Archive for critic’s picks

various artists “outlaw: celebrating the music of waylon jennings”

Remember after Johnny Cash died when scores of country celebs started donning “Cash” t-shirts in an effort to assert what a personal and heartfelt influence he was even though their newest albums sounded like warmed over Jimmy Buffett records?

Well, on “Outlaw: Celebrating the Music of Waylon Jennings,” a roster of more Americana inclined stylists and hardcore country traditionalists put their musical minds and souls where their wallets normally are. The record chronicles a 2015 tribute concert held for Waylon Jennings, the late Lone Star stylist and figurehead performer of the so-called “outlaw country” movement that ripped Nashville out of its bank of safe, self-pitying songs and tossed it onto the highway of life, along with all the danger elements that came with it.

Given the Buffett-ization of modern country, very few Nashville celebs inhabit “Outlaw,” although a few Kentucky ambassadors show no shyness in taking the wheel. Right out of the starting gate, Chris Stapleton detonates the party with “I Ain’t Living Long Like This,” the Rodney Crowell tune Jennings scored a major hit with in 1979. Not only do Stapleton’s unaffected but soul-saturated vocals cruise with consummate authority, the tune establishes in its first line what the whole outlaw movement, as well as Jennings’ ascent within it, was about. “I look for trouble and I found it, son – straight down the barrel of a lawman’s gun.”

Then on the accompanying DVD to “Outlaw,” another Kentucky renegade, Sturgill Simpson, slides with Southern dignity through the 1974 Lee Clayton-penned Jennings hit, “Memories of You and I.” Simpson has regularly discounted stylistic comparisons to Jennings, but the influence of the country icon’s slow smoked reflection is as regal as it is undeniable.

“Outlaw” also boasts fine performances by Robert Earl Keen (a beat crazy bust-up of “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”), Kacey Musgraves (a lovely, longing take on “The Wurtlizer Prize”), Jamey Johnson (on a gorgeously spacious and patient “Freedom to Stay”), Shooter Jennings (a dramatic barroom reading of “Whistlers and Jugglers”) and Alison Krauss (a stunning, graceful “Dreaming My Dreams of You” that sounds like it was written just for her).

But the whole party comes back to Kentucky when Willie Nelson and Stapleton team for one of the great duets the former cut with Jennings at the height of the Outlaw movement over four decades ago, “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.” Though age has begun to show some wear in Nelson’s voice (he was 81 at the time of this show, for crying out loud), his sense of steadfast soul remains undiminished. Hearing Stapleton beside him, full of a youthful brand of the same rustic spirit, makes “Outlaw” more than a simple tribute. It’s a righteous, roaring passing of the generational torch.

critic’s pick: the sadies, ‘northern passages’

Before we run away with spring, let’s rewind for a moment so as to catch up with a delectable little recording that surfaced in early February. It comes to us from The Sadies, one of hippest acts out of the Great White North. Within its grooves are varying layers of country psychedelia, a sound the band and its sibling guitarists/singers Dallas and Travis Good have been perfecting for the past two decades. But lest you think some kind of askew musical regionalism is at work, consider the album’s title – “Northern Passages” and its cover art of the Aurora Borealis in full incandescent splendor. That’s when you know exactly where the allegiance of the Good brothers sits.

The thing is, “Northern Passages” carries with it a trait the most of the Sadies’ other nine studio albums possess – a musical lexicon of luscious contrasts. One moment it’s all hazy, plaintive country mystique (as on the album-opening “Riverview Fog”). Then as soon as you settle into a sense of reflection, the walls crash down with a pair of garage rock intrusions (“Another Season Again” and “There Are No Words”). The mood settles again as the Goods yield the floor to Kurt Vile for a guest lead vocal and co-write on “It’s Easy (Like Walking),” a tune sporting a dark hued but infectious chorus that sounds like Drive-By Truckers’ Mike Cooley in an after hours mood.

