The Naked Dutch Painter...And Other Songs
is the second 'real'
(as opposed to 'official bootleg') solo album by Stew
(aka Mark Stewart of
The Negro Problem
. Unlike most of his albums, this was recorded basically
live, including between song chatter ("I was thinking... don't you wish there
was another photo of Che Guevara
, like maybe one where he was at a birthday
party with nine year olds and snorting milk out of his nose because someone
just told a joke?").
A lot of the album has the feeling of a tribute to Jacques Brel musically,
and is very of a piece. Much of the album is also very lyrically oriented,
which is a problem when writing a node about it because music is far easier
to write about.
Like all Stew's albums, both with the Negro Problem and otherwise, this is
actually more of a duo album, with the instrumental and vocal contributions
of Stew's partner, Negro Problem bass player Heidi Rodewald, being very
much to the fore.
Single Woman Sitting is a simple portrait of a woman's
apartment, based on just piano and vocal parts, with bass on the chorus.
Not one of the best songs on the album, the best moment is probably the
line 'a giant cat sits on the bed, he pissed once on my head/What was he
fed?/I think cats are stupid'
Giselle is another vignette describing a woman, this time more
a sort of caricature of the 'la belle dame sans merci' archetype that so many
rock songs have been about - a story of an impossibly cool sophisticated woman,
'terribly rude to waiters/overtips like Sinatra/quite fond of Stiv Bators/she
drops acid and goes to the opera'
Reeling is one of the less interesting songs on the album, pretty
much a standard love song, with a mid-tempo, rather dull MOR arrangement. Nice
The Drug Suite is, as its name suggests, a suite made up of three
I Must Have Been High is a standard 'psychedelic' description
of an acid trip, like a thousand other songs in the same vein, but with a beautiful
vocal melody, backed by simple organ parts, with one quite lovely line in the
lyric - 'slipping through my fingers just like angel dust'
I'm Not On A Drug is an almost Tom Lehrer like piano based
song, although with European sounding string parts, that describes a feeling
that I for one know all too well - being the only person at a party who is not
high on one substance or other. This is one of two songs co-written by Art Terry
of The Fairies (all other songs being Stew solo compositions).
The third song, not given a title in Stew's introduction but which may well be
titled Arlington Hill is a description of taking acid before choir practice, and
is simply lovely, with a gorgeous vocal melody in falsetto and a simple harmonium
Love Is Coming Through The Door , the last song on side one (Stew
structures his albums like vinyl albums, and sometimes includes vinyl-only bonus
tracks) is a fairly generic-sounding indie-pop song, the kind of thing The Pixies
might have done at their most commercial, with Beach Boys influenced harmonies.
Just a fun jangle-pop thing.
Cold Parade starts out with a needle coming down on a record groove
The song is another little character vignette, talking about a man who walks around
cities at night, this time in the first person. This is the kind of song that Tom
Waits writes a lot - some of the phrasing is almost like Ray Charles, and the
lyrics portray a character rather than telling a story as such (which is what makes
some of these lyrics so hard to write well about).
North Bronx French Marie is based on a piano part that could almost
come from a 1970s Rod Stewart song, another description of an impossible lover.
It's also the first appearance in this album of the recurring theme in Stew's work,
the patronising person who 'asks if all the negroes are like me'.
The Smile is another gentle, melodic pop song. This song is a very
commercial love song that could easily be a hit, unlike anything Stew has done under
the Negro Problem name. 'I just lost my mind today/it was starting to drive me crazy
anyway'. This is one of several songs on this album about which it is really
impossible to make any intelligent comment, but which is utterly excellent.
The Naked Dutch Painter, the title track, seems to have a distant
relationship to the part of Catch-22 where Yossarian meets a woman who says
'you can buy me a drink but I won't fuck you', 'you can dance with me but I won't
fuck you' and so on. A story song, it tells of a relationship from start to end, with
a woman who first doesn't want to want you, then is in love with you, then moves on.
However, being a Stew song the story is told with far more wit than most songwriters
could ever muster - "The naked Dutch painter in your bed does not want to sleep
with you... she said Gandhi used to sleep between two naked women/but you're not
the Mahatma that's a whole 'nother religion". The definite highlight of the album.
There are two bonus tracks on the album, unmentioned on the sleeve. The first is merely
a few seconds long, just a short fun instrumental. The second, Happy is
the other Art Terry cowrite, not one of the better songs on the album (although
still excellent), just a standard love song with a vaguely soul feel.
As a whole this album is far more mainstream than Stew's other work, with
quite a few love songs, and more radio-friendly arrangements. However while this
makes it harder to point out more unusual features of the music, it also shows that
even without songs about cross-dressing, covers of Macarthur Park with the lyrics
changed, and songs about the joys of having your girlfriend anally penetrate you,
Stew is still one of the best and most interesting songwriters working today, as well as being a great vocalist.
This has been an AfroBaroque Production, mind you.