Our favorite things this week include the second season of "American Crime Story," a Toronto transgender R&B singer, and local producer Chris Finney in Mexico.

assassination of gianni versace production photo
Édgar Ramírez as Gianni Versace in "The Assassination of Gianni Versace"

FX is bringing back the big guns for Season 2 of American Crime Story. Season 1, a somewhat sensationalized but intensely thorough retelling of the O.J. trial, featured excellent performances by Cuba Gooding Jr. (as O.J.), Sarah Paulson (as state prosecutor Marcia Clark), Sterling K. Brown (as state prosecutor Christopher Darden), and Courtney B. Vance (as Johnny Cochran), not to mention solid supporting work from John Travolta (as Robert Shapiro) and David Schwimmer (as Rob Kardashian). For this season, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, the cast includes Ricky Martin and Penelope Crúz, but the starring roles of Gianni Versace and his assassin, Andrew Cunanan, go to the lesser known Edgar Ramirez and Darren Criss, respectively.

Season 2 is only one episode old, but it’s already far flashier and more action-packed than Season 1. This stands to reason as Versace is one of the flashier figures in recent memory. His story, though not as ubiquitous as O.J.’s, is no less fascinating. Episode 1 has already begun to explore the controversy and family intrigue surrounding his sexuality. Like Season 1, which handled race issues with rare insight, Season 2 seems to be giving its queer themes their due.

Episode 1: “The Man Who Would be Vogue” is extremely promising. The shots are stunning, the performances are strong—Ricky Martin is especially inspired as Versace’s grieving lover, Antonio D’Amico—and the score is gorgeous. I’m slightly worried about the portrayal of Cunanan, because so far, he seems to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. But Criss’ performance is convincing, and hopefully, his character will be better fleshed out as the season continues. Even if that doesn’t happen, The Assassination of Gianni Versace is already shaping up to be one of the best series of a stacked 2018. (Raphael Helfand)

When Toronto’s R&B singer Jackie Shane covered William Bell’s “Any Other Way” in 1963, her delivery was fragile and private, as if she sang to herself. Bell’s version was clearly made for public consumption. He sang the song as a way to put on a brave face, telling the friend of his ex that he’s not feeling her loss, even though he obviously is. The same lines told a different story when Shane performed them. When she sang, “Tell her that I’m happy / tell her that I’m gay,” the song had a different meaning. When she sang it, the microhitch in her voice made clear that Shane was explaining why her romance with the woman could never be. Bell sang the song as a guy trying to put up a good front; Shane sang it as someone mourning the obstacle to their love.

In Shane’s case, the romance was doubly forbidden and complicated because she was transgender, which at the time was understood simply as a gay man who dressed like a woman. Last fall, the Numero Group collected Shane’s singles and a live show recording for the album Any Other Way. The compilation presents Shane as a good, entertaining singer and not, title cut aside, as a subversive icon. Title cut aside, little here carries any underground frisson. The closest Shane gets comes during a laissez-faire onstage monologue in the middle of Barrett Strong’s “Money.” 

“Do what you want; just know what you’re doing,” Shane said. “As long as you don’t force your will and your way on anybody else, live your life because ain’t nobody sanctified and holy.” 

The live performances show the influence of James Brown and Ray Charles in a set that includes such covers as “Barefootin’,” “Knock on Wood,” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” and “Shotgun.” These songs were likely being played in clubs in almost every major city in America at the time, and Shane delivers them with ferocity—but not so much that anyone would declare her an overlooked genius. The studio singles gain immediacy from the same ramshackle recording that made countless garage band records sound urgent. The horns and Shane’s voice often pin the needles in the red on tracks, loaning additional electricity through distortion. Identity issues have kept Shane’s legend on the map, but the recordings make her more than just a footnote in a gender studies story. (Alex Rawls) 

In this digital age of DIY musicians and streaming, it seems like anyone can release music. Even so, there’s no question that it takes more than talent to make a record. It takes gear. Without a computer, software, cables and mics, musicians from third world countries are bound to fall through the cracks. Guitarist Charlie Hunter and New Orleans producer Chris Finney confront this issue with their nonprofit, 30 Amp Circuit, which brings recording equipment to worthy musicians in studio-free locales. Their first release from Mexican singer-songwriter Silvana Estrada gives listeners a hint of the raw talent brewing in rural nests of the world. 

Estrada’s debate album, Lo Sagrado, was recorded entirely on a 30 Amp Circuit in her hometown of Xalapa in Central Mexico. A 30 amp circuit is an easily transportable electrical circuit breaker panel that is usually used to power homes. The recording captures Estrada’s talent and the culture of her town. Murmurs from the crowd can be heard in the background as Estrada’s silky voice transports the listener through Mexican history. She paints a vibrant portrait of Mexico by blending contemporary Spanish poetry with Mexican music, both old and new through her alternating rhythms and melodic finger picking. Charlie Hunter accompanies her on record, acting as a compliment to her flowing vocals to make her talent shine brighter. 

She glides between notes to emote feelings of love, sorrow, bliss, and pain, even to those who don’t speak Spanish. The polyrhythmic drums make your heart race on songs like “Lo Sagrado,” and “El Agua Y la Miel.” On “Rio,” the pace is brought down and Estrada’s vocal control between volumes and minor pitch changes sends you into a dream-like state.  Estrada blends folk, pop, and Latin American music to create a sound that is untainted by popular culture and completely her own. (Lisa Chupp)