Monday, August 30, 2010

cool covers

This is apparently the week in which my new faves cover my old faves.

I was pleasantly surprised last week to learn that a favorite artist of mine, Fever Ray (half of the Swedish duo The Knife), decided to record a version of "Mercy Street," the classic track from one of my all-time favorites, Peter Gabriel. As haunting as the original but with a distinctly newer electro flavor, the cover earned an instant five-star rating on my iTunes collection. (That's Fever Ray in the image above, by the way...not sure why she's dressed like a monkey for this one, but that's the shot for the new single. In general I find it simpler to just nod and smile when it comes to her outfits!)

Then today I found out that another one of my faves, Robyn (who you can listen to me gush about here), recently covered the incomparable Björk at a ceremony honoring the Icelandic chanteuse for her winning of the 2010 Polar Music Prize. To make things more perfect, it's my very favorite Björk song, "Hyperballad," which I must have listened to a thousand times my freshman year in college.

Without further ado, here are the new takes on two stellar musical creations.

Mercy Street by Fever Ray

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

trouble in the jungle

Okay, boys and girls, time for a quiz. Your question for today: What's the worst oil spill you can think of?

Did you say Exxon Valdez? Oh, sorry, no. In the grand scheme of things, the estimated 30 million gallons it released into Alaska's Prince William Sound are chump change. Try again! Okay, the Deepwater Horizon disaster must have been worse, you're thinking. And you are correct. But even this year's catastrophe—which, depending on who you ask, leaked anywhere from 206 million to 348 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico—pales in comparison to a systematic leaking of some 18 billion (with a "b!") gallons' worth of petroleum-infused toxic waste into the waterways and soils of the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest over the past 30-odd years.

Known to many as the Amazon Chernobyl, this horrid large-scale spill has poisoned once-pristine rivers and vegetation, killed untold millions of animals, and plagued thousands of Ecuadorian and indigenous peoples with various types of cancers, birth defects, and other ailments. Of course, with all the pollution taking place in a relatively remote jungle over several decades in a country you probably can't even place on a map, it'd be no surprise if you'd never heard of this environmental catastrophe. Well, you have now. Keep reading.

I learned about the calamity affecting the Ecuadorian region of Lago Agrio (Spanish for "sour lake") through a documentary released last year—and available now on DVD—called Crude. The film charts the struggles of some 30,000 Ecuadorians and indigenous peoples who've banded together to file a class action lawsuit against the Chevron Corporation, owners of the former Texaco, who were the initial drillers of oil in the 1,700-square-mile Lago Agrio area. The suit charges that Chevron should be forced to pay an estimated $9 billion—about two weeks' worth of their annual revenue—to clean up the contamination caused by Texaco's lingering oil pits and install new water systems.

Of course, prosecuting one of the wealthiest and most powerful companies on the face of the planet ain't easy—and Chevron is playing hardball. The script of this true-to-life drama has Michael Clayton written all over it, with corporate finger-pointing, alleged assassination attempts, and legal shenanigans the likes of which U.S. courts could only dream of (the case is being tried in the perpetually corrupt Ecuadorian legal system). At the end of the day, it's impossible not to take sides with the individuals who have no choice but to consume their polluted waters and face the consequences: a destitute mother who struggles to come up with the money to pay for cancer treatments for her teenage daughter; a baby, not two weeks old, covered head to toe with a dangerous skin rash common among those exposed to polluted waters; even a poor white goose, whose intake of oily water has clearly affected her nervous system to the point where she's paralyzed, webbed feet flailing in the air, staring at the cameraman with the look of certain death in her eyes.

The picture is grim, and it's an uphill battle for these folks, yet the film suggests some hope. One ray of light comes in the form of a Vanity Fair article, which exposes the issue, at least temporarily, in its high-profile pages. Another comes from Trudie Styler, wife of the rock star Sting, who teams up with her husband to raise awareness and money for the victims of the Lago Agrio disaster. As the film shows, their case has become a veritable David-versus-Goliath scenario, with no immediate end in sight. But with a scrappy legal team led by the feisty Ecuadorian prosecutor Pablo Fajardo and a savvy New York litigator, Steven Donzinger, it's still within the realm of possibility that David may actually win...if the trial ever ends. Anyway, check out the links below if you'd like to learn more. &infin

If you've got 10 minutes: See the 2005 New York Times op-ed about the Lago Agrio disaster and/or Trudie Styler's call-to-arms in the Huffington Post. You might also try this more recent article in the British Independent, or make a quick visit to the watchdog site ChevronToxico, which is devoted to the issue.