Musically, it all sounds like the Sadies have been soaking in inspiration from well below the Canadian border. But dig past the very appealing sounds and you discover storylines of less boundary-specific unrest. A case in point is the corrupted romance at the center of “The Good Years.” Under its storyline of liquor and drug-induced doom sits a country sentiment that doubles as a simple but crushing reality check (“She can’t miss a man she never knew”). Of course, the song’s musical atmosphere eschews anything remotely country – by contemporary standards, that is – for a dark, ominous shuffle. It’s the musical equivalent of a midnight drive along a deserted stretch of highway.

There are loads of other treats, as well, including the politically rooted “God Bless the Infidels,” a waltz that rips along with the cosmic country charm of the Byrds during the height of Clarence White’s electric tenure, and the brilliantly paced “Questions I’ve Never Asked,” which initially wears its country longing openly before erupting into a full psychedelic meltdown.

Servicing as an exquisite coda is the “The Noise Museum,” a instrumental rich in twang, reverb, guitar jangle and the kind of distant wordless vocalizing that suggests this ghost train roaring through Canada began somewhere in the ‘60s before arriving so gloriously in the here and now.

critic’s pick: the doors, “the doors: 50th anniversary deluxe edition”

How integral was 1967 to the future of contemporary pop and rock music? To start with, consider the number of keystone artists who issued debut albums that year: Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, The Velvet Underground, Van Morrison, Sly and the Family Stone, Procol Harum, Traffic, Cat Stevens, The Nice, Ten Years After, Tangerine Dream, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Captain Beefheart and Arlo Guthrie.

Oh yes – and The Doors. Four days into the year, the self-titled debut by Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore surfaced, the product of a Los Angeles scene out to counter the psychedelic invention emanating up north out of San Franscisco.

Though re-issued several times since then, “The Doors” has been spruced up once more in a spiffy boxed set package. The components are a disc of the album’s original stereo mix (previously available), its original mono mix (previously unavailable, save for a limited vinyl edition issued in 2010), a new vinyl pressing (of the mono mix) and a new, truncated version of “Live at the Matrix” (more on than in a moment).

Audiophiles will likely argue until the next millennium about the specific virtues of the stereo vs. mono mixes. To my ears, mono always wins out. But listening to both, one after the other, affirmed what a masterfully produced record “The Doors” was. You hear that in the way Manzarek’s jazzy organ intro and Morrison’s near-baritone vocal suggest cool before the hullabaloo explodes on the opening “Break on Through.” But the effect is as much a credit to the precision of producer Paul Rothchild and engineers Bruce Botnick and Doug Sax. Ditto for the way the band and production crew team to capture the 12 minute psyche-fest finale “The End,” a descent into the pop maelstrom that likely scared the daylights out of every unsuspecting parent that heard it blaring from their kids’ stereos.

The “Live at the Matrix” disc is the curiosity. Rhino first issued it in a more complete form in 2008, but with audio quality barely above bootleg level. This version, though limited to eight songs (performed in the order they appear on “The Doors”) boasts considerably sharper quality. Still, hearing Morrison and company perform rampaging groove-a-thons like “Soul Kitchen” and unnerving meditations like “The Crystal Ship” as an unknown act before an audience that offered little more then perfunctory applause is peculiar indeed.

If “The Doors” was the sound of a raging tempest, this cleaned up “Live at the Matrix” presents us with the gathering storm. A half century later, both stand as documents of a juggernaut band whose vitality, influence and importance have only grown more brilliant.

critic’s picks: tedeschi trucks band, ‘live from the fox oakland’; gary clark jr., ‘live/north america 2016’

Live recordings can be many things. They can help fill the void between studio projects, they can fulfill obligations of a recording contract or, if enough thought and purpose is provided, they can reveal the immediacy and dynamics of an artist in ways studio albums strive to but seldom achieve.

Two wonderful new live albums by Tedeschi Trucks Band and Gary Clark Jr. opt for the latter. Both are vital documents of artists that thrive in a concert setting but also serve as statements by new generation artists favoring a soul, blues and rock blend born out of the 1960s. It should also be noted that TTB’s “Live from the Fox Oakland” and Clark’s “Live/North America 2016” are the second concert recordings by both acts, so they are well versed in preserving a live performance for posterity.

