Bentley's Bandstand: Stew & the Negro Problem, Bhi Bhiman, Gene Clark

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Stew & the Negro Problem

Stew & the Negro Problem, Making It. Just when it looked safe to head back into the alternative waters, a furiously creative album like this shows up to remind us how wild rock can be. All bets are off as Stew and his band mate/former lover Heidi Rodewald turn their laser beams on that fractured relationship and the rest of life, making for what will easily be one of the best releases of 2012.

It's well known how Mark "Stew" Stewart's play Passing Strange won a Tony Award, and Spike Lee decided to turn it into a movie. But after he became the toast of the Great White Way, Stew and his band the Negro Problem have jumped back into the deep end to examine the wounds and warfare of a love affair gone sour and how the world can conspire to turn dreams into nightmare, drugs into despair, and even skiing into a combat sport. The lessons learned creating a play have worked their way into these rock songs, adding a dramatic scope that swings from joyous to chilling in a matter of seconds. It's close to magic.

You simply have to hear "Leave Believe," "Curse," "Speed," and "Treat Right" to catch the total vibrancy of what Stew and Rodewald have captured. They're on fire, two polarized magnets pushing each other into way deep waters. When love goes this far south and isn't coming back, there is nothing left to hide. Needless to say, not another pair on the planet could have come up with anything equal right now. There is no way to tell if a romantic breakup is worth tearing the soul in two, but if getting an album like this is the result at least we can share in that love and, yes, that misery. Richard and Linda Thompson phone home.

Bhi Bhiman, Bhiman. The way singer-songwriters keep coming out of the dark makes the present feel something like the early '70s, when there was an endless array that made the music world sparkle. Bhi Bhiman (pronounced Bee Beemen) has the shine, someone who has an eye for the unique and a voice to match. Born to emigrant Sri Lankan parents, he is also distinctly American, writing like a contemporary vagabond with the soul of a street poet. No wonder he's turning heads.

What Bhiman really does best is take listeners on a trip. He can jump into folk, soul, country, and rock at will, and sound at home in each. Maybe that's because he's likely been an outsider and had to move quick to find his spot. However he comes by the eclecticism, it has allowed the music to twist and turn but always sound totally natural. It's like they say: the hardest challenges are often the best teachers.

For lovers of Neal Cassady's ramblings, Jack Keroauc's writing, and John Prine's songs, listen to Bhi Bhiman. He has a time-worn spirit that clearly won't quit, and in a world that too often seems at war with itself maybe that's just what is needed. When it feels like you've got him pegged, here comes that curve ball to keep things lively. Woody Guthrie, who would have turned 100 in July, would surely have asked him to hop aboard.

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Gene Clark, Two Sides to Every Story. It always seemed like Gene Clark got a little bit of the short end of the stick. Here he was, the powerful lead singer of the Byrds, standing center stage pouring out his heart on songs he wrote like "Feel a Whole Lot Better" and banging on a big tambourine when the band's huge first hit "Tambourine Man" got sung by guitarist Jim/Roger McGuinn. What kind of deal is that? Okay, maybe Clark didn't help matters by quitting the band and embarking on a highly erratic solo career, but still, he was the Tambourine Man.

None of this stopped Gene Clark from recording a string of brilliant releases in the '70s, including the highlight "No Other" and "Two Sides to Every Story" from 1977. His voice was a world of its own, strong and fragile at the same time. Clark seemed to have a direct line on a certain melancholy that make the heart turn backflips, sounding like he could use a safe harbor to call home-quick. There are seven originals here, showing the Missouri-born man had lost none of his songwriting gifts, and his cover of "In the Pines" stands as a California country classic.

Even though the album has been out of print for 20 years, true believers always knew someday it would return and claim its spot in the sun. And thankfully, the wait has been worth it. There is rare bonus material, liner notes by Gene Clark biographer John Einarson, and never-before-seen photographs by Ed Caraeff. Gene Clark deserves no less. He is a founding father of modern rock, all the way back to those early days singing like a beautiful Byrd at Ciro's on the Sunset Strip and, yes, beating that tambourine.

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Bill Bentley got his first drum set in 1965 and still has it. He's been a deejay, record store clerk, publicist, writer, concert promoter, record producer and a&r director, sometimes all at once. He's worked at KUT-FM, Austin City Limits, L.A. Weekly, Slash Records, Warner Bros. Records and Vanguard…

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