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Stew: The Naked Dutch Painter... And Other Songs



Album: The Naked Dutch Painter... And Other Songs
Label: Smile

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There must be something about West Coast weather that causes eccentric studio-rat troubadours to sprout. The Negro Problem founder Mark Stewart (professionally known as Stew) rides the same waves as Brian Wilson, Arthur Lee, Mark Oliver Everett, and Elliott Smith: Stew likes subtle melodies, colorful lyrics, and inventive arrangements, both in his adventurous full-band recordings and in his mellower solo work. His third solo album, The Naked Dutch Painter... And Other Songs, purposefully avoids production frippery, having been recorded live in L.A. clubs with minimal studio enhancement. The resulting spare, spacious sound shifts emphasis to the quality of the songs, and of Stew's voice, which sounds at once booming and fragile. The Naked Dutch Painter opens with two cabaret-style character sketches, "Single Woman Sitting" and "Giselle," which rely on plunking piano keys and Stew crooning involved lyrics like, "Coffee cups in the sink / litter box, litter box / slip and brassiere / I guess it's clear / that a woman lives here." For "Giselle," Stew's piano is joined by guitar, snare drums, and a light wash of organ. That same instrumental expansiveness pumps blood into '70s easy-listening singer-songwriter moments like "Reeling" and "North Bronx French Marie," bringing a light touch of funk and soulful rhythmic swing to the pop confessional. Stew's also willing to reach far, as on The Naked Dutch Painter's centerpiece, the nine-and-a-half-minute "Drug Suite." Over the course of three connected songs, he ranges from the airy and angelic to the jaunty and theatrical, while singing about varied states of altered consciousness. It's a bewitching composition, as poetic, forthright, and full of wit and beauty as Stew gets. The misleading simplicity of The Naked Dutch Painter reveals itself as exactitude on repeat listens, its cozy sound nearly obscuring the fact that it's just as often about moments of disquiet.