Archive for critic’s picks

critic’s pick: ralph towner, ‘my foolish heart’

There is a certain selflessness to the fact that Ralph Towner titled his first solo acoustic guitar album in 11 years “My Foolish Heart.” Of the recording’s 13 compositions, it is the only one he didn’t pen. But the tune’s history is rich, pervading every crevice of the stately beauty that defines this astonishing project as well as reinforcing an essential blueprint Towner has followed during his 44 year tenure with the European ECM label.

Composed by Victor Young and Ned Washington, “My Foolish Heart” is a proven jazz standard. Among the many pioneers to reshape it as a work of their own is piano great Bill Evans, whose vanguard trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian supplanted the work with a contemplative grace in 1961. Towner, who has regularly doubled as a pianist through the decades, has long admired Evans’ cunning and grace, enforcing a lyricism that has been a constant within his solo and ensemble projects, as well as his ongoing work with the long running band Oregon, without sounding imitative.

Towner’s take on “My Foolish Heart” is, frankly, just as evocative as Evans’ immortal rendering. Set to solo guitar, the precision and patience that sweep through the playing are more classically rooted. Yet the melodic warmth is always embraced. That same approach runs throughout the rest of the album, striking a balance of classical and jazz (evident especially during the 12 string guitar patterns of “Clarion Guitar,” which harken back to earlier ECM days) but still possessing the same myriad emotive casts – from playful to bittersweet to slightly ominous – that have long distinguished Towner’s playing.

On “Dolomiti Dance,” an Italian accented dance melody (Towner is a Washington native but has long resided in Rome) is repeated with modest variation to affirm a melody in sunny motion. “Blue as in Bley,” a requiem for pianist Paul Bley who died a month before the album’s recording session last winter in Switzerland, flips the premise for a darker and slightly more dissonant presentation that still adheres to the album’s light, exact and emotive cast.

The album ends by revisiting a 2003 Towner tune that led off Oregon’s “Beyond Words” album. Aptly titled “Rewind,” the original version was propelled largely by bass and reeds with guitar as a primarily rhythmic device until it was allowed to set sail at the halfway point. The version that closes “My Foolish Heart” is taken at a slightly slower pace. But without the additional instrumentation, the newer version sounds, if anything, more complete. It indulges in patient, unforced lyricism, allowing the performance, as is the case with all the music on “My Foolish Heart,” to beautifully reflect the tone and technique of a true guitar sage at the height of his understated power.

critic’s pick – brian eno, ‘reflection’

In a recent posting on his website, Brian Eno confesses he doesn’t understand the contemporary definition of the term “ambient music,” the tag penned to a series of atmospheric instrumental albums he has created over the past three decades exuding sounds that moves in glacial tonal increments rather than through rhythm. It’s no wonder, too, given the music’s appropriation by scores of pop, techno and even dub artists during the generation that followed such early Eno moodpiece experiments as “Discreet Music” (1975) and “Ambient 1: Music for Airports” (1978).

Even Eno himself has sought to find new placement and purpose for his soundscapes. On “The Ship,” an Eno album released as recently as last spring, he used his ambient prototypes as a backdrop for vocal meditations, a few dissonant eruptions and even a slice of majestically reinvented pop (via his version of The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free”).

On “Reflection,” the focus falls back on the ambient sound that started it all. The record is a single, 51 minute composition, an instrumental tone poem of sorts that glides with patience and grace. Through the music’s slo-mo unveiling, a few variances appear and contract like a fragment of melody that washes in at low tide only to be eventually pulled back out to sea. Sometimes, a suggestion of a pulse is detected, but the echo is distant – a call from an outside land the music seems to have purposely drifted away from. In other instances, the sense of contemplation is underscored by a few modest accents – a chant-like like accent that briefly mimics birdsong here, the chill of what sounds like vibraphone there. But given the album’s processed sound and its lack of detailed liner notes, you can seldom tell what the specific instrumental voice is.

There is also something of a paradox within the music. It begins fully realized as a gentle swirl of mock-percussive effects connect like wind chimes before the music quickly evolves into an unhurried sonic wash of humming keyboard orchestration that revels in its state of subtlety. Not so with the ending. While “Reflection” wastes no time in lifting off, it takes a beauteous eternity to bid adieu. It’s slow (as in, very slow) fade seems to suggest that it has every intention on lingering on even as it eventually disappears from our rear view mirror.

