Archive for critic’s picks

critic’s pick 267: mark knopfler, ‘tracker’

trackerThe cover photo to Tracker largely sums up Mark Knopfler’s view of his own celebrity status. It depicts the guitarist in a field under a (presumably) summer sky. But he is standing so far in the distance as to be indistinguishable from the elements except for one detail. He has his back to the camera.

There are two clearer shots within the album notes. One looks like it is from Knopfler’s teen years. The other is a performance shot with Bob Dylan during the guitarist’s commercial heyday with Dire Straits, which means it’s around 30 years old. Pretty telling stuff, eh?

The music within is only modestly more revealing. There are snapshots from younger days, a few quintessentially British remembrances, novel-esque story songs and love reflections both mad and mournful. As for the white hot finger-picking that bolstered the Dire Straits sound of old… well, all that has caught the last coach out of town. On Tracker, guitar is used sparingly, along with the keyboards of longtime co-hort Guy Fletcher, to orchestrate rather than lead on the album’s 11 tunes (which jumps to 15 or 17 songs on various deluxe versions of the recording).

All of this probably makes Tracker sound like the work of a rocker who is more than a little long in the tooth. But at 65, Knopfler is something of a master craftsman when it comes to his songs. While Tracker may be the most clearly subdued record of his career, it also sounds like a million bucks – from the mix of Dave Brubeck-like swing and Northumbrian fancy on the youthful memoir Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes that opens the album to the lullaby-like duet Wherever I Go, sung with gorgeously subtle grace alongside Ruth Moody of the Wailin’ Jennies, that closes it.

In between are all kinds of exquisitely detailed but heavily understated delights. Broken Bones locks itself into the sort of steadfast blues groove that recalls the finer work of the late Okie song stylist J.J. Cale while Lights of Taormina fashions a Dylan-esque song structure to a neo-tropical groove. But the Celtic sway of Mighty Man, along with an ode to British poet Basil Bunting (Basil) whose curmudgeonly profile (“too old for the job, bored out of his mind”) could be viewed as a parallel to Knopfler’s, best typlifies Tracker’s lean beauty.

Then again, this is in no way a rock ‘n’ roll album. Those hoping for a reawakening of Dire Straits should wait for another train. Tracker is instead the work of an unapologetically grizzled pop journeyman, joyfully detached from rock stardom, who stills luxuriates in the construction of a good musical yarn and, even more so, the time it takes to share it.

critic’s picks 266: led zeppelin, ‘physical graffiti (deluxe edition)’

led-zeppelin-physical-graffitiEver since the re-issue campaign of Led Zeppelin’s studio albums commenced last year, the anticipation of a reconstituted Physical Graffiti began to mount.

That was largely due to the involvement of Zep guitarist Jimmy Page, who doubled as a producer for all the band’s recording sessions. Having the prime architect of Zep’s mammoth sound at the helm of its remastering process – in essence, its restoration – revealed one of rock ‘n’ roll’s more cherished catalogues was in the most learned and sympathetic of hands.

Page didn’t disappoint, either. The newly uncovered clarity he brought to the band’s records (especially, Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin III) thrilled even die-hard fans – not an easy task considering how wildly familiar this music was. Let’s face it, by the time the double album version of Physical Graffiti surfaced in February 1975, Zep ruled FM radio. Fans got to experience the thrust of the band’s songs by the mere run of the radio dial.

In short, what Page accomplished on remastered editions of the band’s first five albums was making some of the most familiar rock music in the world seem new again.

That happens again at the onset Custard Pie, the tune that opens a new triple CD edition of Physical Graffiti. Curiously, it involves not the meat-and-potatoes riff Page cooks up. It’s not even the watch-setting precision and thud of drummer John Bonham or the mile-wide wail of vocalist Robert Plant. Thrilling as all that is, what hits you is a simple but potent clavinet line by bassist John Paul Jones. It’s always been there. But Page’s remastering on this new Graffiti edition makes such a lean little riff feel like someone is tapping on your shoulder.

Of course, the album’s epic accents are similarly enhanced, from the swelling Eastern orchestration of Kashmir to the wacked out Celtic/synth colors of In the Light. But it’s also a riot to rediscover the album’s looser pleasures, like the country-esque sway of Down by the Seaside, the pressure-cooker economy of The Wanton Song and the piano-driven roots rattle of Boogie with Stu..

As with the first five Zep remasters, Page augments the original recording with a full “companion” disc of outtakes and alternate mixes. Here, the excavated treasures include an instrumental blueprint of Graffiti’s finale tune Sick Again, which offers a crash course in Page’s guitar invention and efficiency, and a wholly different reading of In the Light (titled Everybody Makes it Through) that recalls the dark fancy of Zep’s late ‘60s music.

