Guest Host (Telegraph)
I first heard this the way it should be heard -- in traffic, pinioned between Hollywood and home during the first week of the MTA strike, with the smog haze and Sunset projected across my windshield. Stew, head of L.A.s joyfully tuneful the Negro Problem, has used his first solo album to lay a backhanded slap and sloppy kiss on his hometown, and the results are road rage--soothing indeed.
The tone of Stews tribute is often acerbic, but the man loves the citys catastrophes as much as he does its radiant successes. So off he floats past Fifth and Alvarado, doffing a goofy hat at the Northridge quake, poking fun at Echo Park art (where painting saints passes for artistic) and the Weekly (natch), thumbing his guitar at the people and places he clearly claims as his own. Melody for melody, Guest Host may be stronger than either TNP album. The mood is more intimate, despite occasional appropriately gaudy orchestration and production flourishes (sampled record crackle, oboes and cellos, etc.). The best jokes are more pointed (try the kiddie-chorus sing-along in Re-hab), the tunes warmer and more welcoming. Sometimes, as on the faux-nightclub slink of Bijou, Stew settles for easy sarcasm rather than satire. Sometimes production details swamp the pleasantly direct pop melodies. Sometimes I wish Stew would back off the clever wordplay long enough to let me love the music rather than be impressed by it.
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Yet so specific is Guest Hosts imagery, so rich its sense of history and humor, so calamitous its circus-clown grace, it confirms that L.A. might be more than a trick of the Santa Ana winds, a smog-mirage, a movie set. In Stews hands, its a bona fide place after all.