This is not music for everyone. Many dismissed the minimalist dissension of Eno’s ambient work back in the ‘70s as a crashing bore, a music that sounds more like muzak, only more static. But for those ears favoring a sense of impressionistic introspection – or for anyone simply seeking 51 minutes of glorious peace and quiet – “Reflection” is a fascinating one way trip to the heart of Eno’s ambient cosmos.

critic’s pick: bob dylan, ‘the real royal albert hall concert’

Few artists, let alone folk icons, have so continually defied expectations surrounding their career trajectory, as well as those within the very stylistic foundation of their music, as Bob Dylan. He did it 50 years ago with a performance now issued as “The Real Royal Albert Hall Concert” and he did earlier this month in the quizzical way he non-acknowledged and then ultimately accepted, via proxy, the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In fact, the very title of “The Real Royal Albert Hall Concert” is a bit of a puzzle. An aural snapshot of a tour that reintroduced the folk giant as a rock ‘n’ roller, often to the considerable consternation of his audiences, the album puts into historical perspective the 1998 release dubbed “Live 1966: The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert,” which was later revealed to have actually been recorded in Manchester.

Pop historians can and will argue at length about the virtues of both performances. They certainly have the ammo for it as “The Real Royal Albert Hall Concert” is a two-disc ambassador of a beastly new 36 disc box set, “The 1966 Live Recordings.” The latter is an assemblage of every known bootleg, soundboard and professionally preserved artifact from Dylan’s tour that year. But with a price tag of roughly $16 (the boxed set sells for about $140), “The Real Royal Albert Hall Concert” makes for a simpler yet still exact examination of a pop scholar in a state of extraordinary transformation.

What remains curious, all these years later, is that for all the ballyhoo about Dylan going electric, the first half of the 1966 concerts featured him in the familiar guise of solo folkie. In fact, some of the biggest treats within “The Real Royal Albert Hall Concert” come from the acoustic performances and the astonishing audio clarity they are now presented in. There is simply no way to understate the immediacy of an early ‘20s Dylan upholding the lean, patient vitality of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Just Like a Woman” and especially “Visions of Johanna” when all were essentially new works.

Of course, the electric music that roars out of the second disc remains the sound of very purposeful anarchy. Backed by The Hawks, the unit that would become The Band the following year, Dylan creates heavy drama out of the set opening “Tell Me, Momma,” wailing over the clang of a young Robbie Robertson on guitar and especially Garth Hudson’s calliope-like keyboard orchestration.

Levon Helm sat this tour out, but Mickey Jones nicely propels the drive on drums during cranky versions of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Ballad of a Thin Man.” But Dylan remains ringmaster of this fascinating carnival, clueing the London audience in prior to a rewired “I Don’t Believe You” on what his electric intentions were in 1966.

“It used to be like that,” he says with deadpan solemnity before reintroducing the song as a plugged-in country romp. “Now it goes like this.”

critic’s pick: kate bush, ‘before the dawn’

kate-bushIn the liner notes to “Before the Dawn,” Kate Bush admits to how she “never expected the overwhelming response of the audiences” to the 2014 stage show this three-disc live album chronicles. Maybe that’s because the songstress, one of England’s most celebrated progressive pop stylists, is also something of a Garbo when it comes to the stage. “Before the Dawn” preserves Bush’s first set of stage performances (it wasn’t really a tour, as all 22 shows were presented at London’s Hammersmith Apollo) in 35 years. So, yeah, overwhelming audience anticipation is pretty much a given.

The album’s mighty 2 ½ hour running time is divided into three “acts.” The first is essentially a warm up of unrelated songs from Bush’s last five studio albums (nothing on “Before the Dawn” predates 1984). The second and third discs are dominated by thematic suites from 1984’s “Hounds of Love” and 2005’s “Aerial.” The former, “The Ninth Wave,” is darker and more abstract, a song cycle as told by a woman stranded at sea. The latter, “A Sky of Honey” is an emotive opposite, a spring serenade dominated by light, art and birdsong.

