Because of the holiday weekend and a jaunt to DJ down in LA, I thought I'd take a week off from the Top Ten Stuff 'n' Things. But don't fret, Riff readers, I've still got lots to say about new music, I'll just post about it randomly.

Keep Reachin' Up
My first exposure to Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators was via their single, "If This Ain't Love." At first it's easy to lump the track into the current neo-soul trend with Amy Winehouse and her backing-band-sharing compadre Sharon Jones. With Willis' silky-smooth voice and the jazzy backing track (not to mention the retro album cover), "Love" seems like a straightforward throwback at first listen; but closer attention shows there's more going on here.

"If This Ain't Love"

The track's minor-seventh piano chords and unexpected melodic twists are unabashedly modern, and the flute solo at the end verges on psychedelia. This is retro, but set entirely in the present.

In a country where an estimated 60 to 80 percent of marriages are arranged—often to settle blood feuds and debts—and 57 percent of marriages are between a man and a young girl under the age of 16, there have been some half-hearted attempts over the past few years to introduce more just laws in order to give girls and women a stronger voice. These laws include raising the minimum age of a marrying girl and one that grants women the right to file for a divorce if her husband is absent for more than four years. Thousands of women have been abandoned by men who left them due to the economic insecurity, unemployment, and violence in their home towns.

But practices don't always mirror what's on paper: The Supreme Court has conservative ties that, in the past, have led them to uphold stringent measures. Recently, the Court upheld the marriage of a man and a nine-year-old girl. The justice system hasn't been kind to Afghan women either: A recent United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report found that there are currently around 300 female prisoners and that "many women who find themselves in the criminal justice system cannot be defined as criminals...most having been imprisoned for 'moral crimes.'"

And lack of access to courts creates a barrier to justice as well. Afghan courts are found in cities, but nearly 80 percent of Afghanistan's population lives in rural areas. Even for the few women who are able to turn to the courts, the outcome of their cases is often not desired. Afghan courts still favor men, especially in abuse and custody cases, whereby social and family connections are the deciding factor. Women are rarely granted divorce and many that want a divorce won't turn to the courts because of the social taboo associated with them.

Unbearable marriages, contentious relationships with in-laws, and feeling as though they have nowhere to go have led many Afghan women to turn to suicide. In the past six months, more than 250 have committed suicide, many using the painful method of self-immolation.

In the July/August issue of Mother Jones, photographer Lana Šlezić explores the issues facing Afghan women and the prevalence of suicide by self-immolation in her photo essay "The Hidden Half."

—Neha Inamdar

In a surprise upset, London-based trio The Klaxons have won the Mercury Music Prize for best British album of the year, moments ago at a ceremony in their hometown. The band were dubbed "new rave" by snarky critics who took their often sci-fi or mystical references (and somewhat danceable beats) as a sign of the return of ecstasy and glowsticks, I guess. However, the band's debut album, Myths of the Near Future, is actually far more complex and textured than such a description might imply. "Gravity's Rainbow" is an intense, bass-led track reminiscent of Bloc Party, while "Golden Skans" is more acoustic, with its falsetto refrain of "ooh-ee-oohs," although just as urgent. It's a very good album, but the best one from a British artist this year? Well, sorry, Bat For Lashes!

Yesterday, The Catholic Church's first eco-friendly youth rally featured a plea from Pope Benedict for humans to make "courageous choices" that will help save the earth "before it is too late."

The rally, held in Italy, lasted through the weekend and attracted nearly half a million attendees. Usually a crowd of that size would create a huge amount of environmentally unfriendly garbage, but not so in this case. Participants were issued kits including a recyclable backpack and color-coded trash bags to organize personal recyclables, and meals were served on biodegradable plates.

And They're Off!

Following on Jonathan's summary of the GAO report findings, I attended the Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting this afternoon in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Senator Kerry presided over the meeting, joined by colleagues Lugar, Feingold, and Hagel, among others. Testifying was U.S. Comptroller General David M. Walker, who led GAO staff in preparing the report.

Microphones continually cut out as the senators expressed their frustration with how poorly things are going in Iraq. The question was put to Walker repeatedly of whether recent progress in Anbar province would be sustainable in the absence of U.S. troops. The general feeling appeared to be no. Walker did not argue the point.

