Archive for critic’s picks

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.

critic’s pick 250: captain beefheart, sun zoom spark: 1970 to 1972

beefheartAs his avant pop journeys wound into the ‘70s, Don VanVliet – better known to non- commercially inclined rock audiences as Captain Beefheart – began to stylistically shift gear. Lauded by critics for the deliciously abstract Trout Mask Replica in 1969, he entered the decade by opening the door ever so slightly into his treacherous musical universe.

The wonderful new four-disc box set Sun Zoom Spark: 1970 to 1972 revisits that era with reissues of Beefheart’s first three albums of the ‘70s, recordings that pulled him from the rock underground to a place perilously close to the mainstream. Illuminating those years even further is a fourth disc of previously unreleased jams and alternate takes. Together, they paint a portrait of an artist alternately reaching for or purposely avoiding the sun. Listen to Sun Zoom Spark as a whole and it’s often tough to tell the difference.

Perhaps the most noteworthy attribute of the set – at least, to Beefheart die-hards – is the inclusion of 1970’s Lick My Decals Off Baby, simply because it has out of print for years. Used copies are still selling online for well over twice the price of this entire box.

Decals luxuriates in a fragmented soundscape similar to that of Trout Mask Replica with polyrhythmic riffs that approximate jazz (Bellerin’ Plain), frantically composed lines that recall the music of Beefheart mentor Frank Zappa (The Smithsonian Institute Blues) and lyrics that read like impenetrable beat poetry (I Wanna Find a Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have to Go).

Two 1972 follow-ups The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot are where things really ease off. The compositional pace of both is slower, the lyrics are wittier and the overall feel is more accessible. The demented blues There Ain’t No Santa Claus on the Evenin’ Stage, which the previously-frenzied Beefheart sings in a low, belching moan, typlifies the changes.

The accessibility of Clear Spot, in particular, can be attributed to the enlistment of star Warner Brothers producer Ted Templeman, who also produced Little Feat’s Sailin’ Shoes and Randy Newman’s Sail Away that year. That may explain the echoes of both records within the Clear Spot tunes Low Yo Yo Stuff and Her Eyes are a Blue Million Miles respectively.

The rarities disc (ingeniously titled Out-takes) isn’t so much illuminating as it is an intriguing companion piece to the original albums. Tunes like the jazz-pop serenade Harry Irene and an marimba-led instrumental version of Best Batch Yet wouldn’t surface in finalized form until 1978 and 1980 while an alternate take of the scrappy Nowadays a Woman’s Gotta Hit a Man closely approximates the Clear Spot version but with a slightly looser blues shuffle under its feet.

It all makes Sun Zoom Spark a comprehensive and ultra compelling summation of overlooked music by a true rock iconoclast.

critic’s pick: bob dylan and the band, ‘the basement tapes complete: the bootleg series, vol. 11′

bob dylanIf you thought the heavily doctored 1975 double-LP titled The Basement Tapes fully represented the fabled 1967 sessions by Bob Dylan and the band that became The Band, then you seriously need to indulge in this newest archival release from Dylan’s ongoing Bootleg Series. This is where you hear how elemental, joyous and richly revealing this music really was.

The Basement Tapes was the blanket title given to the roughly 100 songs Dylan cut in upstate New York with his then-touring band The Hawks (which, the following year, would become The Band). At the time, Dylan was recovering from a near fatal motorcycle crash, although historians have regularly theorized the songwriter was also seeking refuge from his skyrocketing fame.

Available in two and six disc sets (the latter was used for this review), The Basement Tapes Complete uses covers of root music staples by Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, John Lee Hooker and the like (a stark reading of the Bruce Phillips classic Rock Salt and Nails is especially striking) as icebreakers for a wealth of Dylan originals.

The fidelity is far from the varnished completeness of the ’75 album. This set reverts to original reel-to-reel recordings made essentially as demos by Band keyboardist Garth Hudson. As such, we hear such forgotten gems as Tiny Montgomery, Million Dollar Bash and Lo and Behold evolve through multiple takes. Throughout, Dylan performs with his guard way, way down.

