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Guest Host
The Telegraph Company

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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 Nina Simone.

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.

-- John Wolfe
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