Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

Stew, Rodewald and Various Artists: Passing Strange [Ghostlight, 2008]
Always impressed and never bowled over by the auteur's albums, I only caught his musical after this original cast recording hit me like no Stew or Negro Problem CD ever had. Two clues emerge in the guitared-up "Prologue": first "If you're ever not sure what I'm all about/Just ask the song," then "Since it's my job I'ma set the scene." Music as surrogate self, music as daily occupation--if Stew never shone as brightly as he had to on his own records, his craftsman's approach to his lifework was why. But these limitations feed into this amusing, moving, sophisticated, less than profound Broadway show about racial identity and art for art's sake. Stew the narrator expresses himself more subtly and forcefully than he ever did as mere persona--the distance frees him up. Similarly, two songs that satirize themselves, the Afro-hardcore "Sole Brother" and the Euro-anarchist "What's Inside Is Just a Lie," pack straightforward power. But in the end, there's only one standard: "Keys," a celebration of the occasional kindnesses of the bohemia where this 47-year-old African-American has spent his adult life. A-