It’s been nearly a decade since the last album by Stew & The Negro Problem, but it’s not as if Stew and long collaborator Heidi Rodewald weren’t busy. The pair created the Off-Broadway/Broadway theatre piece Passing Strange, which was also the subject of a Spike Lee documentary. The Wikipedia entry calls it “a rock musical about a young African American’s artistic journey of self-discovery in Europe, drawing on heavy elements of existentialism, metafictional comedy, and the Künstlerroman” (the entry is worth a hop, skip & jump through the hyperlinks). It’s a work with huge reach, boundless subtleties, and lots of consciously uncomfortable moments, which also applies to Stew & The Negro Problem’s new release, Making It (released January 24 on TNP), an early contender for Best of 2012 lists.
Beginning with a funky fanfare and then quickly dissecting the virtues of stupid little songs versus the clever, broad canvas of theater, Making It delights in peeling back the covers – social, satin and otherwise. Moving with a sophisticated gait somewhere between later period Leonard Cohen and early Steely Dan, the album undresses homegrown masquerades, exposing scars and tear stained faces to the light with a deft flick. Raunchy, laugh out loud funny, and daringly honest, the song cycle is a lovely mixture of discomforting ideas in comforting settings. A ton of murky psychology swirls inside these revealing passages, but delivered with such gorgeous, yin-yang-ing judo that one only realizes their head is hitting the mat well after the knockout blow has firmly landed.
Chinese guys can jump real high
And Germans cook soul food
White boys rap
And hippies nap their dreads up to look rude
Jazz is now suburban
It’s Marsalisly clean
And now we’ve got Viagra
Everyone’s a sex machine
So, black men ski
Haunted by love turning into ghosts, Making It never dumbs down the conversation, tapping culture – high and low – for inspiration in sources as diverse as Samuel Beckett, William Holden in The World of Suzie Wong and Patrick Nagel prints, which here get besmirched with yellow neon cum in an ode to “Speed” – a truly fabulous addition to the canon of drug songs that REALLY grok the perks and pitfalls of recreational chemistry. No topic seems off the table with Stew & The Negro Problem just so long as it’s handled truthfully, no one spared the group’s microscope eye, least of all themselves. While an album apparently born under punches, Making It is the strongest most artfully balanced work yet from a band with no real duds in their wake.