Review by Tim Simard
Assigned by Adrian Evans-Burke
What’s in a name? Those were among my first thoughts about The Negro Problem, an L.A.-based mid-1990s band. Right off the bat, I knew that front man Mark Stewart (better known as Stew to his friends and the world) wanted to grab attention. The Negro Problem gets you noticed, whether one sees the name on the marquee of a club or because the club won’t allow the band’s name in lights for fear that someone might be offended. Either way, they’re talking about you.
Popping in their debut album, “Post Minstrel Syndrome” from 1997, I half expected to hear songs of social justice with calls-to-action, or preachy rock sermons written to make me Aware. The Negro Problem—fronted by an African American guitarist/singer (Stew) backed by three white musicians (Jill Meschke Blair, keyboards; Gwynne Kahn, bass; Charles Pagano, drums)—is as diverse as any rock band you’ll find. They’re hardly the first (Love, the Chamber Brothers, and Booker T. and the MGs spring directly to mind), but the band’s racial and gender make-up suited them perfectly to Make A Statement.
And they certainly do, but not in the expected way. Straying away from the obvious topical song approach, the Negro Problem instead embraces clever, irreverent, sometimes subtle, and oftentimes amusing lyrics to take the listener through Stew’s societal views via a sound reminiscent of mid-1960s southern California. This album pretty much screams L.A. The production reminds you of the Wall of Sound, the jingle-jangle Byrds, the unique ear of Brian Wilson, and so on. All with a sound reminiscent of every 1990s pop band you can think of. From the first notes of “Birdcage,” the album’s opener, “Post Minstrel Syndrome” wants you to feel nostalgia while grooving to the guitar and voice of Stew.
With the band’s sound firmly in place, Stew makes his statement about race in 1990s America with songs like “The Meaning of Everything,” “Ghetto Godot,” and “2 Inch Dick Mobile.” The lyrics are snarky and damn funny at times, even if the songs don’t quite reach their sonic potential (the excellent “The Meaning of Everything” bucks that trend).
“Post Minstrel Syndrome” isn’t all cultural impudence. Some songs breeze along just fine, such as “If You Would Have Traveled on the 93 North Today” and “Omegaville” Others are as instantly forgettable as most mid-90s pop, and you can’t help but notice that Stew sounds really similar to John Popper at times (“Buzzing” and “Great Leap Forward”). Others make you revisit them almost immediately, like time-changing “Miss Jones,” where I can hear a “Good Vibrations” inspiration at work.
Of course, I haven’t mentioned the song this album is best known for—the cover of the Jimmy Webb-penned, Richard Harris hit “MacArthur Park.” And it’s a lot of fun, with the gritty organ opening and Stew’s hilarious lyrical change (“Someone left the crack out in the rain…”). The band takes this overblown song and gets you to dance to it. Something I bet would have amused old Richard.
The album ends on a loud and jammy note with “Witch,” a song that reminds one of the Doors noodling around on the beginning of “The End,” but quickly changes approach and ends the album with some serious rock. It’s the perfect ending to a surprisingly good album, except that there’s more. A four-song coda that sounds like a mix of demos and bonus tracks officially ends the CD. Not essential, but it doesn’t take anything away from “Post Minstrel Syndrome” as a whole.
So what happened to this band? Well, it appears the original formation split almost immediately following this album’s release. Stew kept the name going for two more albums, then broke off on his own with some success. Apparently he’s most famous for penning a popular SpongeBob song. Go figure!
The Negro Problem certainly didn’t hit the heights they thought they might achieve. In the end, they are also-rans in the pantheon of 1990s music. The band’s sound and lyrics certainly betray their lack of success, but maybe the band’s name was, for lack of a better description, problematic? Whatever the case, this is an obscure gem well worth checking out.