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Stew | s/t (The Telegraph Company)
From Shackleton to Mark E. Smith, I've long been fascinated by adventurers and mavericks. Anyone who has the spunk to follow any crazed singular vision in the face of ridicule or incomprehension is alright by me. As chaff, wheat is very interesting. Mark Stewart, a.k.a Stew, is certainly that. An African-American of portly appearance and having a penchant for women's hats, he grew up in Los Angeles, weaned on prog and punk. Playing in bands from junior-high (that's young to European readers), he eventually headed to New York's East Village to find people to make weird music with. After time in the rock-pop outfit Uptown Atomics and a found-object-only percussion ensemble, The Attack Group, Stew drifted about Europe with a bunch of friends, eventually settling in Berlin. It was here, as The Wonderful Guise (what a name), that they were adopted by an anarchic art squatter community, and spent two years in performance art, and indulging in all of the naughtiness one normally does when young. After passing through the ranks of imPOPisation and Crazy Sound All-Stars back in L.A., he formed his own band. If ever a band was named with guile and acidic wit, then it was The Negro Problem. After two acclaimed albums of idiosyncratic pop, Stew has now stepped out for his solo debut. But, is it the weird music that Stew has always wanted to make? In some ways, yes, but in others it is classical. Like thousands before him, Stew takes the personal and social issues that burn him up, and translates his observations with wry humour just about suppressing the dark heart within. "When she got out of rehab for the very first time / she was very, very, very optimistic / First she bought a set of paints / then she started painted saints /'Coz in Echo Park that passes as artistic" he merrily sings in Rehab, his rich voice slotting somewhere in between Elvis Costello and Richie Havens. These lyrics are typical of the album. There is the obtuse and the direct, and the psychedelic and sad. Whether he intended it as I interpret it or not, "These cavemen border guards were begging me to dance / We delivered a Twist that broke the European Trance" (Ordinary Love) is as astute a comment on what it can still be to be a black American as has been made in any joint from the ghetto. Stew's world is a darkly comic one that intrigues and provokes thought, although you may not be sure of exactly what on first hearing of certain tracks. Musically, there are flourishes of Love and XTC, and the arrangements have urged comparisons with Bacharach and Rundgren. It's largely gentle, quirksome pop with things to make you go 'ooh.' It is worth noting that Stew's influences take in such as Hoagy Carmichael and Noel Coward, as displayed in the mock-Victrola sound of Man In A Dress. Even considering the addition of such quaint, time-spanning talent to Stew's musical palette, I would still struggle to describe this as weird. Actually, this heralds the (solo) arrival of a potentially world-beating songwriting talent. For Stew's future, we should feel very, very, very optimistic.
CWAS #8 - Summer 2001