The Negro Problem
Sheer absolute genius power pop from this Los Angeles trio headed by Mark Stewart, who just goes by the name Stew. I cannot begin to encapsulate the many things about this record that make it great, but let me try. Better sit down… this is gonna take a while.
The real theme of the album, and Stew’s whole career, comes from the robot voice at the beginning of the song “Out Now,” when it sings, “I came to get the party started in your mind!” That’s exactly the plan: these songs seem frothy and light the first three times you hear them, and then they explode in your head on the fourth listen when you realize what they’re all about. At first, you think “I’m Sebastian Cabot” is about a homeless dude who thinks he’s, um, Sebastian Cabot; after a while, you realize that it might just be about the amount of self-delusion we all carry with us, and how we’re all just a couple of steps away from sleeping in those same “piss-stained alleyways.” The loose feel of “Lime Green Sweater” has to do with a librarian and a teacher who sometimes meet to smoke a little dope… or else it’s about finding solace in this cold hard world… or maybe I’ve missed it entirely and need to listen to it again. RIGHT NOW.
Stew has a lot to say about music, too. “Father Popcorn” is a mission statement about trying to compose pretty and listenable songs that are still interesting and smart, I think, but mostly it’s all about the vocal riff: “Don’t wanna put you in a pop coma / Don’t wanna put you in a popcorn machine.” He skewers both label policies and self-righteous musicians on “Is This the Single?” And then there’s my favorite: “In Time All Time” is about how Thelonious Monk can save your life. This actually happened to me one summer, so I’m in love with this song from the jump: “It’s like my birthday every day / Cause Mr. Monk is such a ray / Of wisdom and light / He dried all the fears from my eyes.”
It’s lovely, innit? And that’s not even counting little things like name-checking John Mellencamp on “The Teardrop Explodes.” Stew is ballsy enough to say “Col-trane in vain” in one song and then say “If London calls” just a few tracks later. A double Clash secret message hidden in the text! Who does this anymore? No one. That’s why all music sucks except this album.
But whether The Negro Problem is doing country slow-core about hiding from the world in your favorite bar (“The Watering Hole”) or about a menage a trois gone wrong in “Bermuda Love Triangle (The Waterbed),” their songs are sardonic and smart and strangely sympathetic to all his characters. There have only been a handful of songwriters who can pull this off: I have no hesitation in comparing Stew to Ray Davies and Arthur Lee and Andy Partridge and Elvis Costello and Prince.
But you don’t need to even worry about the lyrics at all, because this is pure pop ass-kick all the way. Each song is filled with more hooks than a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar highlight reel; “Astro Sister” is hippie chamber-pop gone mad; “Bermuda Love Triangle” has a fine bouncy funk-lite groove that somehow smacks of “The Pina Colada Song” (although that might just be because it takes that song’s “surprise twist” and runs with it); “Bong Song” (not the worst title I’ve ever heard) is creepy and mysterious in its circular structure and Stew’s portentous mumbling. And when Stew lets his bass player Heidi Rodewald help with the music, she proves to be pretty damned talented her own self: “Out Now” itself is sheer Fifth-Dimension-al bliss, with vocal lines intertwining and separating and sparring with that damned robot voice, and “Watering Hole” is just Lovely and Sad.
And when they can’t think of a great melody themselves, they pull in some of the best riffs from others. I count at least three XTC rips here, a vocal line stolen from Bowie’s “Golden Years” there, and a Zeppelin thing that I can’t really describe. But this isn’t un-originality, it’s hyper-awareness of music, beautiful music, all kinds of music, and Stew just can’t stop himself.
Just like (watch out for corny endings) I can’t stop myself loving this damned record. Please support your local genius and go buy this album. Mark Stewart is one of the best we have, and might end up as one of the best we ever had.
Smile Records: http://www.smilerec.com