But The Basement Tapes Complete is perhaps even more revelatory in how it outlines the birth of The Band. The initial discs find Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Hudson approaching Dylan’s new tunes with caution. Then we get to a glorious recasting of One Too Many Mornings that Dylan and Manuel perform as a gorgeously battered duet.

There are also various takes of This Wheel’s on Fire and Tears of Rage – co-written by Danko and Manuel respectively, but sung here by Dylan – that would eventually find a place on The Band’s seminal 1968 debut album, Music from Big Pink. Both songs are ripe with the intuitive but mischievous Americana spirit that would guide the group through much of the decade to come.

Not everything here is grade A stuff. There’s a Delta blues revision of Blowin’ in the Wind that possibly set the stage for the stylistic character assassination of his own songs that Dylan still engages in during concerts today, along with a wheezy reading of the pop standard A Fool Such As I. Both show just deep into the stylistic abyss The Basements Tapes Complete reaches.

critic’s pick 248: pink floyd, ‘the endless river’

pink floydThe Endless River is the sound of Pink Floyd in the afterlife, the ruminations of a band dead for 20 years but exhumed to reassemble part of its past as a eulogy for one of its own.

What that boils down to is this. Floyd mainstays David Gilmour and Nick Mason filtered through some 20 hours of instrumental recordings left over from the band’s last studio album, 1994’s The Division Ball. Some were loose, informal jams, others were more spacious, completed soundscapes. Such remnants had gained strong sentimental value for the two as they represented not only what became Floyd’s final music but also the last recorded collaborations between guitarist Gilmour, drummer Mason and founding Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright. The latter died in 2008.

So what The Endless River constitutes is a collection of those instrumental fragments retooled with newly cut guitar and percussion parts. The heavily ambient and predominantly instrumental results serve as a wonderful epitaph not only to Wright’s long underappreciated contributions to the Pink Floyd catalog but to the band’s entire musical odyssey.

Longtime fans should be warned, however. This isn’t The Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall or even The Division Bell revisited. In fact, the only album The Endless River at all emulates is 1975’s Wish You Were Here – in particular, the synthesized symphony Shine On You Crazy Diamond (which was also a tribute to a fallen Floydian, Syd Barrett). Throughout The Endless River, Wright’s ethereal playing serves alternately as an orchestral foundation, a moody lead and a foil for the claps of Gilmour’s guitar thunder that erupt out of the calm.

That’s not to say the album doesn’t echo other spirits of Floydian past. It does, from the psychedelic beginnings of More and A Saucerful of Secrets referenced within the church organ mimicry of Autumn ’68 to the Meddle-like bursts of keyboards and percussion that pepper Eyes to Pearls to the layered orchestral tension of Allons-Y (2) that recalls the 1987 comeback album A Momentary Lapse of Reason.

Floyd bassist/lyricist Roger Waters is again absent from these sessions. But Gilmour steps out of the instrumental shadows for the album-closing affirmation of Louder Than Words, which offers The Endless River’s only vocal turn (save for Stephen Hawking’s spoken verse on Talkin’ Hawkin’). The tune picks up right where The Division Bell left off.

Though obviously not intended as any kind of milestone, The Endless River is an assured sonic sendoff to a legendary band, a near-forgotten musical era and, most of all, a true prog rock architect and friend.

critic’s pick 244: george harrison, ‘the apple years 1968-75′

appleyearsIn 2004, we were presented with The Dark Horse Years 1976-1992, a box set collection that gathered five studio albums and a tentative sounding concert recording that followed George Harrison through a period of commercial and critical rebirth. A fascinating but uneven set, the package left one looming question unanswered – specifically, why wasn’t the initial music Harrison created during the aftermath of The Beatles not given equal attention?

A full decade later comes the reply. The Apple Years 1968-75 serves up Harrison’s first six solo recordings – two experimental instrumental sets and four “proper” albums, one of which has long been sorely underappreciated – to showcase a spiritually imbued sense of pop songcraft.

