Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sherlock: Season 2 (BBC ONE, Sundays 8:30pm)

Mad, Mad Men

“Girlfriends…not really my area.” (Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock)

That so-called area Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) makes reference to in the above quote is his obsessive passion for solving crimes. Season one (overall just three 90-minute episodes) last year provided us with a good measure of the man and crime-fighter wrapped up within his gaunt frame. Based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved detective, this quirky series returned on New Year’s Day with an astonishing high quality premiere: Sherlock meeting—and being outshone—by his match, the enchantress Irene Adler (Lara Pulver) in A Scandal in Belgravia.

Season one also set the premise of how Holmes met and roped Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) into his obsession with mysterious deaths. As this is a contemporary crime drama, some embellishment was needed to modernize the characters and the writers Stephen Moffat & Mark Gatiss have done this seamlessly. It helps that they’re hopeless Doyle-lovers themselves, so much so that they’ve sat out two different setbacks just to bring the series to fruition and broaden the chummy relationship between the two heroes.

Such dedication translates easily unto the screen as the detail to specifics and literary smarts is absorbing. Cumberbatch’s lips move so swiftly when going over crime details that it’s unnerving to the point of silent awe. Freeman as Watson is reinvented here as a wounded war vet, returning to London in need of accommodation and, more direly, distraction. His relationship with Holmes—treated as something slightly more than brotherly love—morphs so far this season into a perfect fit. Like any crime-fighting duo, they can interpret each other’s eccentricities and, given the oddball Holmes naturally is, this makes for the wittiest writing I’ve come across on television since Frasier.

A Scandal in Belgravia also proves how much meatier the characters have become in a relatively short space of time. They’re vastly more humorous now: Holmes ends up at Buckingham Palace in white sheets to help his brother, Mycroft (a smarmy Gatiss) retrieve damning pictures of a minor royal member from Adler’s phone. The banter is arresting as Holmes gets cracking only to be visually cuckolded by Adler’s first encounter with him. She appears in the door frame nude and, for once, Holmes’ sixth sense is unable to scan someone. He is spellbound while she remains one step ahead of him except for one last brilliant trick by Holmes that dooms her to grudging defeat. That doesn’t prove to be the end of her though as Sherlock realizes that as she had earlier saved his life (after a brutish encounter with Moriarity) he should return the favor and that he does in a stunning bit of heroism.

As if taking its cue from the recent Sherlock Holmes: Games of Shadows, this season has more pop culture references juxtaposed to Victorian-inspired themes than before. In episode two (The Hounds of Baskerville) there is a stunning sequence where Holmes is involved with visual memory and he ends up in a three second Elvis Prestley impersonation. It’s an implausible twist but one so wittily delivered that it’s not hard to see why critics have waxed lyrical about the show and why it won the BAFTA for best drama TV series (2011).

Cumberbatch’s mad hatter look and confidence is a huge part why it succeeds also. His brand of whimsy matches up nicely with anything Robert Downy Jr. can conjure without overdoing it. It helps that British audiences historically appreciate witty crimes far more than just the cold semantics of killings and medical intricacies, which is the only real difference between Sherlock and the American CSI model. For Holmes, aesthetics and style are everything, even if solving something as simple as the password on a Blackberry devise or more challenging stuff like saving a woman from a sure beheading.

So far we’re shown a more vulnerable side of Holmes and the season seems destined to also unravel even more frailties in his persona, as in the case of season one’s The Blind Banker where his theories led to personal danger even when he was aware of it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Adler returns to join forces with him either. She remains the closest thing to a ‘love interest’ in Holmes’ world of flashy murders and government investigations. More importantly, she is the yin to his yang. He already has Watson for heteronymous companionship and Moriarty (Andrew Scott) ready to kill him at any time. Everything else just isn’t his area or doesn’t retain his interest for long. His is a life of always battling inertia and exploding when the pressure is on. I, for one, can’t wait to see him rabidly picking at the pieces in future episodes like it was one the nicotine patches lying decorously on his arm.

RATING: 9/10

2011: The Top 30 Best Albums: #1--10

Last year's best albums...

1. Shabazz Palaces Black Up:

remember The Diggable Planets? Think when CVM just came on air and the track Rebirth of Slick was played like every second…now you’re getting the picture. One-third of that band, Ishmael Butler, has turned up on Sub Pop as that label’s first rap act. To say the critics have fallen in love with this album would be an understatement. What is equally frightening about Black Up is how much it resembles what we all expect Dre3000’s upcoming album to sound like. Yeah You indeed could be mistaking for something out of Outkast, with its pre-programmed drums and electronic bleeps. The ideas running through Black Up feel revolutionary and the swag on display means that, just like the Fugees fifteen years ago, everyone will be forced to pay attention.

2. Bon Iver Bon Iver:

three years after his debut, Vernon returns with more brass and trumpets and in the final analysis, there was no real competition in claiming top spot. Instead of being locked up in a hut though, Bon Iver is the sound of a man marching blissfully through the town, luring all with his resonance. The album may have titles of places that indicate the band has been but the real treat is the compositions searing with exploration. The opener Perth rumbles within its casing but even it pales to Minnesota, WI where he rumbles in falsetto. Recorded in Wisconsin, the album widens the trademark sound into a more structured wall-of-sound and that is a mark of progress. Any band would be pleased with these blissful results and yes, like every other critic, I’m batshit for Beth/Rest and the rest of this masterpiece which isn’t as awesome as his debut but yet, at the same time, is.

