Innovative producer and engineer Nigel Godrich is at the helm of From the Basement, which was originally conceived as an online show but eventually found funding (and distribution) through international television networks. The series is part of a growing group of stripped-down music programs that reject expressive music video techniques and instead focus on the process of playing and recording.
This is a curious trend, as sometimes the rebellion protests too much, resulting in a product every bit as provincial as its ideological opponent, but with an added level of pretense. See for instance the new series A>D>D, which uses the everything-old-is-new-again trend of analog acquisition in order to achieve lo-fi credibility in a highly self-conscious fashion.
From the Basement, shot at Maida Vale Studios, succeeds where several other programs fail, because it is true to a mission statement that foregrounds the artists’ work above all else. As Godrich writes on the series’ website, “these performances might be seen as the truest representation of the state of their artists work, captured in a way that lets their talents speak without the interference of presenters, logos or audiences.” There is something refreshing in such a direct approach that is content to be unspectacular on a formal level for the benefit of the participants (and by extension, the audience).
Godrich is primarily known for his impeccable mixing and/or production work on many arguably classic albums such as Beck’s Mutations, Pavement’s Terror Twilight and most significantly, almost the entire Radiohead discography. Those credentials create high expectations, and his participation as producer of this disc’s material does not disappoint. Live recordings can be unpredictable and sometimes unforgiving, but every artist here is well served by the care with which the performances are recorded and mixed.
In the hands of such a singular producer, the song selections (taken from longer sessions) surely represent the best these takes could have sounded. Some acts benefit from this rare opportunity more than others, but none of them fails in any sizeable way.
This DVD is most useful as a sort of State of the Rock Union 2009. Much is written and spoken about modern buzz bands’ fleeting opportunities, shrinking windows of relevance, and little potential to make a living from a career in music. The phrase ‘buzz band’ is itself a bit anachronistic, but faithfully refers to the increasingly important external factors that propel an artist or group to visibility.
Today, the arc from buzz to buzz kill is shorter than ever. So to consider the collection of artists assembled for this compilation, perhaps the most extraordinary impression is the longevity of their careers. More than half of the acts (Radiohead, The White Stripes, Beck, The Shins, Jarvis Cocker, Neil Hannon, Sonic Youth, Eels, PJ Harvey, Super Furry Animals) have been releasing music for at least ten years. Some of them are going strong after 15 or 20 years.
One supposes this group of veterans could be used as evidence for either side of the industry-is-dead debate: Some would say these artists have distinctively found a way to stay artistically and commercially relevant, while others would argue that they are only still here because they met enough success during the waning years of the old model.
Yet another perspective is that they are all simply so excellent that they will continue to rise to the top, regardless of how fragmented, crowded and confused the field becomes. There is perhaps an amount of truth in each of these claims, and as such it is no coincidence that vets turn in the most memorable moments of this DVD.
Radiohead, the band most closely associated with Godrich, uses From the Basement to display the flexibility present on last year’s In Rainbows. Though many of the band’s previous moves—weighty concept albums, sonic left turns, and the existential doom-umentary Meeting People is Easy—have contributed to its image as a dark and moody outfit, the past few years have revealed a sense of looseness and ease that was always present but often dormant. The band’s auxiliary percussion-heavy rendition of the literally groovy “Reckoner” is a pleasure to watch.
The White Stripes live up to their reputation as a two-person powerhouse. Jack White’s voice is like a Jimi Hendrix string-bend and Meg White’s oft-maligned drumming is more than sufficient for the band’s brand of blues-rock. Her extremely sexy posturing here is irresistible and surprising in the wake of a stage fright spell that now seems long gone.
Jarvis Cocker’s welcome return (here with “Fat Children”) reminds the viewer how sorely he was missed as both a front man and a songwriter. Finally, Sonic Youth performs “The Sprawl” and “Pink Steam”, framing the band’s unmatched career as experimenters of the finest order.
The one major drawback of this disc is its failure to include a more diverse set of artists and musical traditions. This is a shortcoming that is especially evident in the new-school acts that do appear in the collection. Damien Rice, Autolux and José González represent the new generation, and unfortunately they fit the profile drawn so accurately in Sasha Frere-Jones’ 2007 New Yorker essay “A Paler Shade of White”. Jones writes, “How did rhythm come to be discounted in an art form that was born as a celebration of rhythm’s possibilities?”
The bland and/or diffident tone of modern indie rock makes the music more fit for a vacuum than a live performance. This isn’t to say there is no room for calmer rock music, but the cliché of the cabin-bound songsmith has caught the attention of tastemakers, and buzz follows.
For every White Stripes, who do honor rhythm (and the legacy of black musicians) as foundational material for rock ‘n’ roll, there are seemingly a dozen younger acts that have whitewashed that quality out of existence. From the Basement also falters when it relies on Jamie Lidell and the increasingly joyless Beck to bring the funk. Their contributions, though well intentioned, only highlight the peculiar “paleness” of it all.