The instrumental records, Wonderwall Music (1968) and Electronic Sound (1969), have long been dismissed as indulgences. But the former is a real sleeper, a musical kaleidoscope grounded in Eastern instrumentation and inspiration that regularly spins off into a variety of Western pop accents. It is a far more inviting listen today than the primitive analog synthesizer mischief of Electronic Sound (initially released on the short lived Apple offshoot label Zapple).

We won’t spend much time here on Harrison’s first song-oriented record, All Things Must Pass (1970) other than to say to it remains the finest solo album ever issued by a Beatle. Comprised largely of music ignored or unfinished during the Beatles’ final sessions, it is a majestic work in terms of sound, execution and intent. It belongs in everyone’s record collection.

Living in the Material World (1973) sounds as conflicted today as All Things Must Pass sounds resolute. Its appeal is strong, but the spiritual connections seem more obtuse and weighty at times (as in The Light That Has Lighted the World). But there are stunners here, too, like the achingly beautiful awakening anthem Try Some Buy Some and the comparatively whimsical title tune.

In some ways, Dark Horse (1974) is equally stilted, but its sound is looser and leaner. That underscores the hapless domestic upheaval of Simply Sadie and the learned bliss of Far East Man. Unfortunately the scorched vocals of the title song would surface again on a critically lambasted tour to promote the record, Harrison’s only North American concert trek as a solo artist.

If The Apple Years succeeds in nothing else, it helps reintroduce Extra Texture (Read All About It), Harrison’s curiously titled 1975 swansong record for the Apple label. Dismissed as readily as the tour that preceded it, the record is a delight from the start of the brightly orchestrated pop of You to a series of light soul-savvy reveries that culminate in the playful His Name is Legs. The record places the secular and spiritual concerns of Harrison’s music in animated balance to close out The Apple Years in a state of hapless harmony.

critic’s pick 243: lucinda williams, ‘down where the spirit meets the bone’

LUCINDA-BONE_0001If you ever had the desire to simply glide into the ocean of joy and misery that is the music of Lucinda Williams, her new Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone album offers an immediate one-way ticket.

A two disc, 20-song, 1 ¾ hour opus, the recording explores in gloriously unrelenting detail the narrow bonds between love and loss and then colors them with loose, jangly Americana jams that feature such masterful guitar stylists as Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz and others. Topping it all is Williams herself and that worn, morning-after voice that sounds alternately battered, hopeful and defiant.

There is a fairly elemental song structure to many of the tunes on Down Where the Spirit

Meets the Bone. It presents Williams as a kind of fact checker that lists the numerous reasons for her particular mindset of vengeance or vulnerability. Take the boozy guitar lament Cold Day in Hell, which catches Williams in an especially unforgiving mood. “Before you trust me again, before you use me again, before I lust for you again, it’ll be….” That, of course, is where the title comes in.

Similar in design, but not intent, is Protection, a cautionary affirmation of a woman “traveling thru the world with dedication” as she seeks shelter from the enemies of love righteousness, good, kindness and, of course, love.

At times. the rants, confessions and meditations peppering the record turn topically political (West Memphis) or richly allegorical (Something Wicked This Way Comes). During When I Look at the World, however, the brilliant duality that has long distinguished Williams’ best music comes to bear. The singer outlines a litany of abuses (“I’ve been been lost, I’ve been turned away, I’ve paid the cost and there’s been hell to pay”). But the song, in essence, is a prayer when its world view becomes less self involved (“I look at the world and it’s a different story”).

Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone bookends all this introspection and outward hope with two powerful tributes. The opening Compassion is written around a poem by the singer’s father, Miller Williams, which provides the album with its title. A plea for understanding (“Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it”), Compassion is performed as a stark, unaccompanied spiritual. The record ends with a gorgeous cover of J.J. Cale’s Magnolia, which Williams performs as a eulogy before the chiming guitar harmonies of Frisell and Leisz take flight.

