Originally posted on Blogcritics 3-9-09
After a brief run on the Internet in 2006, famed producer Nigel Godrich presented a brand new performance-based program, in 2007 in the U.K. and in 2008 in the U.S., showcasing recording artists you're likely very much familiar with, as well as rising stars in the alternative folk and rock scenes from across the globe. The series, named From The Basement, included Godrich-produced rockers Radiohead and Beck, as well as Sonic Youth, White Stripes, Albert Hammond Jr., Jamie Lidell, Jose Gonzalez, PJ Harvey, Autolux, and plenty of others.
The first full week of March saw a large sample of these live performances, 29 tracks at over two hours worth released on standard DVD, titled after the series name, From The Basement (Eagle Rock Entertainment). If you've been into what has been tagged as "alternative" music for any length of time, this is a must-have DVD, no doubt about it, especially for Radiohead fans, as two performances by the band and two more by frontman Thom Yorke solo are featured here.
Speaking of which, Radiohead kicks the DVD off on the right foot with the moody and powerful In Rainbows standouts "All I Need" and "Reckoner," both of which see musician and producer extraordinaire Jonny Greenwood doing double duty on the keys and xylophone on the former track while playing keyboards and percussion on the latter.
The White Stripes comes next with a screeching kick ass version of "Blue Orchid," which led right into a rare Captain Beefheart cover from the band's early days entitled "Party of Special Things To Do." The lyrically confrontational and musically raw rock of "Red Rain" sees the unconventional mix of innocently sassy drummer Meg White doubling on bells (which sound like a xylophone) and Jack White on slide guitar.
Talk about unconventional, Beck, his DJ and other hired hands and percussionists bring two ultra cool performances to this DVD. Beck's rapping skills are still severely underrated after all these years and his spaghetti western pop rap ditty "Cell Phone's Dead" is a prime example of both his musical genius and creativity.
One unexpected surprise hit of the DVD (for me, anyway) is the one-man powerhouse from England known as Jamie Lidell and his performance of "The City." Part a cappella, part live experimentalism, here's an alternative soul singer and former techno producer who records with beat boxing skills live one track at a time, sings over them (using two mics at times), reverses the recordings, instantly repeats them via short loops, and creates live vocal harmonies, all with awe-inspiring ease. It's one of those performances that has to be seen more than heard to fully appreciate.
Elsewhere, young blonde English folk singer/songwriter/guitarist Laura Marling has a ways to go before being compared to the likes of Joni Mitchell, but for an 18-year-old, her performance of "Your Only Doll (Dora)," though not all that expressive or long at least displayed her potential to be a future star on the folk scene. Also, The Shins' two performances, including hit "Phantom Limb" weren't all that inspiring or impressive either.
Other strong performances include two by Sonic Youth, the Kim Gordon-led "The Sprawl" and the Thurston Moore-guided "Pink Steam," both of which feature touring second bass player Mark Ibold, formerly of Pavement. It's not clear what Ibold adds to the overall sound, but at least the eternally boy-ish-looking 40-something bassist makes the band look younger.
Autolux, a bit Sonic Youth-ish themselves and English rocker Jarvis Cocker (of Pulp) bring high energy and fat, distorted bass lines to the program in their one-off performances, while veteran singer/musician PJ Harvey brings her eerie, operatic voice and stage props (including a robotic, moving metronome) to the basement studio for a couple of solo numbers on guitar and piano.
Late into this compilation, Sweden's acoustic guitar star Jose Gonzalez effortlessly mesmerizes the viewer as he sings over complex, rolling melodies on two cuts, including "Abram."
Thom Yorke ends the DVD just as it started, with pitch perfect renditions of In Rainbows tunes, including "Down Is The New Up" and "Videotape," the latter of which is especially gorgeous on a (literally) naked wooden piano - the top of it was removed so Yorke (as well as PJ Harvey and Mark Everett, aka The Eels) can see the inside structure as he plays and experiences the full sound of the instrument. Unlike Harvey though, the Radiohead frontman uses his feet to keep time, no metronome needed.
Speaking of body movements, one of the things that makes Yorke so respected throughout the music world is that no matter what he does, your favorite number or something less, the man puts every ounce of his frame into what he's doing. The excellent close-up camera shots captures this in essence, almost allowing you to peer into his very soul as he performs.
To put it simply, From The Basement is like a big slice of modern indie and alternative music heaven, showcasing many of the best and best known performers, along with a newbie (Laura Marling). It is a heavily British and European artist-based compilation, but artists like the White Stripes, Albert Hammond Jr, Sonic Youth, Autolux and a couple others represent American talent here very well. The American contributions are noticeably louder than their overseas peers too; many of the foreign acts turn in powerful and intimate solo performances instead (Yorke, Harvey, Gonzalez, Lidell) or catchy full band melodic numbers (Radiohead, Super Furry Animals), the exception being Cocker's soaring post-punk rocker "Fat Children."
The best part of the From The Basement series is that it is 100% artist-based, which is to say there are no hosts, fans in attendance or big production surrounding the performances - an ironic fact given that Godrich is the show's producer - and instead just a straightforward program featuring musicians coming into a professional recording studio environment in a basement and playing their hearts out, one by one. It's not a novel concept, but a refreshing one.
Seeing this group of performances on DVD makes me curious to see what IFC has in store for its future From The Basement programs. Whenever that is, if it has anywhere near the quality of artists that appeared on its initial series and DVD, it will continue to be one series very much worth watching (and TIVO-ing), especially with Nigel Godrich as producer. In the meantime, From The Basement the DVD is a very worthy buy, particularly for all those who are fans of many of the elite alternative music acts of our time.
Full track list is below.
1) All I Need
1) Blue Orchid / Party Of Special Things To Do
2) Red Rain
2) Cell Phone's Dead
1) The City
1) Turn On Me
2) Phantom Limb
1) Fat Children
1) A Lady Of A Certain Age
1) Your Only Doll (Dora)
1) The Sprawl
2) Pink Stream
1) Millicent Don't Blame Yourself
2) It's A Motherfucker
ALBERT HAMMOND JR
1) Everyone Gets A Star
2) Postal Blowfish
1) The Piano
2) The Devil
SUPER FURRY ANIMALS
1) Let The Wolves Howl At The Moon
2) The Gift That Keeps On Giving
2) Blower's Daughter
1) Let It Be Broken
2) How Low
1) Down Is The New Up