Place all this within packaging that replicates in miniature the artwork of Graffiti’s original LP incarnation and you a have a comprehensive portrait of a rock institution at its most boastful and brilliant.

critic’s pick 265: the staple singers, ‘freedom highway – complete’ and pop staples, ‘don’t lose this’

staples-freedom-highway-original“We’re not here to put on a show,” remarked Roebuck “Pops” Staples on the night of April 9, 1965 before a congregation at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church. The mission of this iconic gospel stylist was to hold a service. But with the Civil Rights Movement at a boil thanks to the three historic marches in Selma, Ala. just few weeks earlier, Staples also had a message for the world.

So tucked in alongside the spirituals Help Me Jesus and Precious Lord, Take My Hand were We Shall Overcome and a tune Staples penned in honor of the marches, Freedom Highway. A mix of pure gospel jubilation, sagely solace and the exquisite guitar tremolo that gave the Staple Singers the most distinctive crossover sound of any gospel group before or since, Freedom Highway became the title tune of a concert recording that, like the Selma marches, is being revisited on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.

Curiously, the reconstituted album, Freedom Highway – Complete, comes to us on the heels of Don’t Lose This, a collection of Staples’ final – but, until recently, unfinished – recordings that have been lovingly completed with some celebrity assistance.

Staples’ desire that Freedom Highway be viewed as church service is now fully realized. The 30-plus minutes of bonus material gives us everything, right down to the benediction and audio of a pass-the-plate offering that failed to raise even $100 to pay the Staple Singers on its first go-round. But there is also glorious music, like a brief Build on That Shore that highlights the effortlessly soulful harmonies of Staples and his children, including a 25 year old Mavis Staples, and a volcanic Tell Heaven that fully lets Mavis loose after some serious father-daughter testifying.

pops staples-don't lose thisMavis co-produced with her father the initial 1998 sessions for Don’t Lose This before the latter’s death in 2000. But it took the help of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, a collaborator and producer on albums that helped reboot Mavis’ solo career, to bring Don’t Lose This to completion.

As with the vintage records of the Staple Singers, the gospel intensity simmers quietly around Pops’ whispery singing and the sinewy lines of his guitarwork. Both are highlighted beautifully on an unaccompanied version of Nobody’s Fault But Mine that gives this music a strong roots-blues feel. Then again, No News is Good News and Somebody Was Watching, which reunite the all three Staples sisters, rocks with the same freshness that stirs the swing behind the album-closing cover of Bob Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody.

It makes for a fascinating epilogue to a steadfast gospel career that never strayed from the Freedom Highway.

critic’s pick 264: robert earl keen, ‘happy prisoner – the bluegrass sessions; steve earle and the dukes, ‘terraplane’

robt earl keenIn the liner notes to their two newest recordings, Texas-bred troubadours Robert Earl Keen and Steve Earle outline the appeal of two linked yet different musical turfs that remove them from their Lone Star roots.

For Keen’s Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, the draw was a mix of urgency and intimacy. “I like to imagine sitting on the floor watching the guitar player curled around his instrument, strumming for his life,” he writes.

The resulting music on Happy Prisoner is a compromise of sorts. Beefing up his veteran band with some primo progressive string music pals (vocalist/songsmith Peter Rowan, banjoist Danny Barnes, fiddler Sara Watkins) to take on a repertoire that constitutes a bluegrass sampler (Old Home Place, East Virginia Blues, Footprints in the Snow), Keen summons a back porch feel as warm and whimsical as his own music.

But Keen’s ace-in-the-hole trait, however, has long been an ability to take to songs of desolation and loss as readily as his more bemusing tunes. As such, he offers powerful yet understated deliveries of outlaw ballads both classic (the immortal Long Black Veil) and contemporary (the Del McCoury by-way-of-Richard Thompson hit 52 Vincent Black Lightning). The lighter fraternal cast of T for Texas with longtime Lone Star running buddy Lyle Lovett is an extra fun bonus.

steve earleEarle has distanced himself from his home state – at least, geographically (he currently resides in New York) – but not its musical reach, as shown by the seasoned drawl of his singing and the often specific inspirations he has embraced (typlified by Townes, his Grammy winning tribute album to Texas songwriting great Townes Van Zandt).

Terraplane adjusts that vision somewhat and scoots it over into blues territory, wherever that may be. “They run so deep and dark and close to the bone that folks walk around every day with the blues as though it were perfectly natural for a human being to go on living with a broken heart,” Earle writes in the Terraplane notes.

That translates neatly into the album’s 10 original songs, which summon senses of restlessness, loss, lust and eerie independence. The latter fuels Acquainted with the Wind, a dark rambler’s affirmation set to a jagged electric romp colored by the guitar and fiddle accents of the Mastersons (the husband and wife duo of Chris Masterson and fiddler Eleanor Whitmore) and the rustic rhythms Earle summons on mandolin.

Equally evocative are Baby’s Just as Mean as Me (a congenial lovers’ spat performed as a rag-flavored duet with Whitmore), The Usual Time (an Elmore James-meets-Carl Perkins style saga of troubled desire) and especially Better Off Alone (a romantic postscript beset by loss and magnified by an absolutely evil guitar groove).

All offer shades of blue enhanced by a master storyteller’s uncompromising candor.

critic’s pick 263 : 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.

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