Here is where things get interesting. Bush has long been such an exacting stylist that one might expect “Before the Dawn” to be an equally precise replication of her studio works with a tonnage of post production gloss administered to clean up the rawness of a live show. Well, there’s none of that. The album opening “Lily,” in fact, erupts with a wild and surprisingly immediate concert energy. Gone are the layers of synths and multi-dubbed vocals from the song’s initial version on 1993’s “The Red Shoes.” What we hear instead is a solemn guitar groove, the choir-like support of a vocal quintet and Bush’s robust singing, which towers over the pageantry. The same holds for “King of the Mountain,” an “Aerial” tune Bush powers with an incantatory wail that rises like a windstorm. Its siren potency is maintained until the song crashes into rounds of thunder and what sounds, for all the world, like the roar of elephants.

“The Ninth Wave” also has instances where the live intimacy sparkles. The most obvious is capped by “The Morning Fog,” a serenade of lovely acoustics that lets the sun pour in following the suite’s profound drama and darkness. “A Sky of Honey” has far more suggestions of organic approachability, especially in the way it morphs from churchy meditation into a flamenco-like acoustic party piece during “Sunset.”

The wildest thing, though, about “Before the Dawn” is that it is essentially a soundtrack to what was a very elaborate and theatrical stage presentation. But with the visuals gone, the focus remains on the music, which sounds simply glorious. We can only hope this live opus represents a prelude to a more sustained concert return for a true performance titan.

 

critic’s pick: leonard cohen, ‘you want it darker’

leoanrd-cohenFor the second time this year, I wrote a review of a recording by an artist of note who died between the time my piece was completed and when it was published. It happened in January with David Bowie’s “Blackstar” and again this week with Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker.” I wrote this last weekend. Cohen died, at age 82, yesterday. Didn’t change a word. Didn’t need to.

I’ll offer a more complete appreciation of Cohen’s remarkable career here at The Musical Box later today….

“I’m leaving the table,” utters Leonard Cohen early into his remarkably ruminative “You Want It Darker” album. “I’m out of the game.”

Cohen has pulled this trick before, especially in a prolific career renaissance that has seen the release of three studio albums and four concert records since 2009 (and that doesn’t even include additional archival releases). He loves, in his whispery bullfrog voice, to paint songs as parting shots – remembrances of love and faith served with an eerily calm that borders on the unsettling. Cohen could be singing, in a largely half-spoken manner, about an affair or the apocalypse. The delivery makes each indistinguishable from the other, especially when you factor in the light, funereal music that hangs over Cohen’s work.

“You Want It Darker” is, gloriously, more of the same.

At age 82, Cohen has every right to take stock of his own mortality. But that’s not necessarily what “You Want It Darker” is about. More than perhaps any other subject, Cohen sings about release – spiritual, emotional and physical. With that, though, comes a price. On “Treaty,” the rebirth of a snake, despite the obvious religious imagery, is considered, knowing that any transformation must include the creature’s very earthly venom. “Born again is born without a skin,” Cohen sings. “The poison enters into everything.”

Conversely, the gypsy dance air of “Traveling Alone” is a song of farewell to a romance. While all parties seem to seek dissolution, not everyone seems capable of fully implementing it. “I know you’re right, about the blues. You live some life you’d never choose.”

As narrative heavy and poetically driven as Cohen’s music has always been, “You Want It Darker” is also one of the most musically arresting works of his career. Credit much of that to son Adam Cohen, who produced the album, and especially veteran producer Patrick Leonard who arranged and even authored some of the musical dressings which culminate in a string quartet-driven reprise of “Treaty” that closes the recording.

These elements also merge on the album-opening title track. Co-written by Leonard, the work introduces the record’s arching quest for release by professing darkness before any resolution of light. The first sound you hear is an ancient choral ensemble. Then a looping beat percolates as Neil Larsen’s churchy organ colors in the atmospherics. Finally, Cohen enters – a quiet, scarred voice addressing doom and comfort as naturally as the song depicts spiritual yearning and human dismay. It is a captivating slice of music that, in all its dark, hushed beauty, embodies the temperament of the present day Cohen.

“A million candles burning for the love that never came,” Cohen sings. “You want it darker. We kill the flame.” Then, almost under his breath as the chorus is completed, Cohen caps the mesmerizing incantation with three words that remind us what we’re hearing is, after, still pop music.

