Archive for critic’s picks

critic’s pick 264 : the mavericks, ‘mono’

mavericks monoNeed a shot of warmth, soul and cheer after the winter assault of recent weeks? Then slip on Mono, the fabulous new album from the Mavericks, and proceed directly to track no. 2 – a ballroom-sized party piece called Summertime (When I’m With You). Percolating with a groove that falls somewhere Cuban pop and Jamaican ska, the song comes fortified with summery brass, the towering vocals of Raul Malo and a spring-like attitude that shines so brilliantly that ol’ man winter has no choice but to scram.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Mono finds the Mavericks having braved some turbulence of their own. The record is the band’s first release without founding bassist Robert Reynolds who was let go last year because of an opiate addiction. Interviews with Malo and the other band members stress the firing was difficult and painful for all involved. While its aftermath is never directly felt in the 11 songs Malo wrote or co-wrote for Mono, one may sense an echo of the split in the lyrics to Let It Rain (“Oh, let it rain, so it can wash away sorrows and pains”) and especially Out the Door (“The cards are on the table, the deal is up and gone”). But even in these instances, the warmth and elegance of the music override any dour sentiments, from the light guitar and accordion sway that dances under Malo’s Roy Orbison-like singing on the former tune to the finger-popping drive that recalls vintage Dwight Yoakam on Out the Door.

The latter reference is one of the few country accents on Mono. Though the Mavericks began life as a country outfit, the reliance on Malo’s Cuban roots, encyclopedic pop command and colossus voice long ago gave a global cast to the band’s music. Mono stays the course.

The opening All Night Long boasts a huge Havana strut indicative of Marc Anthony (save for the fact Malo is by far the stronger singer), Fascinate Me stands as a sterling slo-mo crooner and the closing cover of Doug Sahm’s Nitty Gritty (the only non-Malo tune on Mono) swaps cultures in favor of champion Tex Mex fun and some suitably spicy guitar fire and Augie Meyers-inspired keyboard colorings from Eddie Perez and Jerry Dale McFadden.

But the crescendo of Mono (and, yes, the entire album was recorded gloriously in exactly that) comes with (Waiting for) The World to End, a cleverly astute view of mortality (“Just live your life until you die, my friend”) set to an unavoidably infectious groove beset by brass and piano.

It’s a fitting highlight. Having survived a split with one of their own, the Mavericks make the apocalypse sound and seem like a veritable day at the beach. What could be a better respite from winter than that?

critic’s pick 262: soft machine, ‘switzerland 1974′

soft machineAt the onset of Switzerland 1974, the wonderful new concert chronicle by psychedelic-turned-prog-turned-fusion rockers Soft Machine, the music floods in with a low, ominous chime. It’s like listening to Big Ben if you were submerged in the Thames. But after a long, fiery drum roll from John Marshall calls the band to order, the music coalesces into riff-saturated interplay that quickly introduces the young British guitarist that would come to define this reinvented era of the band, Allan Holdsworth.

The resulting time capsule CD/DVD set is a remarkable archival find. It captures Soft Machine at the venerable Montreux Jazz Festival on a July 4 bill with two American bands – the fellow fusion troopers of Billy Cobham’s Spectrum and the roots-driven free jazzers of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Soft Machine’s mere placement on such a bill would have been unthinkable even a few years earlier, given its psychedelic beginnings within England’s famed Canterbury scene.

By the time of Switzerland 1974, though, keyboardist Mike Ratledge was the lone original member (he would depart the following year). Under the de-facto leadership of reed player, fellow keyboardist and primary composer Karl Jenkins, the Softs, as the band was often called, had junked nearly all its previous repertoire in favor of compositions that would highlight Holdsworth.

The Swiss audience on hand for what we are now hearing on this recording over four decades later had no idea of what to expect. Guitar had been absent from the Softs’ instrumental lineup since the late ‘60s. Moreover, the bulk of the tunes presented had not been recorded. The band would convene in London later in July to cut the material that would surface in March 1975 as Bundles (a record that received a long overdue remastering and re-release in 2010).

There are a few references to the past on Switzerland 1974, particularly in bassist Roy Babbington’s nod to his Softs predecessor Hugh Hopper during the amplified “fuzz” crescendo of his solo piece Ealing Comedy and the sparring Ratledge and Jenkins engage in (on keys and soprano sax, respectively) during the close of the 16 minute Hazard Profile. Mostly, though, this is music ripe with discovery.