If you've got 15 minutes: Watch the 60 Minutes segment on the Chevron lawsuit.

If you've got 30 minutes: Read Vanity Fair's tell-all article about the lawsuit, from its 2007 Green Issue.

If you've got 100 minutes: Here's the website for the Crude documentary; it's also available on Netflix or for purchase from Amazon.

Images by the Rainforest Action Network on Flickr

Saturday, August 07, 2010

konichiwa, robyn

Carnegie Hall, 1998. I’m backstage, ready to hit the big time after all those ‘practices’ we were told would get us here. It’s the finals of the National Collegiate Championships of A Cappella, and my gals and I are about to sing four songs in a bid to be named best collegiate a cappella group in the country.

I’ll cut to the chase: we don’t win. (Though, being the only all-female group in the finals, we’re happy to call ourselves the best all-female group in America for that year.) I’m thrilled to have sung the lead on "Mysterious Ways," which I guess I nailed in each of the previous two rounds to help get us here! But, most importantly for this post, it’s the first time a tune by the Swedish sensation Robyn has been sung within the hallowed walls of Carnegie Hall. “Show Me Love” never sounded sweeter, if I do say so myself! And now, let's fast-forward.

Twelve crazy years later, my knees and back are #killingme. I’ve been standing among sweaty boys for the past four hours, waiting for Robyn to make her grand entrance at Webster Hall. It has got to be 104 degrees in here—so hot that Robyn’s co-headliner Kelis decided in the previous set to do away with her 70s-style wig of flowing glittery locks and just finish the show in her natural cropped coif. In the dozen years between Midtown West and East Village, Robyn has gone from wannabe R&B pop diva to veritable synthpop darling, with her two most recent albums, 2007’s self-titled Robyn and this year’s Body Talk Pt. 1—one of three albums she’s releasing in 2010—garnering serious props from music critics major and minor.

And now, I cannot wait to dance.

Robyn is a bit of an enigma. She’s Swedish, which might suggest bulky blonde. She is in fact quite petite, but she does pack a punch, both in her vocals and her stage presence. She clearly loves the interplay of technology and music; in the past few years she’s released tunes with titles like “The Girl and the Robot,” “Fembot,” and “Robotboy.” And these songs do tend to incorporate the beeps and drones of robot-sounding machines. But Robyn’s the kind of artist who’s just as happy to whip out a rap or reggae track, like the playful “Konichiwa Bitches” or the trippy “Dancehall Queen,” or a sweet ballad such as the acoustic version of “Be Mine.” She’ll even throw in a Swedish folk song now and again! But the heart of her repertoire is electronically-infused dance music. Lest you think that sounds like any old pop star’s lineup, think of Robyn’s as a wall of ear candy, with a spray of lush minor chords and unique arrangements coming at you from all directions, with the Swede’s strong yet quirky voice carrying whatever melody or rhythm she lays on top of it all.

So, back to the night in question... Finally Robyn hits the stage, and it is awesome. Singing and dancing ensue, and the audience and I don’t stop until after her two encores, which come about an hour after she first appears. She performs a slew of oldies, most of the tracks from Body Talk Pt. 1, and even unveils the first-ever performance (“in the history of the world!” she says) of “Hang With Me,” the lead single off of Body Talk Pt. 2, due out next month. She dances so hard, she has to take most of an entire song out to breathe. Other standout numbers include “Dancing On My Own,” “Dream On,” and the mesmerizing “With Every Heartbeat.” The audience is left begging for more, but it’s been a dreamy, if sweaty, night.

The next day, Robyn has a brief in-store performance uptown, just a few short blocks from Carnegie Hall. And of course I’m there, front row! But no dancing this morning. Admittedly a bit hung over from the previous night, Robyn performs lovely acoustic versions of three songs, including the first one I ever heard her sing, “Show Me Love.” And then, wonder of wonders, I get to meet her. I tell her about her Carnegie Hall debut, and she laughs and remarks how cool that is as she signs my album. And that, ladies and germs, is a keeper.

Top two photos by Kolored via BrooklynVegan. Bottom photo by 20tauri.