This is music television at its very best. Shot in a plain mid-sized recording studio with noted producer/engineer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead et al) supervising the audio, From the Basement offers musicians a unique video platform. There is no stage, no announcer, no visible audience—from the sound of the applause at the end of most songs it’s probably just a handful of friends and hangers-on. “The whole emphasis of the show,” says the program’s Website, “is about being artist-friendly and making our bands as comfortable as possible so that they can give great performances without the usual agony of TV promo, which everyone has to do but no one seems to enjoy. TV world is a pretty hostile environment for your average musician to have to walk into and bare his soul on cue.”
This initial compilation of songs from the show’s first season presents a tremendous range of edgy rock and folk-ish musicians, most of whom I was familiar with, but several were new to me. And they do all seem relaxed and focused, virtually unaware of the cameras in the room capturing these startlingly intimate performances. This is “up close and personal” in a way that very few music documentaries are; it’s almost like we’re eavesdropping on the coolest rehearsals imaginable—more than two hours worth. In most cases, we get to see two songs by each artist, and it certainly is not the sing-your-hit-in-three-minutes approach of American late-night TV (Letterman, Leno, etc.). These people take their time and do what they need to do to put each song across, without fear that the network is about to break away for a commercial the second the song is over.
These sort of multi-act affairs are always going to be somewhat hit-or-miss depending on personal taste, but I found I really dug nearly every track here. Okay, after all these years I’m still not sure I really care for the White Stripes—c’mon, hire a bass player…for me!—but it’s hard not to be knocked out by Jack White’s bizarre, possessed persona and his always interesting guitar pyrotechnics that seem to be part Jimmy Page and part Robert Johnson. Radiohead is in that category of bands I’ve been trying to like (in part because nearly every person I know and respect, adores them) and their two songs here (“All I Need” and “Reckoner”) take me further down that road. Their mysterious chemistry is quite evident, and singer Thom Yorke is strangely magnetic. (Yorke also closes the disc with a pair of solo pieces.) Beck’s two numbers—“Motorcade” and “Cellphone’s Dead”—are amazing showcases for his odd oeuvre, which mixes rap, cool rhythms, great harmonies, and freaky electronics. I’ve liked almost everything I’ve ever heard from rockin’ but always-melodic group The Shins, and their songs here are among my favorites on the set. And I have to give a special shout-out to Sonic Youth, who give a good name to the word “noise” and always manage to create something that is both dreamy and urgent in their inimitable way. I’d love to see a whole video of just them. I’d would also now pay to go see Super Furry Animals, who have a loose, simple charm that reminds me a little of both The Band and (on the first number) Elvis Costello, though they are certainly more on the “pop” side.
Several of the strongest performances are solo shots. P.J. Harvey is another quirky singer who’s an acquired taste, but her second song here, called “The Devil,” is a real revelation. Dressed in what looks like a 19th century dress, she sits down at an open upright piano, flips on a metronome, and then sings in an occasionally unearthly wail; stunning! Damien Rice, whose first album in the U.S. a few years back found a sizable audience, is mesmerizing, playing on his knees, and singing beautifully—“Delicate” is an amazing, soul-baring performance. I also really enjoyed Jamie Lidell (who is new to me), so soulful on a tune called “In the City,” and Neil Hannon’s lyrically interesting “A Lady of a Certain Age.” Jose Gonzalez is another singer-songwriter (and fine guitarist) to watch—he reminds me a little of Alexi Murdoch, which is a good thing.
Looking for some adventure in your life? You can find plenty of it here. From the Basement is a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours…
Recordings produced by Nigel Godrich. Directors: David Barnard, Sophie Muller, Quin Williams.
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