On the surface, one might also surmise these works represent the live adventures of gifted guitar stylists. While that certainly holds true for Derek Trucks’ playing throughout “Live from the Fox Oakland,” from the bright Southern soul struts draping “Don’t Drift Away” to his learned jazz excursion during a tripped out raga reading of George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You,” there is so much more happening in these grooves. Topping the ingredients are the vocals of Susan Tedeschi and Mike Mattison, the colors of brass and vocal trios and a cumulative sensibility that makes TTB sound like an astute hybrid of Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” band and Sly and the Family Stone.

The highlights include a gospel friendly version of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire” (from a performance given two months prior to the master songsmith’s death last fall) and the 14 minute version of the soul savvy tent revival party piece “I Want More” that morphs through passages of Traffic-like psychedelics before falling back to earth with the closing groove of Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice.”

It’s only natural that Clark’s “Live/North America 2016” focuses more succinctly on guitar play as he is one of the decade’s more heralded successors to Jimi Hendrix’s brand of electric mayhem. Though echoes of Hendrix surface frequently, Clark is no imitator. The opening “Grinder” suggests the late ‘60s/early ‘70s with its hazy, purposeful groove. But the record later veers onto expressways of vintage soul via Clark’s sleek falsetto during “Cold Blooded” and a summit with guest vocalist Leon Bridges on “Shake” (not the Otis Redding classic, but an original and far grimier rumble).

Best of all, Clark doesn’t overplay here the way he did on his earlier studio records. A marked maturity reveals itself in the heavy but purposeful grind of “When My Train Pulls In” and a righteously ragged solo take on Elmore James’ “My Baby’s Gone” that beautifully validates Clark’s ascension to guitar rock royalty.

critic’s picks: bela fleck, ‘the juno concerto’ – danny barnes, ‘stove up’ – noam pikelny, ‘universal favorite’

Here we have engaging new works from three generational pioneers of the banjo, each exhibiting their often maligned and stereotyped instrument in a trio of radically different settings. Bela Fleck’s “The Juno Concerto” unleashes it with a full symphony, Danny Barnes’ “Stove Up” opts for a traditional bluegrass combo environment and Noam Pikelny’s “Universal Favorite” goes it completely alone. All are strikingly original projects that, because of the dramatic contrasts within the music they promote, unlock seemingly boundless possibilities for an instrumental voice still viewed by some as a purely rudimentary accent of the rural South and Appalachia.

Fleck is an old hand at this type of mythbusting. Even so, “The June Concerto” is quite a feat. Though hardly his first foray into classical music, this collaboration with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jose Luis Gomez is a rich and astonishing work, from the instant the banjo makes its entrance during “Movement 1” amid contained orchestral luster to the way the instrument leads the full symphonic charge of “Movement 3” while retaining a sound within Fleck’s impossibly nimble runs that is alternately commanding and giddy.

The recording is fleshed out by two equally dynamic pieces with the contemporary chamber ensemble Brooklyn Rider, the loose and lively “Griff” (titled, in true Fleck fashion, because the piece is constructed around a G riff) and a starker, stately “Quintet for Banjo and Strings” co-written with longtime pal Edgar Meyer in 1984, making it Fleck’s first classical work.

Danny Barnes is probably the least known of these three titans, but has very independently become one of the great innovators of banjo music over the past two decades, taking it into modern realms of jazz and electronica as well as the most ancient corners of traditional music and pre-bluegrass country.

The fact that “Stove Up” is a straight up, scholarly bluegrass session might not seem a revelation unless you know how seldom Barnes has traveled this path on record in the past. But once you hear him and a pack of bluegrass pros (that include past and present members of the Del McCoury Band) make the Rolling Stones “Factory Girl” sound like Flatt & Scruggs while making the Scruggs staple “Flint Hill Special” sound both reverential and original, you understand the depth of Barnes’ scholarly bluegrass insight.