The Floating World, for instance, briefly cools the rockish charge with double Fender Rhodes piano ambience by Ratledge and Jenkins colored by Marshall on glockenspiel with wordless vocals from Holdsworth.

The latter, however, sings more authoritatively in the exact, clear tone of his guitarwork, which provides a seering jazz glee to what would become the title tune to Bundles and the swift, stabbing solo at the end of Penny Hitch (one of the few holdover works from the pre-Holdsworth era).

Holdsworth would bolt shortly after Bundles was released. So what we have here is an extraordinary document of his brief tenure with the Softs as well as a portrait of a storied but powerfully reinvigorated band.

critic’s pick 261: rhiannon giddens, ‘tomorrow is my turn’

rhiannonOn the title track to her debut solo album, Tomorrow is My Turn, Rhiannon Giddens sings with empowered reserve. Throughout the rest of this remarkable recording, she cuts loose with churchy jubilation, bluesy reflection and even country majesty. But on this centerpiece tune, the singer known for her rootsy command with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, lets her inner diva shine. By channeling another vocal priestess (Nina Simone, who popularized the tune in another pop lifetime), she embraces a sound huge enough to be termed cinematic. She plays the song cool in this instance, but the end result could work as the theme song to a ‘60s James Bond flick. It’s that emotive and anthemic. Better yet, it’s just one of the many voices Giddens asserts with easy authority on the album.

Produced by Americana renaissance man T Bone Burnett, Tomorrow is My Turn is the record that unlocks Giddens’ numerous vocal preferences in a way the Carolina Chocolate Drops, by the sheer design of the band, simply couldn’t. In short, this is as liberating a work as you’re likely to hear all winter.

Take for instance, the celebratory gospel engagement of Up Above My Head. Strongly mirroring the prototype version cut by Sister Rosetta Tharpe without ever sounding imitative, Giddens plays off the fiddle sway of Punch Brother Gabe Witcher and some profound call-and-response choir singing. The resulting spiritual flow is sublime.

Stepping onto country turf is Dolly Parton’s Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind, where Giddens’ singing turns restless and defiant over sweeping ensemble support and another beautifully plaintive fiddle run by Witcher. Reaching further into Nashville tradition but veering away from its homogenized sound is Hank Cochran’s She’s Got You. Immortalized initially by Patsy Cline, Giddens’ effortless wail transports the song Northward to the kind of Acadian Americana sound The Band designed over 40 years ago.

Where does Tomorrow is My Turn travel from there? Try the streets of New Orleans for a revision of Black is the Color. Giddens and Burnett strip the tune of its Celtic/churchy veneer and forge it into a sensual parade piece that is part carnal and part carnival. Let’s also not forget O Love is Teasin’, a folk staple long ago reinvented by Kentucky’s own Jean Ritchie and fleshed out here with death rattle percussion from longtime Burnett ally Jay Bellerose and Giddens’ beautifully disruptive singing.

The album isn’t so much a solo beginning as an awakening. You could hear suggestions of these songs within the music of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and, more distinctly, the recent all-star Dylan project The New Basement Tapes. But by bringing Giddens’ glorious voice front and center, along with all stylistic ammo that ignites it, we have the arrival of an Americana voice for the ages.

critic’s pick 259: king crimson, ‘live at the orpheum’

King-Crimson-Live-At-The-OrpheumOn the back cover of Live at the Orpheum, the seven members of prog mainstay King Crimson that convened for a fall 2014 tour appear in black suits and ties, looking more like a hip corporate board than a pack of learned rock vets.

Inside, of course, is where the newly reconstituted Crimson gets down to serious business. With a front line of three drummers and a back line led by guitarist/founder Robert Fripp, the band discovers astonishing new life within vintage compositions, some of which no Crimson lineup has played live in over 42 years. But a nostalgia ride Live at the Orpheum is not.

The current band roster boasts returnees from Crimson lineups spanning each of the past five decades, along with one fresh recruit. Although the songs, aside from two brief instrumentals, aren’t new, the playing is ripe with reinvention.