How curious. Compassion suggests deep rooted conflict even amid tenderness (“You do not know what wars are going on down where the spirit meets the bone”). But Magnolia almost unwillingly surrenders to love and remembrance, asserting yet another blissful way Williams looks at the world.

critic’s picks 242: mike auldridge, jerry douglas and rob ickes, ‘three bells’ ; the earls of leicester, ‘the earls of leicester’

three bellsOn his own, Jerry Douglas has revolutionized the repertoire of the wiry resonator guitar known as the dobro, taking the resulting music down unexpected jazz and Americana side roads.

But within a band or collaborative context, the one-time Lexingtonian has favored the instrument’s most familiar setting – bluegrass. Of course, it helps that two of his most visible affiliations – a groundbreaking ‘70s stay with JD Crowe and the New South and his current tenure with Alison Krauss and Union Station – have approached bluegrass with the same expansive thinking in terms of style and direction that Douglas has brought to the dobro.

Two simultaneously released new Douglas-led recordings explore such stylistic extremes. Three Bells is a summit with two other dobro journeymen, Mike Auldridge and Rob Ickes. The self-titled debut of The Earls of Leicester, as the title perhaps doesn’t immediately imply, embraces the bluegrass legacy of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

Three Bells is something of a destiny record, one with an urgency underscored by the fact that Auldridge was battling cancer during the 2012 recording sessions. He died three months after their conclusion.

There is no rhythm section or additional accompaniment of any kind on the record’s 11 tracks. On paper, that might seem like a static game plan, but Three Bells exudes all kinds of rich, acoustic color.

The opening cover of Silver Threads Among the Gold is beautifully conversational in its casual tradeoff of lead melodies and subtle, percussive rhythms while The Three Bells, a 1959 country hit for The Browns with roots that stem to Edith Piaf and the Andrews Sisters, possesses pining instrumental harmony full of light, efficient expression.

earls of leicesterThe Earls of Leicester, on the other hand, stands as one of the most traditionally minded adventures of Douglas’ largely progressive career. A cross-generational band made up of Douglas contemporaries (mandolinist Tim O’Brien, Union Station bandmate/bassist Barry Bales, fiddler Johnny Warren), a distinguished elder (veteran Nashville banjoist Charlie Cushman) and a youthful frontman (guitarist/vocalist Shawn Camp), the Earls freshen 14 staples from the Flatt & Scruggs canon, from the robust dobro/vocal holler of Big Black Train that opens out into banjo-led merriment to the gorgeous gospel eulogy of the album-closing Who Will Sing For Me.

Two dobro spirits pervade these records. Auldridge obviously guides Three Bells with a quiet desire for widening the instrument’s stylistic scope, a skill long mirrored in the solo recordings of Douglas and Ickes. What an outstanding victory lap this album is for such a mammoth career.

On The Earls of Leicester, the silent pilot is the late Josh Graves, the dobro giant that drove Flatt & Scruggs’ greatest records and served as Douglas’ foremost formative influence. How epic it is to hear Graves’ royal inspiration edging on such dutiful subjects.

critic’s pick 340: robert plant, ‘lullaby… and the ceaseless roar’

Robert-Plant-lullaby-and-The-Ceaseless-Roar_638One hardcore Led Zeppelin pal confessed to me after Robert Plant’s continued and steadfast refusal to follow the band’s 2007 London reunion with a full tour that the singer was “dead to me now.”

Undoubtedly many Zep-a-holics share similar sentiments. But if there was ever a nail in the reunion’s coffin, Plant’s fascinating new solo album, lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar, is it. The work is a lush psychedelic-world music mash-up of an album. Curiously, it also reflects upon almost every musical step Plant has taken up to this point, including several with the mighty Zep. But the fabric of lullaby is so thrilling and new that no one is going to mistake it even remotely for a retro ride.

Though comprised mostly of new songs Plant penned with his two year old Sensational Shape Shifters band, lullaby begins with a parting shot to the Americana, folk and blues inspirations that dominated his 2007 multi-platinum Raising Sand with Alison Krauss and his Band of Joy followup in 2010. But the album-opening treatment of the bluegrass/country classic Little Maggie is tossed to another country altogether.