Punch Brother Pikelny’s “Universal Favorite” is a pokerfaced triumph, an unaccompanied set of banjo pieces that regularly suggest Fleck’s warp speed tenacity, as on “Waveland.” The album is curiously colored by Pikelny’s baritone singing, which gives these tunes a stoic commoners’ touch. But the agility and daring of the musicianship here makes Pikelny a storied successor to the trails Fleck and Barnes blazed ahead of him.

critic’s pick: the old 97’s, “graveyard whistling”

The Old 97’s play as if the devil was truly on the band’s tail at on the onset of the new “Graveyard Whistling.” Against a frantic electric shuffle, a wall of guitar distortion and Rhett Miller’s reverb soaked vocals, the veteran Dallas troupe sound like the Son of the Pioneers crossed with Link Wray. It’s pop. It’s punk. It’s an Americana dervish. There is even a spot-on title to top off the intro tune’s electric Western mayhem – “I Don’t Want to Die in This Town.”

The results also continue a trademark sound that has distinguished the Old 97’s for just shy of 25 years. It’s remarkable the band – Miller, guitarist Ken Bethea, bassist Murry Hammond and drummer Philip Peeples – has carried on so long without a personnel change and with its overall sense of musical purpose intact. Not all of “Graveyard Whistling” matches the night train propulsion of “I Don’t Want to Die in This Town,” although “Good With God,” a piledriver of a collaboration with Brandi Carlisle that pins its turbo twang to a saga of a restless but proudly unapologetic protagonist (“I’ve got a soul that’s good and flawed”), comes close. Mostly, “Graveyard Whistling” is immensely spirited, darkly hued, ragged alt-country tinged fun with a lyrical menace that always keeps the Old 97’s cruising somewhere in the shadows.

Miller remains at the helm for most of this mischief. For the better part of the band’s history, he has been a quirky assimilation of cross-generational inspiration that falls somewhere between Buddy Holly and David Byrne. That mix surges to the surface on “Jesus Loves You,” a tune that bears a melodic similarity to the Holly classic “Everyday” although the music here has been revved up to a fearsome shuffle. The lyrics are a hoot, too, outlining the overtures of a come-on artist facing insurmountable competition for the affections of his intended (“You say Jesus love you, but what about me?”).

Similarly clever is “She Hates Everybody,” which essentially flips the narrative to detail a romance where a connection is made at the expense of the rest of humanity (“I miss her when she’s gone, my misanthrope”). Here, the drive downshifts to a jamboree groove that provides the tune the necessary lyricism to become one of the season’s most peculiar but inviting sing-a-longs.

Think that’s wild? Then get a load of the album-closing “Those Were the Days,” a play-by-play of hoodwink adventures that begins by crashing a retirement home (“We ate some Jello, we ate some Vicodin and tap danced for the old folks, and they all thought we were crazy”) before a chemically-enhanced tour of Central Park (“We floated off the grass into the galaxy”) bleeds into a “doo-doo-doo” chorus of pure pop confection.

That’s “Graveyard Whistling” in a nutshell – a journey that begins like a demon locomotive and ends by tripping to the stars. In short, the Old 97’s are merrily rocking on.

critic picks: son volt, ‘notes of blue’ and ryan adams, ‘prisoner’

At the dawn of 1996, Lexington received introductions from two acts pinned to a booming alt-country movement. Downtown at the long demised Wrocklage, Son Volt, Jay Farrar’s roots driven offshoot of Uncle Tupelo, had showcased the music of its debut “Trace” album. Over at Lynagh’s Music Club (also historically defunct), a pack of electric country-rock ruffians from North Carolina called Whiskeytown, fronted by a then-unknown Ryan Adams, were playing the occasional weekend gig as an opening act for local bands.

This month, the latest recorded chapters from Farrar and Adams have arrived to reaffirm their keen ability to give voices of very modest comfort to unsettled souls.

“Notes of Blue,” the newest album by the newest Son Volt lineup (of which Farrar is the only mainstay), begins with deceptive calm and a familiar air of despondent faith. “Don’t get down when the cavalry doesn’t arrive,” sings Farrar in “Promise the World” with his usual plaintive candor. “That’s only in Hollywood and they didn’t get it right.” The music moves leisurely along with an easy country demeanor aided beautifully by the pedal steel accents of Jason Cardong that follow the thread of such recent Son Volt records as “American Central Dust” and “Honky Tonk.”