Take the one-two punch of The Letters and A Sailor’s Tale, originally from 1971’s Islands but absent from the band’s performance repertoire since 1972.

The return of ‘70s saxophonist/flutist Mel Collins and the advent of the drum trio (Pat Mastelotto, Bill Rieflin and Gavin Harrison) on The Letters sets up a feel that falls between operatic and psychedelic. The mood is completed by new guitarist/vocalist (but longtime Crimson ally) Jakko Jakszyk, whose singing adds an almost Gothic drama to the piece.

A Sailor’s Tale is a revelation. Initiated by the drummers with shimmering and eventually propulsive percussion, the tune’s fuse is lit by Collins’ free-jazz accents on sax along with the dual guitar melodies of Fripp and Jakszyk. The music later swells to a thundering crescendo piloted by longtime Crimson bassist/stick player Tony Levin.

From a comparatively newer court of this Crimson king comes the title tune to 2000’s The ConstruKction of Light, retooled as a mischievous instrumental distinguished by flute and sax runs from Collins and the continually playful groove of the drum team.

Completing the setlist for this sadly brief 41 minute live document are two works from 1974’s Red cut after Collins left the band even though he contributed greatly to the record. One More Red Nightmare, which Crimson never played live prior to this tour, leaps to life with plump guitar riffs and percussive bounce. The album-closing Starless, again with remarkable coloring by Collins and grounding by Levin, is a requiem that opens with icy calm before building, layer by layer, into rhythmic frenzy.

How permanent will this Crimson be? Hard to say. The joyous aspect of such wonder, though, is that even if the band disappears, we have this volcanic document of when the King shook the world again.

King Crimson bassist Tony Levin will perform with the California Guitar Trio on Jan. 31 at the St. Xavier Performance Center, 600 West North Bend St in Cincinnati (7:30 p.m.; $36, $41). Call (513) 484-0157 or go to

critic’s pick 256: leonard cohen, ‘live in dublin’

leoanrd cohen live in dublin“The present’s not that pleasant,” sings Leonard Cohen on Darkness, an unassuming and perhaps unintentional centerpiece tune to Live in Dublin. “Just a lot of things to do.”

As poetic and sleekly disturbing as ever, Cohen remains both the king and jester of his domain. A restless troubadour and distinguished elder who turned 79 just a few weeks after this performance was given in 2013, he has completely renewed himself over the past seven years as a concert artist after a prolonged absence from the stage. Live in Dublin is his latest and most vivid snapshot from the road – a three CD, 30 song account of a single Irish concert along with an accompanying DVD of the show.

Initially, one might ask if such a package was even necessary. Cohen issued a double-disc live recording in 2009 (Live in London) and a single disc companion in 2011 (Songs From the Road) that introduced his new performance guise. Live in Dublin replicates much of the repertoire from the earlier albums and utilizes essentially the same band. Even the blue-hued cover art from Live in Dublin seems purposely fashioned after Live in London.

So why the massive and seemingly redundant follow-up? Well, for starters, Live in Dublin augments the set list with songs from Cohen’s 2012 studio record, Old Ideas – arguably, his best set of new songs in three decades. It was from Old Ideas that Darkness came. Also from the record we have the bluesy prayer for repentance Amen (“I’m listening… I’m listening so hard that it hurts”) and the powerfully contemplative lullaby Come Healing that views mankind largely as a pack of universal bystanders (“none of us deserving of the cruelty or the grace”).

Cohen reflected heavily about mortality on Old Ideas. That might make those songs seem removed from such early and outwardly intimate fare as Suzanne, Chelsea Hotel #2 or I’m Your Man, all of which are delivered with sagely subtlety on Live on Dublin. But since Cohen has adopted such a slight, sweeping but richly orchestrated sound from his touring band, boundaries between new and old music are blurred quite handsomely.

A beautiful case-in-point comes during the record’s third disc, which is devoted to the Irish concert’s encore tunes. There, the gentle Old Ideas scolding from God Going Home (“I’d love to speak with Leonard… he’s a lazy bastard living in a suit”) is paired with the vengeful and earthy doomsday rumination First We Take Manhattan (“I’m coming to reward them”).