It was striking how uniform the senators were in their pessimism. Only Norm Coleman, Republican of Minnesota, challenged Walker on his findings. Coleman, who had just returned from Baghdad after spending the weekend with General Petraeus, said that the general had shown him data suggesting the number of enemy attacks declined during the month of August. Kerry interrupted, pointing out that, historically, the month of August is usually quiet. Coleman responded that the numbers he had seen in Baghdad were undeniable and compensated for any seasonal fluctuation in insurgent activity. Walker admitted that he had not seen the numbers for August (despite requesting them), but that anecdotal information suggested that there was no discernible downturn in the overall number of attacks.

Aside from Coleman, however, the senators did not argue against GAO's findings. If anything, they pushed Walker further. Lugar said that, by all appearances, the Iraqis don't seem to want to be part of a unified Iraq. If true, he said, "then we have an awesome problem." Later, Hagel asked whether the Iraqi government could be described as functional, whether it could defend, support, and govern itself. Walker's response: "I think I would have to say it's dysfunctional. The government is dysfunctional."

It was then that I saw what appeared to be an Iraqi diplomat, who had been sitting quietly in the back of the room, get up and leave.

More hearings on the GAO report tomorrow...

The GAO report on the Iraqi government is out (background here). Key results: At the end of August, the Iraqi government had met three, had partially met four, and had not met 11 of 18 legislative, security, and economic benchmarks.

Benchmarks met:

  • Establishing supporting political, media, economic, and services committees in support of the Baghdad security plan.
  • Establishing all of the planned joint security stations in neighborhoods across Baghdad.
  • Ensuring that the rights of minority political parties in the Iraqi legislature are protected.

Benchmarks partially met:

  • Enacting and implementing legislation on procedures to form semi-autonomous regions.
  • Providing three trained and ready Iraqi brigades to support Baghdad operations.
  • Ensuring that, according to President Bush, Prime Minister Maliki said ''the Baghdad security plan will not provide a safe haven for any outlaws, regardless of [their] sectarian or political affiliation.''
  • Allocating and spending $10 billion in Iraqi revenues for reconstruction projects, including delivery of essential services, on an equitable basis.

Benchmarks not met:

  • Forming a Constitutional Review Committee and then completing the constitutional review.
  • Enacting and implementing legislation on de-Ba'athification.
  • Enacting and implementing legislation to ensure the equitable distribution of hydrocarbon resources of the people of Iraq without regard to the sect or ethnicity of recipients, and enacting and implementing legislation to ensure that the energy resources of Iraq benefit Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, Kurds, and other Iraqi citizens in an equitable manner.
  • Enacting and implementing legislation establishing an Independent High Electoral Commission, provincial elections law, provincial council authorities, and a date for provincial elections.
  • Enacting and implementing legislation addressing amnesty.
  • Enacting and implementing legislation establishing a strong militia disarmament program to ensure that such security forces are accountable only to the central government and loyal to the Constitution of Iraq.
  • Providing Iraqi commanders with all authorities to execute this plan and to make tactical and operational decisions, in consultation with U.S. commanders, without political intervention, to include the authority to pursue all extremists, including Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias.
  • Ensuring that the Iraqi security forces are providing even-handed enforcement of the law.
  • Reducing the level of sectarian violence in Iraq and eliminating militia control of local security.
  • Increasing the number of Iraqi security forces' units capable of operating independently.
  • Ensuring that Iraq's political authorities are not undermining or making false accusations against members of the Iraqi security forces.

Iceland is pretty
While Boing Boing might call me inhuman for this, I'm annoyed by Icelandic quartet Sigur Ros. I can't explain it: I'm a huge fan of abstract, soundscape-y music, from The Cocteau Twins to Godspeed You Black Emperor! Plus, I've been fascinated with Iceland in general since hearing about that town that beat the volcano when I was a kid. For a while, I really tried to like Sigur Ros (pronounced "See-hur Roce," with the lightest of trills on the final "r" in "Sigur"), since everyone I know likes them. One night a few years back I attended their show at the Warfield here in San Francisco, and after a while found myself feeling annoyed and uncomfortable. I couldn't figure out why, until it hit me: I just don't like this music. The willfully obscure vocals and odd instrumentation masked treacly melodies and hackneyed emotional builds, like a Hallmark card foisted on an unsuspecting hipster public. Finally, after one too many falsetto "ya-yooee-yoos" from lead singer Jon Birgisson, I walked out.