But there is nothing complacent about “Notes of Blue.” The storm rolls quickly in for “Static,” a tune that seems to purposely reach back not just to the “Trace” days but to Tupelo’s crankier exploits with a volatile guitar riff that bounces about with relentless glee. There are also acoustic driven reveries (“Back Against the Wail” and the wonderfully impressionistic “Cairo and Southern”) and a ‘60s style blues noir epilogue (“Threads and Steel”) that fill “Notes of Blue” with acres of robust color.

Adams’ new “Prisoner” is a mash-up of his two most recent albums, 2014’s “Ryan Adams” (a departure from the reflective tone that marked his Cardinals-era Americana records into Neil Young-like electric immediacy) and 2015’s “1989” (a sometimes turbulent song-for-song re-imagining of Taylor Swift’s hit album of the same name and material). But at the core of the unlikely blend sits an inevitable truth – that Adams writes great songs as readily as you or I make a sandwich.

In short, pop rules on “Prisoner,” from the anthemic ‘80s charge of “Do You Still Love Me?” to the breezier rhythmic embrace of “Anything I Say to You Now” to the gentler echo of “We Disappear.” Lyrically, though, Adams is still potently restless. “Wish I could explain, but it hurts to breathe,” he sings as the album’s last minutes tick away. “It didn’t fit in my chest, so I wore it on my sleeve.” Then comes the coda – a squall of jagged, emotive guitar to tell us again what a glorious prisoner of rock ‘n’ roll Adams still is.

critic’s pick: chuck prophet, ‘bobby fuller died for your sins’

Chuck Prophet states what pretty much every pop fan has been thinking near the half way point of “Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins.” The song in question states its proclamation succinctly in its title, “Bad Year for Rock and Roll.” It begins by with a quick send off to David Bowie and works outward from there. But Prophet isn’t out to eulogize, at least not in any overt way. Musically, the tune is all celebratory and joyous, starting with a sunny guitar lick that would have been right at home on Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” before blooming into a melodic stride of pure pop confection.

That kind of dichotomy runs throughout “Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins.” Loss is outlined with rock ‘n’ roll applied as a means of salvation. The title tune references the champion pop star who died mysteriously at age 23 in 1966. The music bounces along with a charge that purposely recalls Fuller’s best known hit, “I Fought the Law,” but there is no mistaking the turbulence underneath. “They say someone’s gonna have to pay for the price of love,” sings Prophet, even as the music’s anthemic feel roars along, creating a mood that is nostalgic, but darkly so.

Part of the song’s charm – and the album’s, for that matter – is Prophet’s ability to humanize mythic figures. Such is the unassuming impetus behind “Jesus Was A Social Drinker,” an altogether respectful parable (although some won’t see it that way). “Jesus wasn’t Irish, just imagine if he was,” sings Prophet with sly, Tom Petty-like reserve over a leisurely, rolling groove. “He might have written poetry and verse and enjoyed a pint of Guinness every day for lunch.” Reflecting a more manufactured myth is “If I Was Connie Britton,” a saga where the popular TV actress symbolizes a glamour-filled Nirvana (“If I was Connie Britton, I’d be forgiven for my sins. I’d never read a tabloid once. I’d wear turquoise to the gym”).

Sadly, rock ‘n’ roll can’t reclaim everyone. “Bobby Fuller Died For You Sins” ends with perhaps the angriest song Prophet has committed to a recording. On “Alex Nieto,” he outlines the 2014 police shooting of an unarmed security officer on Prophet’s home turf of San Francisco. “Alex Nieto was a pacifist,” Prophet hollers like a turbo charged mantra over truly wicked guitar riffs, giving rise to a protest song of epic emotive scope.

It’s an unsettling coda to an album that enforces Prophet’s effortless feel for pop music’s power, fun and grace. Unfortunately, folks like Bobby Fuller and Alex Nieto inhabited a world that was never as forgiving the rock ‘n’ roll that seeks to offer solace.

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.

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