Of course, romance isn’t fully suppressed amid the turmoil. Cohen brings down the curtain on the three hour Live in Dublin with a cover of Save the Last Dance For Me. But amid the samba-like sway of his band and his own bullfrog whisper of a voice, one senses the song’s inclusion is tongue-in-cheek, a tune to whistle as civilization crumbles.

critic’s pick 256: james farm, ‘city folk’

james-farm-city-folkJames Farm is a part-time jazz collective boasting a swift melodic kick, meaty but understated improvisational prowess and a strong compositional sense that speaks strongly to the band’s often orderly sound.

If all that makes the all-star quartet seem safe, don’t fret. James Farm simply favors music that is less confrontational than the product of many like-minded jazz troupes. That provides the band’s sophomore album, City Folk, with an appealing accessibility – the kind that usually relies on fusion and/or R&B accents. City Folk dismisses both with 10 original compositions (three each by saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Aaron Parks and bassist Matt Penman with one by drummer Eric Harland).

Take Harland’s North Star, for example. The rhythm section plays with stately confidence over a melody that is strong enough to carry the tune with natural grace. But it’s also light enough for the bounce of Redman’s tenor sax lead and Penman’s limber bass lines to dance about. When Parks gently wrestles the melody away, Harland remains steadfast. The result is a song with the cohesion of a pop tune and the instrumental muscle of fusion. But the execution and intent is all straight ahead jazz.

With a 20-plus year recording career under his own name to his credit, Redman is the marquee name within the James Farm lineup. To be sure, his glowing tenor tone lights up the soft focus shuffle of City Folk’s title tune and the more percolating East Coast rumble of Mr. E (both are Redman compositions). But if there is a dominate voice, it belongs to Parks. A refreshingly diverse stylist, both as a lead voice and a rhythm player, the pianist is at the heart of City Folks’ easygoing flow.

On Aspirin, he punches out organic funk on Yamaha electric piano under Harland’s unhurried shuffle and Redman’s playful tenor that alternates between restless punctuation and lyrical warmth. Then he lightly colors Jury’s Out with simultaneous lead and melodic phrases to enhance a prevailing sense of cool (both tunes were written by Penman).

Mostly, though, City Folk is an album of feel and mood. Cut exactly a year ago in Brooklyn, one can only assume this music was a reaction of sorts to the dead-of-winter conditions surrounding the sessions. Though released in late October, the music’s resulting temperament is perhaps best appreciated as January takes hold. Listen to the subtle orchestration provided by, of all things, mellotron, during the Parks tune Otherwise and you sense the crafty melodic sweep of James Farm at work. It’s a sign of welcome and warmth, a mix that makes this unassuming jazz treat something of a winter getaway.

critic’s picks 255: gov’t mule, ‘the dark side of the mule,’ and grateful dead, ‘houston, texas 11-18-1972′

govtBrevity has never been in the best interest of jam bands. From the ’60s dawn of the Grateful Dead to the present day adventures of Gov’t Mule, jam-savvy live shows have essentially been lab experiments where grooves are extended, mutated and often restructured with little concern for economy. If it took 10, 20, even 30 minutes to accomplish that within the confines of a single song, so be it. It’s just that the Dead and the Mule usually kept such an exercise from disintegrating into pure indulgence.

Of late, such a philosophy has extended to live albums as well, from lavishly packaged compendiums of entire Dead tours that carry price tags in the hundreds of dollars to more modestly priced three-to-six disc sets of Mule engagements.

So it is refreshing to have new live recordings of varying vintages by both bands that keep the onstage exploration to a single disc.

Admittedly, Gov’t Mule’s Dark Side of the Mule also comes in a massive 3 CD/1 DVD package that presents you literally everything from a Halloween concert in 2008. But the single disc version, which is reviewed here, gets directly to the performance’s point of distinction – specifically, a set where the band musically masqueraded as Pink Floyd.

The title suggests a straight tribute to the 1973 Floydian classic The Dark Side of the Moon. Instead, guitarist Warren Haynes and company go tripping through all of Pink Floyd’s more storied ‘70s albums, from the obscure country-esque psychedelia of Fearless (off of 1971’s Meddle) to warhorse staples like Comfortably Numb (the crescendo tune from 1979’s The Wall).