“Hey, hey, hey.”

 

critic’s pick: marillion, ‘F.E.A.R.’

marillion-fearAlas, being a family publication, the full title to Marillion’s new album can’t be referenced here. Excluding the beginning expletive, it translates to “Everyone and Run,” but the abbreviation really tells the story.

The recording offers a set of topically turbulent and inwardly unsettling works – three extended suites buoyed by three shorter pieces – from the veteran British prog band. It’s also a beaut of a record, one that is as sonically majestic as it is lyrically distressing.

The problem many audiences have with prog bands, especially vintage ones like Marillion, is the perception their music is a bloated mesh of indulgent musicianship with narratives intended on fancy that skyrocket into pure pretentiousness. But ever since vocalist, frontman and lyricist Steve Hogarth changed the face of the band from a Genesis clone into a more socially and poetically aware unit in 1989, Marillion has largely steered clear of prog’s stereotypical excesses. In fact, it has managed to release three true classics under his stewardship – “This Strange Engine” (1997), “Marbles” (2004) and “Sounds That Can’t Be Made” (2012). “F.E.A.R.” may well prove an addition to the list.

Lyrically, this is a record about a Brexit-beaten Great Britain, although the references to big money and its suffocating effects on democracy (“The New Kings”) and a shamed society unwilling to face up to the realities of refugee migration (“El Dorado”) aren’t that far removed from controversies on these shores. “I see myself in them,” Hogarth sings in the latter suite. “The people at the borders, waiting to exist again.”

The shorter “Living in Fear” is, despite the title, more hopeful. Written as a prayer of strength and peace with a touch of defiance (“Will you let one lost soul change what we stand for? I don’t think so”), the tune works itself into a choral lather with a “yeah, yeah” chant that reflects subtle pop smarts as it courts a sense of hippie-dom.

The highlight, though, is the least politically inclined work on the album. “The Leavers” takes its cue from the band’s own existence as touring musicians, viewing society as two classes – the leavers, who surrender to curiosity and travel, and the remainers, a steadfastly content (or are they?) legion of homebodies.

All this doesn’t even take into account how strong “F.E.A.R.” is sonically with keyboardist Mark Kelly and guitarist Steve Rothery at the helm of beautifully orchestrated backdrops with Hogarth countering with vocals that suit the music’s anthemic drive while regularly downshifting to hushed senses of world weariness.

Marillion has never been a band that has been on everyone’s radar. “F.E.A.R” may not change that. But it’s a record of the times that counters its dour world view with music of rich beauty and dimension. In short, there is nothing to be afraid of here.

critic’s pick: bruce hornsby, ‘rehab reunion’

bruce hornsbyThe two particulars separating “Rehab Reunion” from most every other record made by Bruce Hornsby is the unexpected absence of one sound and the dominance of another.

What you don’t hear is piano – not one note. That’s quite a shift for a stylist like Hornsby, who has developed not just a virtuosic voice for the instrument within his pop lexicon but an exact and animated compositional sense for where it makes the most vibrant emotional statement. What takes its place? The dulcimer. Seriously, the dulcimer, the stringed agent of rural folk music, an instrument that would seem to be light years away from the wistful and wondrous arrangements Hornsby has long employed as musical playgrounds.

But the most stunning aspect to the highly listenable “Rehab Reunion” is that you really don’t sense a change of stylistic course for Hornsby and his longrunning Noisemakers band, bolstered here by fine guest shots from Justin Vernon and Mavis Staples. Sure, the dulcimer rides along the record’s nine songs primarily as a rhythmic device. But if you suspect there is some gaping void left by the absence of piano, think again. Hornsby’s songs are just as complete in their sense of orchestral and emotive beauty. Some of that comes from co-hort J.T. Thomas on organ, whose runs beautifully flesh out these tunes. His playing especially underscores the sunny wanderlust of “M.I.A. in M.I.A.M.I.” with a cool ingenuity that recalls The Band’s Garth Hudson. Hearing him alongside the string serenades of Hornsby and mandolinist Ross Holmes is a genuine delight as is the song’s playful Floridian storyline of being fatherly knighted as “Don Juan Schula.”

