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From The Basement

Eagle Vision

Following a brief airing on the IFC channel, the music series, From The Basement, now becomes available for our personal listening/viewing system via DVD. The concept is pretty simple: Have seventeen artists perform in a windowless studio (minus a fawning audience), and film the proceedings in as interesting a manner as possible. The musicians hold up their side of the bargain, as the music, produced by Nigel Godrich, who works here with former clients Radiohead, Beck and Thom Yorke, shows an exquisite range— from the brash rock of Albert Hammond Jr. to the solo acoustic performances of Damien Rice, Eels, PJ Harvey, and Jose Gonzalez to the delicate strands among the maelstrom produced by Sonic Youth. It’s immediately noticeable that the relaxed pace and the lack of quick edits to infuse the end product with a Red Bull-like energy offers more excitement than the traditional approach to concert documentation. While originally thrilling 20 years ago, a crane shot swooping through a massive arena or stadium audience now elicits yawns of been-there-done-that. In a 21st century online, supra-technological world where phones, webcams, and small digital cameras are capable of recording events, scaling down the proceedings of a concert is not only the antithesis of a bloated method, but with the high-def footage of From The Basement, it brings about the type of intimacy that MTV Unplugged sought but rarely delivered, e.g. PJ Harvey’s use of a metronome on “The Devil” and Damien Rice kneeling as if he’s playing at an ashram. The best examples of this new and distinct approach occur during the DVD’s opening segments, which feature Radiohead, the White Stripes, and Beck. Each act shows that they not only understand the depth of their material but also recognize that a live performance has lasting power with a combination of visual image and presentation. In the case of Radiohead, the cerebral material has the opportunity to breathe during “All I Need” and “Reckoner.” And the inventive, multiple angles give the viewer a fly-on-the-wall perspective. Despite the band being located in the center, there is only one specific instance where a camera appears in the frame. Watching close-up shots throughout, I feel as if I am crashing a private rehearsal and, once discovered, will find myself thrown out. For the White Stripes, it’s a pleasure watching the joyful give-and-take between Jack and Meg White during “Blue Orchid. With Beck (and his band with guest Jamie Lidell on background vocals and percussion), the performance of “Motorcade” comes off as a brilliant piece of musical cinema, collage songwriting, and disciplined musicianship. Like the Radiohead segments, the song carves out a sonic island of its own making where a musician’s role isn’t specific to one instrument. The dazzling mix of music and visuals loses steam after Jamie Lidell’s one man vocal band/beatbox looping display. The musicians remain solid, but it’s almost as if the series creators needed to knock out a day’s work in as little time as possible. It’s surprising for such an imaginative production to utilize traditional concert staging with the band lined up behind a bank of monitors, as if they are facing a crowd. Also, in comparison to the frenzy generated by the opening three segments, the camerawork and editing begins to decline. Were producers afraid of Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and didn’t get the type of detailed footage seen previously? Why did they not show the Super Furry Animals keyboardist when he dominates the beginning of “Let the Wolves Howl at the Moon?” Why was the editing process for Autolux not revealing interaction? On a related note, while the solo acoustic performances are mesmerizing, is it really necessary to have seven of them?

With these missteps, does the final hour-plus of From The Basement rate so horribly that you should be swayed from it? No. Based on the fine performances and interesting conceptual presentation of them, there’s still enough overall good to quash the negatives. Even though the makers hit a creative peak in the beginning, which they unwittingly tarnished later segments, it’s nothing that cannot be overcome with the next batch filmed from the basement.

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