In between, though, are some stunners that really stretch the Mule’s sound, as on the nine-part Shine on You Crazy Diamond. It augments the band’s quartet makeup with a trio of back-up vocalists, a saxophonist and considerable reliance on keyboardist Danny Louis. But Haynes still has plenty of room to roam, making Dark Side an altogether enlightening Mule escapade.

deadThe Dead’s Houston, Texas 11-18-1972 is a limited edition CD version of an even more limited edition vinyl recording released exclusively for Black Friday sales. Available only through the band’s website, the CD gives a brief second life to what had been an instant collector’s item.

It’s a grand a performance, too, providing you can make it past Donna Jean Godchaux’s pitch-deficient singing. With bassist Phil Lesh propelling the performance as much or more than guitar chieftain Jerry Garcia, the recording strolls through a jovial Bertha, tightens for a dramatic Jack Straw and then explodes during a 25 minute reading of Playing in the Band that becomes an instrumental playground for Garcia.

There you have it – two single discs packed with nearly 80 minutes of music each. That’s a lot of playing in the band for your buck.

critic’s pick 254: the blind boys of alabama and taj mahal, ‘talkin’ christmas’

talkin' christmasIf the home stretch of the holiday season is leaving you in need of a breather, then take a 40 minute time out for Talkin’ Christmas, an unpretentious but solidly sanctified summit between the Blind Boys of Alabama and Taj Mahal.

Talkin’ Christmas is about as subtle and soulful a holiday session as you will find in what has otherwise been a lean year for new Yuletide. It also deviates from the standard blueprint of many seasonal releases, including the Blind Boys’ own 2003 work, Go Tell It On the Mountain. That album was a collection of star-studded duets that, while highly appealing, made you feel as though the veteran gospel vocal group was serving as a support team for the guest list. Talkin’ Christmas sports only one high profile collaborator – longstanding blues stylist, world music journeyman and frequent Blind Boys touring mate Mahal, and even he frequently takes a back seat role within the record’s lean but tremendously complimentary instrumentation.

In fact, Mahal makes his vocal presence felt on only two songs, both new tunes penned by the Blind Boys, celebrated Stax Records songwriter William Bell and Talkin’ Christmas producer Chris Goldsmith.

The first is What Can I Do?, a sparse pop-soul spiritual that is a fine fit for the jagged expression of Mahal’s singing. The other, There’s a Reason We Call It Christmas, places Mahal aside longtime Blind Boys chieftain Jimmy Carter for a light gospel celebration accented by a discreet Caribbean rhythm.

But Mahal’s presence is felt throughout the album. When he isn’t singing, he is adding bits of guitar, ukulele, harmonica and, on a revivalist, ragtime-infused version of Christ Was Born on Christmas Morn, banjo. The song also employs one of the Blind Boys’ newest stars, falsetto singer Paul Beasley, who later guides the group’s gorgeous harmonies on No Room at the Inn. Mahal and drummer Michael Jerome provide the latter’s only instrumental accompaniment.

The last word, however, goes to Carter. He concludes the record by leading the pack through another original, Merry Christmas, which shuffles along to the second line groove set up by Jerome under a homespun yarn that is earnestly celebratory. “Hope you’re happy in your house,” Carter sings with sage-like candor, “because I’m having a ball in mine.”

Talkin’ Christmas takes its cue from I’ll Find a Way, the 2013 record that restored much of the Blind Boys’ artistic identity after a string of more duet-heavy projects. The new record, curiously, isn’t as wintry sounding as the former work. It is lighter, more unassuming and quietly straightforward, especially in its view of holiday sentiment.

In other words, Talkin’ Christmas is just sayin’.

critic’s pick 253: the velvet underground, ‘the velvetunderground – 45th anniversary deluxe edition’

velvet-underground“If you can’t be a communist and make money,” offers a 27 year old Lou Reed in the midst of the wonderful new reissue of the Velvet Underground’s self-titled third album, “then you have to be a rock ‘n’ roll singer – at least, in Hoboken.”

With that, The Velvet Underground – 45th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (available in two and six disc versions; the double-disc set is reviewed here) revisits the seminal New York band in yet another season of change. Recorded during the closing weeks of 1968 and released the following spring, the record is a step away from the sonic assault of 1967’s White Light/White Heat. It’s also the first VU recording cut after the exit of guitarist/violist John Cale. With Cale gone, the Velvets effectively became Reed’s band. A few of the vocal duties are shared, but Reed penned all 10 melodically engaging but thematically restless tracks and was at the helm of the album’s lighter, heavily rhythmic sound.