Hornsby’s lineage to the Grateful Dead isn’t ignored, either. Throughout “Rehab Reunion,” the bright, clipped guitar sound of Gibb Droll accents the songs with an air that can’t help but recall the floating melodic drive of Jerry Garcia.

Most of all, though, is how steadfast Hornsby’s pop command remains. He is a clever wordsmith throughout the album, be it through the character studies within the title song to “Rehab Reunion” (the most thematically intriguing tune of its kind since Warren Zevon’s “Detox Mansion”) or the out-of-nowhere odes to the art of restaurant gratuity (“Tipping”) and a certain European writer not normally celebrated within pop circles (“Hey Kafka”). But it’s the music that grabs you most – a wide open sound that references jazz and folk as much as its does pop and jam band intent.

This isn’t the first time Hornsby has taken to the dulcimer on a record. It began popping up sparingly nearly two decades ago. On “Rehab Reunion,” its role may seem dominant, but Hornsby invites it in as readily as he does all the musical input from the Noisemakers. All are guests at this vibrant pop party and all are made to feel especially welcome.

critic’s pick: sarah jarosz, ‘undercurrent’

sarah jaroszThe curious photograph within the artwork of Sara Jarosz’s fine new Undercurrent album would almost seem a contradiction at first. Open up the CD jacket, and there sits a photograph of the Central Park reservoir, an expanse of serenity within an unwieldy metropolis. But in a way, the shot mirrors at least some of the intent fueling the album’s 11 songs. The product of Jarosz’s recent relocation to New York, the tunes are largely folkish miniatures – stories of intimacy and conversational reflection performed with refreshingly understated candor. While they may be products of big city experience, they sound like stories shared in a parlor room.

The mood of Undercurrent is framed by the two songs that beautifully bookend the album. The first, Early Morning Light, is a portrait of romantic aftermath sung with no accompaniment other than Jarosz’s acoustic guitar. It’s a stark coming-to-terms tale that approaches it sense of loss with wistful expectation (“All my troubles just begun, you and me, the troubled ones”) even though the inevitable breakup is no less traumatic. In contrast is Jacqueline, which is also sung solo but with electric guitar as the lone orchestration. The despondency is just as profound, even as Jarosz seeks to summon an era-defining spirit for solace (“I cried my tears and they fell on down into your dark and misty blue”). Both songs bluntly define their sense of sadness, seek different forms of comfort and employ different shades of stark musicality for expression.

It should also be noted that in an album full of collaborative songwriting – Parker Milsap, Milk Carton Kids’ Joey Ryan and Americana priestess Aoife O’Donovan help out – Early Morning Light and Jacqueline were penned by Jarosz alone.

What sits between the songs is rather splendid, too. Far lighter in tone and intent is Green Lights. Co-written by Luke Reynolds of Guster, the music is more atmospheric with a smidge of reverb accenting Jarosz’s singing to make it more modestly fanciful. The song doesn’t dispense with grimness, but its intrusion is more worldly than personal. Perhaps, the misery-loves-company approach keeps the heavier demons at bay. It certainly seems that way as Green Lights’ more dream-like disposition unfolds (“The song in my head keeps me marching on”).

There are also twists down other paths, as in House of Mercy, a Julie Miller-style blast of antique spiritualism with an incantatory feel, and the accusatory Lost Dog, whose shattered sentiments are reflected in the brittle strains of banjo Jarosz colors the tune with. Collectively, such scrapbook reveries add up to a beautifully unadorned folk attitude, one with an uneasy grace that fuels Undercurrent’s quiet but beautiful urgency.

Sarah Jarosz performs at 3 p.m. July 16 as part of Forecastle at Waterfront Park in Louisville.

critic’s pick: neko case, k.d. lang and laura viers, ‘case/lang/viers’

case-lang-viersThe trouble with most pop vocal trios, especially all-star amalgamations of previously celebrated solo artists, isn’t the singing. If the harmony wasn’t there, the teaming would have never caught fire in the first place. No, the kinks usually surface in the writing. As such collaborations are of often designed as exhibitions of star power, the songs handed to the artists involved are either perfunctory tunes offered to capitalize on the harmonies or pop covers cut to insure the product’s accessibility.

