On his second solo album (on hiatus from his band, the Negro Problem), Stew casts a cynical eye on the L.A. environs he's moved through and a loving eye toward those who've traveled with him. His songs are mostly portraits of alienation, loneliness and desperation wrapped in parlor piano, soul and pop accompaniment. The Naked Dutch Painter and Other Songs showcases Stew as he both provokes and sweetens frowns, luring you closer with each listen.
This is cabaret but don't mistake it for lighthearted or cheesy schlock. Stew is the welcomed party guest who scoffs at stereotypes from a corner chair. Most of his songs are self-deprecating, cutting and/or tender, with no illusion of well-being. The finest are catchy "folk songs" they have memorable melodies and paint realistic character portraits.
Stew is at his best when delivering insults: "Giselle has a flower that blooms and ooh such a smell/ Seductively fragrant, imported directly from hell." Heidi Rodewald's angelfire vocals underline and cheekily undermine selected verses when appropriate.
On "I'm Not on a Drug," Stew defends (and then possibly dejects) the sober mope at a party of inebriates. Adam Marsland's piano (a la John Cale on Fragments of a Rainy Season) and Jim Sitterly's theatric violin set the backdrop to Stew's telling lyrics: "And in the toilet there's a boy letting someone thread his needle/ With hair just like a Beatle/ And I'm not one to meddle/ This really is a lovely party/ The guests are erudite and arty/ But I'm not on a drug."
"North Bronx French Marie" is perhaps the sweetest "longing-love" song I've heard in some time, capturing the feeling through realistic details and bluesy Gregg Allman-style piano. "Look what the New York summer's done/ You're in a punk rock T-shirt melting in the sun/ But it's not the heat but your sweet humility/ That shakes my tree, sticks to me, French Marie."
Unfortunately, not every song is a knockout, but the gems are quite appealing. Stew is a romantic, a soulful troubadour, an eyewitness and survivor of contemporary affairs. It's simply refreshing to hear such honest songwriting.