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Gnarls Barkley - From the Basement
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Gnarls Barkley - From the Basement

Filmed with extraordinary detail and care, Gnarls Barkley delivers an introspective performance on Nigel Godrich’s “From the Basement” series and, in the process, gives a second life to the smash “Crazy.”

The Soul of a Timeless Song

4 Min Read

The second coming of “Crazy” happened in a basement studio in London, during a shoot for producer Nigel Godrich’s beloved performance series “From the Basement.”

It was several years after the song leapt from Gnarls Barkley’s debut, “St. Elsewhere,” to become one of the few inescapable (and genuinely global) hits of the new millennium. The duo — singer CeeLo Green and keyboardist-producer Brian Burton, better known as Danger Mouse — were on the promotional circuit for a second album, “The Odd Couple” (2008).

Sometimes those publicity appearances encourage a degree of disengagement, a kind of performative auto-pilot: Artists complain that doing a set in a TV studio, especially when there’s no live audience, can feel like a hollow exercise.

Not this time. Wearing dark jackets, ties and shades, the duo — with help from guitarist-keyboardist Josh Klinghoffer, who among other things had the important job of activating the loop pedal to start the drum tracks — set up in a casual jam-session configuration, facing each other. There was no host asking questions, no audience. As camera operators crawled around them to capture (and hold) lingering close-ups, Gnarls Barkley calmly went to work, pursuing vast, open-ended questions about the cultivation and preservation of the soul.

What followed: Twelve minutes of spellbinding musical introspection, a swirl of church-organ chords and terse genre-blind beats, pitch-bent cries from the guitar and amen cadences rising from sweat-stained vintage keyboards. All of it designed to cradle the expressive, effortlessly dramatic singing of CeeLo Green — the postmodern master of existential soul distress, the laughter-prone trickster whose verses sound bubbly while expressing heavy concepts. Most contemporary singers beg you to pay attention to lyrics that amount to sweet nothings; Green’s breezy nonchalance does the opposite, distracting from the deeper levels where the anguish hides.

That’s one reason the single version of “Crazy” is so magnetic: It’s a song about the thin line between believing in yourself and outright delusion, wrapped up in the bliss-seeking escapism of electronic dance-pop.

The musicians tread lightly as they process Green’s every rueful sigh and tossed-off gesture.

The “From the Basement” version strips all the flashy stuff away. All of it. This interpretation sits in a somber march rhythm that’s significantly slower than the original — on his first entrance, Green actually struggles a bit with the timing. The verses move at a processional crawl; the cartoonish spaghetti-western ornamentation of the original gives way to a haunting hymnlike minimalism. The musicians tread lightly as they process Green’s every rueful sigh and tossed-off gesture. One emotional apex comes in the second verse, when the camera zooms onto Green’s face as he re-enacts a conversation. “Ha! Bless your soul,” he sings in a moment of coy close-up emotion, shaking his head as he continues. “You really think you’re in control?”

In a sense, this performance is all about control — it’s in the Gnarls Barkley DNA and Green’s devastatingly restrained phrasing. And it’s in the direction and editing approach of Godrich’s team. The producer of classic records by Radiohead, Beck and others has said he drew inspiration from the esteemed BBC concert show “The Old Grey Whistle Test.” As a result, we don’t simply encounter Green singing at point-blank range momentarily; the director stays there long enough to follow the emotional ripples as they travel around the room, and to show some of Green’s singing mechanics — the way his mouth moves to massage and vibrate a note, the way his entire being becomes part of the music. This brave sustained gaze is an ideal way to encounter Green: It’s impossible to look away during his wrenching “Crazy” ad-libs or his beseeching lost-in-the-wilderness interpretation of “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul.” 

This “From the Basement” performance returned “Crazy” to active duty as an earworm. Demand for the slower version eventually led to the release of a digital single, and the song briefly returned to the pop charts.

That doesn’t happen often. But then, neither do performances like this one. In the middle of “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul,” Green takes a plaintive moment to wonder “How will my story be told?” The attention to detail that Godrich and his team brought to this glimpse of Gnarls Barkley suggests that Green didn’t have to worry. On this day anyway, his story was told with great care.

Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983. He is the author of The New York Times bestseller “1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die” (Workman Publishing) and a contributor to other books, including “The New Rolling Stone Album Guide” and “The Final Four of Everything.” Moon served as music critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1988-2004, and has been a regular contributor to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered since 1995. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GQ, The New York Times, Jazz Times, NPR Music, Blender, Spin, Vibe, Harp and other publications. Among his awards are two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Music Journalism awards. Trained as a saxophonist at the University of Miami school of music, Moon’s music credits include stints on cruise ships and several tours with the Maynard Ferguson orchestra. He returned to active music-making in 2012 in the Philadelphia area. Moon recently launched Echo Locator, a newsletter devoted to nearly vanished sounds, spirits, ideas and recordings.

Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983. He is the author of The New York Times bestseller “1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die” (Workman Publishing) and a contributor to other books, including “The New Rolling Stone Album Guide” and “The Final Four of Everything.” Moon served as music critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1988-2004, and has been a regular contributor to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered since 1995. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GQ, The New York Times, Jazz Times, NPR Music, Blender, Spin, Vibe, Harp and other publications. Among his awards are two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Music Journalism awards. Trained as a saxophonist at the University of Miami school of music, Moon’s music credits include stints on cruise ships and several tours with the Maynard Ferguson orchestra. He returned to active music-making in 2012 in the Philadelphia area. Moon recently launched Echo Locator, a newsletter devoted to nearly vanished sounds, spirits, ideas and recordings.

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