Stew & the Negro Problem / Stew

Making It

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Mark Stewart, aka "Stew," is a Los Angeles-based bandleader, singer, songwriter, and guitarist. He's been in bands since high school, turning out hard to classify music that includes touches of punk, Afro-Baroque rock, rap, jazz, and melodic pop that one critic called "Blackarach". As you might expect from the band's name, Stewart deals with issues of race and the place of African-American artists in the United States with a winning combination of irony and insight. Passing Strange, an autobiographical song cycle he started writing in 2004, became the basis for the musical play of the same name. It ran on Broadway for 165 performances and won a Tony for Best Book Award, as well as the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical. Stewart's collaborator on the piece was bass player Heidi Rodewald, his longtime musical partner and girlfriend. After the success of Passing Strange, Stew and Rodewald ended their romantic relationship, but have continued to work together. Making It tells the story of their breakup, more or less, and is the basis of a new musical they debuted in February of 2010. Like all Stew's work, the album jumps easily from genre to genre, but all the tunes are marked by strong melodies and Stewart's dense, literary lyrics. "Pretend" is a slow, moody ballad that slowly builds to a dramatic, if understated finish. "A stupid little song's gonna make you break down and cry," Rodewald sings, while Stewart likens a relationship to a theatrical production that "goes on too long." His nonchalant dismissal of the relationship slowly falls apart and by the end of the song, he's waling in pain and anger about the stupid little songs that still haunt him after the end of the play/relationship. "Leave Believe" shows the poignant side of the breakup, the moment when lovers stop believing in each other. Stewart and Rodewald deliver the lyric with vocals full of sad resignation as the music morphs from quiet acoustics to a jumble of distorted electronics. "Black Men Ski" uses a quirky marimba melody to take on some of the more obvious racial stereotypes that are still rife in our society -- "Black men …can show you how cool looks, but cannot tell you how it feels." Rodewald gives the female perspective on the pair's breakup on several tunes. "Love Is a Cult" marries a lush, pop melody to images that describe the up-and-down arc of a relationship with flowery clichés and self-flagellating despair. On "Therapy Only Works If You Tell the Truth," she tells a male friend to try being honest with his next girlfriend. After a barrage of electric guitar noise that could be an aural representation of the male ego melting down, Stewart and Rodewald engage in a bit of mock therapy. She asks: "When did you first notice there was a problem in the relationship." After several defensive attempts to avoid the question, he finally answers: "When she left." It's a great punch line, but it's delivered with a straight face and underlines one of the basic problems of many love affairs.

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