Editor's Note: Our first copy of Guest Host was lost in the mail some time ago. While this review is no longer particularly timely, we encourage you to check the disc out -- it's well worth it.
While I would imagine most of Splendid's readers have
yet to be introduced to Stew, I'm sure he won't hold it
against you. Hailing from LA (the rough part, as opposed to the "gimme-gimme a record contract for a
lot of money part"), Stew is the frontman for the
ironically named power pop group The Negro Problem. This is his first solo offering.
Guest Host is an enjoyable guitar-strum rant through
Beach Boys-meet-Marvin-Gaye pop land, where imposing
bass lines, smooth vocals and incisive lyrics come to roost.
Heidie Rodewald, also of The Negro
Problem, helps complete the task by adding acoustic
guitar, piano, bass, oboe, synth, harmonica,
background vocals and arrangements, all of which mesh in harmonious synchronicity.
One of the great things about singer/songwriter
projects is the increased emphasis placed on lyrics, as well as
the opportunity to view the musician from a
different -- and, in most instances, intimate --
perspective. This stripped-down approach allows the
listener to get acquainted with Stew and opens the
gate for eclectic, witty references that run the gamut of pop-culture.
Listeners are treated to allusions to obscure songwriter David
Ackles, French star Jacques Brel and jazz subversive
As a composer, Stew creates songs that range from
subtle narratives to pop confections, devising harmonies
that recall the massive talents of Stephen
Sondheim, Jimmy Webb and Arthur Lee. One particularly outstanding track
is "Rehab", a darkly humorous tune describing a
woman's optimism following -- you guessed it -- rehab. The pretty acoustic
guitar and bass arrangements dawdle along unthreateningly, but add their own musical
sting to the final lyrical twist, "When
she got out of rehab for the 22nd time." In "Cavity",
Stew unleashes a voice previously restricted to
unrestrained gospel choirs, sliding it over it a
succinct piano melody and lush backing vocals. "Cavity"
offers an interesting -- but not disjointed -- contrast with the more structured,
lyrically excellent "She's really daddy feelgood".
After receiving a fawning review from Rolling Stone, landing
the top spot on Entertainment Weekly's albums
of the year list and scoring gigs backing Live and
the Counting Crows, Stew's profile has been raised significantly. It's a safe
bet that we
haven't heard the last of Stew or his soulful blend of pop.