Percolating banjo from Liam “Skin” Tyson, a returnee from Plant’s 2005 Strange Sensation band, meets the brittle but wildly emotive playing on the single string African fiddle known as the ritti by a Gambian griot by the name of Juldeh Camara. Then the banjo runs seamlessly turn into electric beats, the light percussive shuffle of Dave Smith begins to flirt with loops and the melody that was once distinctly American becomes a jig on a dance floor located somewhere between Ireland and Mali.

And what of Plant, you ask? He sings with a meditative whisper throughout, as if engaging with spirits worldly and otherwordly. His multi-tracked moans effectively become an ultra-spooky, Zep-friendly chieftain in a global séance. I was so taken with Little Maggie that I must have listened to it five times before giving the rest of lullaby a chance. That’s when the Shape Shifters’ own material takes over and the album’s true riches are revealed.

Pocketful of Golden initially suggests some of the trippier moments from Zep’s Houses of the Holy before blooming into a blissful Eastern sweep while Somebody There brings Plant’s musical past beautifully into the Shape Shifters expansive pop present.

Not all of the global inspirations are African and Eastern, however. House of Love moves along with a rippling guitar drone that could pass for the work of King Crimson founder Robert Fripp while the techno/worldbeat boom that gooses Plant’s singing during Turn It Up brings the recent recordings of Peter Gabriel to mind.

It all makes lullaby an ultra-cool global party album that reaches across cultures and generations alike.

critic’s pick 336: the allman brothers band, ‘the 1971 fillmore east recordings’

abbfillmoreeast“Hope this comes out pretty good,” utters Duane Allman at the onset of The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings. We’re cutting our third album here tonight.”

Yeah, it came out pretty good, alright. Roughly three months after the March 1971 performances the guitarist and the rest of the Allman Brothers Band gave at Bill Graham’s historic music hall, the recorded results surfaced as The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East. The album broke the ensemble’s career wide open, further heightened Allman’s already heroic status as a generation-defining guitar stylist and expanded the scope of blues, rock and jazz directed jam bands everywhere.

What The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings does is gather all the available source material that went into the original album – specifically, four full sets performed over two nights – along with the equivalent of an encore, a June 1971 show that served as the final concert staged before the Fillmore East’s closing. All of that is spread over six discs to construct a remarkably comprehensive overview of one of rock ‘n’ roll’s truly landmark concert recordings.

First, let’s explore the surprises. All of the new edition’s first disc and most of the second consist of previously unreleased music. What is especially distinctive here is that an already expanded ABB (fleshed out by harmonica ace Thom Doucette and percussionist Bobby Caldwell) is further augmented by saxophonist Rudolph “Juicy” Carter on co-guitarist Dickey Betts’ heavily jazz-inspired instrumental In Memory of Elizabeth Reed and three other tunes. Carter’s contributions don’t so much offer new insights to these recordings as simply a fresh perspective. He was dismissed from the Fillmore engagement’s final March evening.

The rest of the The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings gathers material initially issued on 1972’s Eat a Peach and the 1992 double-CD The Fillmore Concerts. Those recordings summarize the Allmans at their best, from Berry Oakley’s whiplash bass intro to Whipping Post to Allman’s jubilant slide guitar intro to Statesboro Blues to younger brother Gregg Allman’s bluesy, boozy vocal lead on One Way Out. And that says nothing of the wild ensemble groove that fuels the 35 minute Mountain Jam.

The final disc, originally issued as a bonus on the 2006 reissue of Eat a Peach, is a monster. Performed without any guests, the band rips through essentially the same set of tunes featured on the earlier discs but with noticeably greater cohesion and confidence. The nearly five minute guitar and percussion coda capping Whipping Post is a gorgeous, formless cooldown that underscores the Allmans’ sense of invention at the time.

Taken as a whole, this is a lavish and perhaps even indulgent embellishment of a classic album. Mostly, though, The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings makes a watershed rock ‘n’ roll moment in time sound more alive, vital and complete than ever before.

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