3. Sheep, Dog & Wolf Ablutophobia:

with the new Bon Iver record out now to rave reviews, it’s hard to imagine that the folk-pop genre he helped to reinvent has thrown up a direct rival so soon. That, however, is just the state of things with the arrival of ex-Bandicoot drummer Daniel McBride and his stunning solo debut Ablutophobia. It compromises the masterful title track and four more gems that delve deep into the wall of sound technique and irresistible jazzy textures. There is the undeniable influence of Beirut too but astonishingly even Animal Collective gets channeled on the brilliant Holy Liars. Oh and I’ve saved the best surprise for last; McBride is only seventeen and don’t worry if you’ve never heard of him…a debut LP drops in 2012. The year’s best new and rarest find.

4. Bjork Biophilia:

the vision of Bjork remains clear in weaving her own interpretation of the microcosms that guide the natural flow of our universe. This includes her own rejuvenation, heard clearly on opener Moon, a glorious offering that teems energetically with its ‘all birthed and happy’ mantra. Thunderbolt bridges the gap between her worlds, with its heavy orchestrated flow giving way to her vocals and video game-like synths. It’s a welcome concession from her that though we’re deep within her folds, Bjork must not lose us as she did on Volta. You hear it in the way Crystalline smoothly blends its burgeoning hip/hop beats with her soaring growls while Hollow’s theatrical groundswell tilts just at the right emotional level. The rest of the album breaks on either side of these two song concepts, some with better results while others maintain a restrained pace. All however slow their tempos as if to have her remain in an exquisite time warp of primeval sounds and rhythms.

5. Liam Finn FOMO:

second-generation musicians have it harder than anyone else to conjure up their own space but Liam Finn’s FOMO is exactly that; his own unique personal gravity. No sophomore jinx here as he careens through beautiful yet challenging pop-rock track (the silky Don’t Even Know Your Name puts almost the entire neo-soul pack to shame.) Indeed the mood swings from carefree to personal as the album progresses, even though he puts in Cold Feet to keep the pop going early on. The Struggle deliciously turns on its self in spooky earnest and he rounds it off with the best track right at the end, the awesome electro-rumbling that is Jump Your Bones.

6. PJ Harvey Let England Shake:

Let England Shake thankfully is a decisive step into something more historical while retaining her blues/rock past. Its focus is the psychological damage done to England during the Great War (WWI) over a blistering span of forty minutes. Indeed the bruising imagery of her vocal epiphanies makes for an immediate and startling impact. The wider impact though is the reconnection of her belief in music-making. It may have taken something as horrific as war to channel her energy upon but Let England Shake is a huge game-changing moment in her career. The album uniquely presents her observations with restrained judgment and bitterness. There is flesh jangling in dust and sweat here, tension and panic and soldiers being blasted to bits and fallen ‘like lumps of meat’ (The Words that Maketh Murder).

7. Jean Grae Cookies or Comas:

while we wait patiently for her much-anticipated Cake or Death LP, Jean has tied us over with this mixtape, which features some of her best music to date. Three years have passed her last batch of witticisms but Cookies or Comas toys with itself but dares you to try it as well. Blame Game however inculcates some stunning blues riffs while Assassins juxtaposes old school horns and sway to create an exhilarating mix. Not to mention the slinky, retro flow of I Rock On. And just to throw mud on the reductive school of thought that there’s no female identities present in hip/hop, she drops the manifesto that is Casebasket.

8. Black Milk & Danny Brown Black and Brown:

covering ten tracks in roughly twenty-two minutes, Black and Brown doesn’t give itself much time to establish itself. Luckily, Brown isn’t the type of rapper who needs warm up time; he literally spits out his ideas over whatever groove Black milk throws his way. It works mostly too—note the earthy blues being sported on LOL, the outstanding effort here. The two move in a dynamic shift from tenses to situations to moods with such exuberance that it’ll take you some to fully recover from it all. Yet another master effort from Brown who is having one of those career years in rap that we’ll probably never see again.

9. Panda Bear Tomboy:

after what seems an eternity, Animal Collective member, Noah Lennox finally released Tomboy and though we cooled towards it, the work is a stunning success. The chorale effect that elevated Person Pitch is here and it’s juxtaposed to electronic twinges (Afterburner). He runs into some difficulty mid-way but you’re left with great singles (Last Night at the Jetty, Slow Motion and the title track). The album, when it gets going, features great confidence and dedication. Lennox trusts his direction and it shows and the listener is rewarded many times over with experimental sounds that prove how brilliant and dynamic this gentleman is.

10. Atlas Sound Parallax:

the irrepressible Bradford Cox can do no wrong so even though Parallax pares down on his usual style, it’s still a winner. The album, dedicated to the late Trish Keenan, juxtaposes Cox’s self-imposed exile and depression last year before he emerged with new music. He’s been listening to early Radiohead obviously (note the ending ebb of Amplifiers) as well as experimenting with sonic value. Te Amo strikes an astonishing resonance to Thom Yorke-esque delivery over a baroque arrangement. Modern Aquatic Nightsongs hearkens back to Bowie’s Young American period, a feverish self-obsessed style that few geniuses ever manage to do decently. Cox may not have such a huge ego but he makes up with precision and self-assuredness.