It should comes as little surprise that case/lang/viers, an absolutely sumptuous session of elegant turbulence, quiet provocation and blissful singing doesn’t adhere to any of the expected supergroup prototypes. Formed at the behest of Canadian cross-genre chanteuse k.d. lang, the trio pens 14 tunes of their own, covering everything from tales of rapturous and shattered romance to startling eulogies. The singing? Well, it’s sterling throughout. That’s kind of a given that the remarkable songstresses Neko Case and Laura Viers round out the trio. But it’s the songs on case/lang/viers that really grab you. To say they compliment the harmonies doesn’t begin to cut to the core of the album’s serene glow.

For many, lang is the marquee name here. For anyone who has lost touch with the clarity and emotional potency of her singing as well as the often exquisite longing of her best compositions, look no further than Honey and Smoke, a breathtaking love song of distant unrest that any singer would (or at least ought to) kill for. But pair that with the satin-rich voice that reveals not one iota of a blemish from a career that has railed on for over three decades, along with the hushed girl group vocals Case and Viers supply (an integral component to Trevor Martine’s lustrous production) and the sparks begin to regally fly.

Case, not surprisingly, turns such stately pop tradition on its ear during Delirium with an equal measure of defiance and distance (“I kissed you in the morning, but only in my mind’s eye”) and blurrier, neo-psychedelic backdrops that twist new shapes out of familiar girl-group pop in much the same way R.E.M.’s later records embraced softer, more ambient flavored variations of its earlier elemental sound.

Viers may be – comparatively, at least – the least established of the three trio members (she opened a Decemberists concert at the Singletary Center for the Arts in 2009). But she maintains the most visible songwriting presence on the album, running from the spry, summery requiem for the doomed ‘60s songstress Judee Still (Song for Judee) to the dizzying, orchestral rumination Best Kept Secret.

Throw all that in the same pop neighborhood and you have what may be the most articulate and sonically satisfying pop album of the summer.

critic’s pick 319: andrew bird, ‘are you serious’

andrew bird are you serious“You may not know me but you feel my stare,” sings Andrew Bird near the onset of Are You Serious, his first album (minus assorted EPs, cover tune projects and instrumental musings) since 2012’s Break It Yourself. It’s an uneasy line in an equally agitated song called Roma Fade that breezes along with an effortless pop sway. Until that line arrives. Then the mood blacks out for a beat or two before resuming. It’s like getting shunted briefly through a tunnel during a summer drive.

The various stylistic guises of Bird don’t always flock together. He is part indie-pop star, part chamber-style vaudevillian (what with the whistling and pizzicato violin bits) and part cerebral instrumentalist. Are You Serious largely opts for Bird No. 1. It’s a far more raucous, loose and downright fun session than anything he has issued in a decade. But there is still that warble of unease – an almost playful paranoia – that bubbles under the surface.

You hear it in spades during Left Handed Kisses, the queasy duet with Fiona Apple (duel is more like it) that is offered as a total rethink on presumptive romantic connections by way of what the latter artist terms a “back handed love song.”

Valleys of the Young, on the other hand, ponders the youth (“you’re going on 64 driving down 65”) of colliding generations with a portrait of pop fancy that rages outside the song’s swirling psychedelic core with squalls of Sonic Youth-level guitar. It’s a tale of love and death with “hearts constantly breaking” and the guitar onslaught finally overtaking and puncturing the pop bliss. For a stylist of Bird’s usually reserved fortitude, the song is an all out rampage.

Slightly less intrusive is The New St. Jude, a more Dylan-esque escapade that bounces about like Graceland-era Paul Simon before settling into the solemnity of latter day Grateful Dead. Compared to the more extreme moments of Are You Serious, the tune is like a Sunday morning mimosa after an especially cagey Saturday night.

Initial reviews remark that Are Your Serious is a reflection and affirmation of Bird’s family life. Maybe so. The acoustic warmth and hope of Chemical Switches suggest as such with its stripped down make up of guitar and whistling. But the tune is essentially the eye in a hurricane of a record, one that doesn’t relent until the album closing Bellevue. There, the music melts into a looping melody spurred on by violin and fortified by a bright, free flowing groove before coming to rest on the words “I think I’ve found someone.”

Then again, concluding this turbulent session in a sea of seeming contentment and quiet with a song that shares its name with a famous New York public hospital suggests this love story comes with a bit of baggage – or at least some artillery to weather the storm with.

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