So I'm a skeptic when it comes to Heima, the new film the band is producing that features live performances at different venues across Iceland. However, the trailer is breathtaking, at least visually (a still is pictured above). The band are featured in odd locations, including in front of a small town church, in the middle of a field, and what appears to be an abandoned factory, often with small audiences of what looks like regular Icelandic families; these performances are intercut with stunning shots of Iceland's stark natural beauty. Heima will hit your local multiplex (or, uh, not) when it's released this fall along with a compilation album from the band. Will I be converted? Or do I even deserve to see it after expressing such blasphemy?

Watch the trailer here.

Spencer Ackerman got to join General David Petraeus on his morning exercise routine recently, and the results give us some clue as to what Petraeus will say before Congress next week.

"There are some encouraging signs," [Petraeus] said cautiously. "It's still pretty early, but sectarian violence and murders are down [in Baghdad], and that's hugely important. It's about [stopping] sectarian violence." He qualified his statement. "There are still, obviously, huge car bombs, since al-Qaeda is trying to reignite sectarian violence."

So the results of the surge are a decidedly mixed bag. The security is getting mildly better (very much in question) but the politics of Iraq have not improved. In fact, they're worse than they were a year ago. We may be winning on some of the details, but we're still losing on the big picture. Why continue the occupation?

Politics in the country was moving slowly, [Petraeus] conceded, but he was impressed with the performance of the Iraqi Army in Baghdad. I wasn't exactly sure what the connection was. Could a competent Army really convince Sunnis to accept minority status, or stop Shiites from hoarding power? But nothing is a non sequitur to Petraeus. Instead, the strategy he describes is one where each small contingency exerts an ephemeral but real influence on every seemingly unrelated aspect of the war.

It appears the surge meant something very different to General Petraeus than it did to the rest of America. To everyone here stateside, the surge in troops was a temporary effort to give Iraqi politicians the space and stability they needed to achieve some kind of reconciliation. To Petraeus, it was a chance to implement his strategy and re-fight the war.

And you know what's funny? Inklings of this were reported in February. I spotted a Newsweek story by Michael Hirsh and wrote a blog entitled "Petraeus is Engaged in a Giant 'Do-Over'" on 02/23/07. Maybe we should have all raised a bigger fuss.

Gigwise is reporting that troubled singer Amy Winehouse has arrived at the Grosvenor Hotel in London for the Mercury Music Prize ceremony, set to begin in just a few hours. Her arrival is fueling speculation that she is tapped to win the award, given out for best British album of the year. Her appearance was far from assured; in fact, NME reported a few hours ago that Winehouse would be pulling out of the ceremony, only to pull the story and instead post an article about the singer's arrival and soundcheck.

As we noted earlier, Winehouse's personal issues and alleged drug use caused London bookies to knock down her odds at winning the annual prize; she had been considered the front-runner. While newcomer Bat For Lashes' haunting Fur and Gold is now the current favorite at 7/4 odds, rumors are apparently circulating that Winehouse, who flew into the UK just yesterday, changed plans to be at the ceremony in anticipation of a win.

NME writers are, understandably, pulling for so-called "Nu Ravers" The Klaxons, and solo electronic artist Maps remains a dark horse with his dreamy album We Can Create. 21-year-old singer Jamie T is also considered a strong contender, with oddsmakers placing him just behind Bat For Lashes. Personally, I highly enjoy Winehouse, The Klaxons, Maps, and fellow-nominees Arctic Monkeys, but Bat For Lashes is my fave too, if only for the trick-riding bunnies in her video.

That clip and some other nominees' videos after the jump; stay tuned to the Riff where we'll post the winner when it's announced.

A few weeks ago, as Dean approached Mexico, I wrote that just 30 hurricanes have attained Category 5 status since record-keeping began in 1886. Twelve of those occurred since 1980; 7 since 2000.

Make that 31 total, and 8 since 2000: Hurricane Felix hit Central America with a vengeance this morning. It was the first time two Category 5 storms have made landfall in a single season.

More than 14,000 people were evacuated.