The Naked Dutch Painter
Stew / 2002
(This review was written in 2002, when the album first came out. Ed.)
The word most often tossed around in describing the singer/songwriter who goes by the single name Stew is the ‘G’ word, for genius, one he tends to eschew, saying it should be reserved for Einstein or Shakespeare or similar higher minds. He’s only writing pop songs, after all. Point taken. Still, in his second solo album, “The Naked Dutch Painter,” his mind appears to fly very high indeed, both in original music, ideas and drug enhanced thought. And if creating melodic, catchy, scrupulously constructed songs that also sport lyrics melding the sensibilities of Cole Porter, Bertolt Brecht, Hal David, symbolist Dylan and lysergic Hendrix –
if doing all of that has to have a single word to describe it, it’s hard to find another word besides Genius that fits.
“The Naked Dutch Painter” is the second album to come out under his name, a partly live album recorded in a cabaret type setting, with studio tracks blended nicely in between. Stew also makes music with a band called The Negro Problem, for whom he writes most of the songs, does most of the singing and arranging, assisted by musical partner, bass player/instrumentalist Heidi Rodewald. The Negro Problem’s songs are poppier, the solo albums more spare. “The Naked Dutch Painter’s” sound is, well... think Jacques Brel writing and playing songs after taking acid. A number of times.
Oh, and as you may have guessed by the name of his other band, Stew isn’t a pale wan Englishman with precious sensibilities. Rather, he’s a somewhat Falstaffian black man in his early 40’s, with large laugh and girth, an urbane sense of humor that can be as sharp as
a knife or as mind-flipping as a zen koan. In one piece of onstage patter, he says, “Don’t you wish there was another picture of Che Guevara? I’m thinking like, it would be one of him at a birthday party with a bunch of nine year olds with milk coming out of his nose ‘cause he just laughed at a joke somebody told...” The man could do some seriously radical stand up.
As far as the songs, melody is the thing. Though he sometimes reworks melodic signatures from his past songs, this only means the sound is always uniquely and unmistakably his. As is his expressive baritone, which can be booming, smooth, motown soulful, gruff, sweet, comic, gentle. The instrumentation here is spare, piano/keyboard driven, (especially in the live material), with Heidi Rodewald’s simpatico bass lines and background vocals, plus occasional organ and melodica filling in the orchestration.
In the album’s title song, the singer relates the unfolding tale of his pursuit of an elusive Bohemian woman who can bring nothing but trouble – “the naked dutch painter in the gallery does not want to love you / she's throwing florescent paint / accompanied by a Mingus tape that she stole from you / it's performance art porno under trippy black light / she left with her professor / he can stretch her canvas tight / and the naked dutch painter in the gallery does not want to love you”
“Giselle,” a cabaret piano romp about another Greenwich village type unattainable woman no one in their right mind would want to actually attain, has these droll Cole Porter cum Lou Reed observations – “terribly rude to waiters / overtips like Sinatra / quite fond of Stiv Bators / she drops acid and goes to the opera...
/ Giselle is the belle of the ball in play / whether spying for the Russians/ or rushing to a plane / headed straight to the stage /
in an east village cellar/ a transgender rendering of Helen Keller / and cast your fish into her wishing well, and hope you live to tell / though many have been the number who rang your bell / none cracked it like Giselle”
“Love is Coming Through the Door” is an immediately catchy pop song with lovely background vocals from Rodewald. It would fit comfortably on a Negro Problem record, a 3 minute dose of pure upbeat Beatle-y pop XTC fans would love. “Reeling” is a gorgeous, lilting, haunted song about losing a love, the single – the single nobody heard on the radio. Why not? If a Coldplay ballad can get heavy rotation...
But then again, Stew isn’t thin and pretty and white. It would be okay if he played hip-hop – then, the image would be correct. And image is everything in music. Right?
So we come to the “N” word, and find the singer deconstructing racial alienation with these marvelously tossed-off lines from “Cold Parade,” where he’s wandering, Hamlet-like, at night, brooding over an unnamed internal dilemma, passes someone, and – “Though I’m a harmless fellow I’ve been known to scare the hell out of a dame / on an empty side street, where the wind and she and I meet for a game / she sees me, and assumes I’m up to no good, and it’s true / but the only no good I’m up to is not knowing what to do / with this thing called my life / so I’m sentenced to the night’s cold parade”
The contrasting images – a woman frightened to death of the singer solely because he is a large black man walking alone down a night street vs. the image of the sophisticated, quite likeable singer we’ve come to know through the album’s songs creates a wrenching glimpse into what it means to live within America’s long festering racial divide. The soul-jarring recollection of a savvy but sensitive man. Yet even within this raw emotional terrain, Stew remains as wryly caustic as Raymond Chandler, as world weary as Bogart, as urbane as Cole Porter - detached, floating sweetly, almost, above it – a slumming angel in an absurd world, seeing it for what
it clearly is.
Whatever it is.
No one else is writing pop music as smart, searing, witty, heartfelt, stone cold cool and brilliantly insightful as this. No one. Give it a ‘G.'