be described, was a kaleidoscopic mélange of Frank Zappa's absurdist prog-jazz-rock, the Zombies' densely mysterious pop, art-punk bands like Magazine and the candied soul of the Fifth Dimension; the outfit featured a keyboardist who did double duty on accordion.

Stew played guitar and sang melodic, kinetic, witty songs about race, gender, politics and culture that simply blew away everything else on the scene. They had titles like "Heidegger in Harlem," "Ghetto Godot" and "Doubting Uncle Tom."

Over hundreds of gigs and a handful of records, the Negro Problem's lineup shifted. The most important change was the addition of bassist-singer Heidi Rodewald, who became Stew's creative and romantic partner.

Rodewald also participated in his acclaimed and more "grown up" solo recordings, and the pair worked for years developing the stage musical Passing Strange, which would turn them into bona fide Broadway babies and end up as a Spike Lee film. Before this groundbreaking show about blackness hit the Great White Way, however, their relationship hit the skids.

Stew has since noted in interviews that Making It, the new album billed to Stew & the Negro Problem, is his exorcism of that breakup — and that he originally planned to make it without Rodewald. But their artistic union outlived their couplehood, and he persuaded her to help. The resulting "song cycle" (as it was originally conceived and performed) is mostly a moving, funny postmortem on shattered love in the shadow of Broadway marquees.

 

The album proceeds like a well-armored patient in analysis, artfully fending off probing questions until the defenses crumble.

"Making It" signifies several things at once — commercial success, carnal congress and creative work among them. And a primary theme is that big, important theater pieces don't always provide the succor we require; "I need a stupid song to pull me through," Stew sings in "Pretend."

This pair couldn't craft a stupid song if their lives depended on it, but several of the best tracks on Making It strip things down to the emotional basics. Among the most affecting are "Love Is a Cult," in which Rodewald croons, "I'm tired of waiting around for nothing to change," "Leave Believe," and the finale, "Treat Right." (That said, the inspired rhyme scheme of the majestic "Curse," the best song yet written about suffering the cold shoulder, is a supreme example of über-cleverness put to good emotional use.)

The album proceeds like a well-armored patient in analysis, artfully fending off probing questions ("Black Men Ski," "Speed") until the defenses crumble — a dynamic fully acted out by the song "Therapy Only Works if You Tell the Truth."

In "Treat Right," Stew and Rodewald twine their voices together in a sad, warm clinch of harmony; "We may not agree," they sing, "but we see what went wrong." It's deeply bittersweet, acknowledging their mutual responsibility for the disintegration of their love but finding a prosaic formula to sustain their bond: "You've got to treat me right from this moment on."

Making It may not inspire much faith in the endurance of relationships, but it shows that "art love," as Stew described it to Fresh Air interviewer Terry Gross, can offer its own kind of redemption — and that songs, stupid or not, are key to our survival.