Of the four remarkable recordings the VU released before Reed’s departure for a solo career in 1970, The Velvet Underground is often the most overlooked. But several songs here rank among Reed’s finest work. Pale Blue Eyes, a subtle saga of a love tryst with a surprise ending, leads the list with a melodic charm as devious as its storyline. Then there is After Hours, a closing tune sung with blunt but quiet vulnerability by drummer Maureen Tucker that wears its insecurity like an open wound against a disarming, dance hall melody. But the stunner is Jesus, an open-faced plea for faith that today approximates a traditional spiritual.

Of course, the real treat behind these Deluxe Editions of the VU catalogue have been the accompanying bonus discs, which often unearth some long lost archival delicacy. The one discovered for The Velvet Underground is quite the treasure – a 70 minute set of concert recordings taken from a pair of late November 1969 concerts at The Matrix in New York.

Some of this material was issued, along with recordings from an October show that year, on a 1974 live set titled 1969: The Velvet Underground Live. Here the October recordings have been jettisoned and the number of November performances have been doubled and remastered into what is perhaps the best sounding VU live album yet. Among the unreleased nuggets: a slow, woozy take of Sweet Jane (which would surface in 1970 on Reed’s final Velvets album, Loaded), a cantankerous saga about “the sorrows of the contemporary world” called I Can’t Stand It Anymore (which would be retooled for Reed’s 1971 solo debut record) and a percussive, menacing update of Heroin (from the first VU album, 1967’s The Velvet Underground and Nico).

Filling a gap in the history of a legendary band, the reconstituted The Velvet Underground does the legacy of the actual Velvet Underground proud and then some.

critic’s pick 252: keith jarrett/charlie haden/paul motian: ‘hamburg ’72’

keith-jarrettHamburg ’72, a remarkable archival find from the vaults of ECM Records, begins innocently enough with a piano melody from Keith Jarrett that dances about with the quiet immediacy of his masterful solo improvisation recordings. Then as the rhythm section lightly falls into place, a lyrical stride emerges that recalls Jarrett’s long-running Standards Trio.

Such instances, however, serve as the proverbial calm before the storm. This isn’t a new work by the Standards Trio but a recording of a 42 year German radio broadcast at the NDR-Jazz Workshop with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Paul Motian. Any pastoral suggestion is shattered by passages of free-style improvisation (with Jarrett on soprano saxophone), subtle Eastern instrumentation (with Jarrett on flute) and rich, churchy duets that place Haden in the driver’s seat (with Jarrett bashing away on tambourine). Best of all, the music winds up sounding as though it was recorded last week.

ECM chieftain Manfred Eicher began work remixing the analog sources of Hamburg ’72 in July – to be specific, the day after Haden’s death. That’s just the beginning of the coincidental timelines that run behind the scenes of this music. There is also the fact that this performance paralleled the 1972 release of Facing You, the solo piano record that began an alliance between Jarrett, Eicher and ECM that continues to this day. It also represents the trio’s only showing on the label, although it appeared several times on ECM albums augmented by saxophonist Dewey Redman as a Jarrett band often referred to as the American Quartet.

That leaves us with an invaluable timepiece of a recording. Jarrett reveals an already complete piano voice during the lovely, low stroll of Take Me Back (first released on the 1972 Columbia album Expectations and one of four Jarrett originals featured in this performance). But the tune quickly builds into a playful, rolling trade-off with Haden marked by frequent punctuations from the pianist on tambourine. It nicely approximates gospel as well as loose, uproarious swing.

The interplay builds to a 15 minute workout of Haden’s Song for Che which runs from a percussion accented solo by the composer full of elastic color to intermittent screams from Jarrett on soprano sax. Then it’s back to another merry piano outburst before returning to the same cricket-like chirping of bass and percussion that first distinguished the tune.

It’s tempting to view this music as a eulogy to Haden or, for that matter, Motian (who died in November 2011). But even though Jarrett remains the trio’s lone surviving torchbearer, the music of Hamburg ’72 is the product of a group spirit rich with a jazz urgency that is truly ageless.

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