They (definitely are) Giants

“Don’t call me at work again no, no the boss still hates me / I’m just tired and I don’t love you anymore / And there’s a restaurant we should check out / where the other nightmare people like to go/ I mean nice people, baby wait, / I didn’t mean to say nightmare” from “They’ll Need A Crane”
Lincoln, 1988

One band’s music spans three decades of my life (and threatens to last even longer). They Might Be Giants, the geek rock originals, have a strange staying power. Few bands put out music that is so readily recognizable. Despite this, I don’t actively listen to the band frequently or play the part of a fan to any great extreme. Most playlists I make include one TMBG track, but weeks can go by without the two Johns passing my thoughts.

Not your typical rock stars

TMBG—Johns, Flansburgh and Linnell—are like friends who keep popping back into my life or relatives I genuinely like but never spend enough time with. Too much of my own musical awakening has their albums for soundtracks. So many of their songs call up strong memories—and always good ones. From simple memories like staying up late to catch their performances on Conan O’Brien to celebrating their success with the theme song for “Malcolm in the Middle” to the more specific moments below, I cannot deny them.

“She’s an Angel” (They Might be Giants, 1986)—I am in two places at once. In the auditorium at my high school where a friend has used this song as the backing track for the credits of his documentary (and I am floored by the contrast between verse and chorus). I am also in my room, listening to the song again and again as I moon over a girl (and I say ‘a’ because this scene could be (and was) recycled).

“Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” (Flood, 1990)—I am at “geek camp” where the counselors have perversely organized a dance for adolescents who are beyond awkward. We are cynical enough to mock “Jump, Jump” by Kris Kross, too self-conscious to approach the opposite gender, only to be suddenly liberated into a strange frenzy of joy running in circles when this song comes on. Soon after, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” comes on. The scene suddenly and irrevocably changes.

TMBG function for many people (well, for a geeky set) as a gateway band from the safe rock of our parents, from show tunes, and from gag music. When I was young, my musical world was dominated by the narrow tastes of my parents and the church (with the exception of a brief flirtation with NKOTB). When my lack of coolness began to first dawn on me, I remember trying to fit in—by memorizing “U Can’t Touch This” and “Ice Ice Baby”. It was Weird Al Yankovic cassettes copied from friends that I first wore out on my father’s Panasonic personal tape player (followed by, unsurprisingly, every Monty Python cassette). The first ‘rock’ album I wore out was Flood.

“Fingertips”—Apollo 18 (1992) I am at an after-party in a private school student basement after my band has played our first gig. I am talking to students, strangers,  from other schools. TMBG come up. Someone mentions how amusing “Fingertips” is (a track made up of samples or ideas of song ideas). One of us sings the first part of it; before I know it a group of 5-7 of us has sung through the entire song (all 20 segments). We start again.

Road Movie to Berlin” (Flood, 1992)—I am on a bus traversing Italy from Naples to Venice sitting next to an older girl who has been giving me seriously mixed signals during the entire tour. She is way too cool to like TMBG, I think, but something about the constant riding makes her think of this song. I sing it for her from beginning to end. We don’t kiss that day, but eventually we do. When we return to the states I learn to play the song on the guitar. I never end up singing it for her (the relationship ended quickly), but for a while, my band covered it.

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Songs of the Year—1991

Saying I love you
is not the words I want to hear from you
it’s not that I want you
not to say, but if you only knew
how easy it would be to show me how you feel…

-Extreme

(Before I even get to this post: how can I deal with the grammar of the first two lines of this song? I loved these lyrics, I really did. In 23 years will I think that the current me is as dumb as I now think that 1991 me was?  Will I actually be any smarter? Had I rejected the me from 1990? I know I was in denial about my NKOTB phase.)

Songs of the Year: “More than Words”, Extreme; “Summertime”, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince
Runners-Up: “I Touch Myself”, Divinyls; “Losing my Religion”, R.E.M.

In the year that “American Music” by the Violent Femmes, “Alive” by Pearl Jam, and “Smells like Teen Spirit”  were released as singles and during the same year that 2Pac, U2, Pixies and Guns N’ Roses released albums, I was listening to some real schmaltz. Some true crap. It is almost embarrassing to think of the two albums I remember buying that year after my sojourn with M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice.

The two albums: Pornograffiti (Extreme) and Homebase (D. J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince). My brother will probably remember that peppering this fine collection were such tasteful acquisitions as the debut album of Another Bad Creation, the hit record by Heavy D (R. I.P.)  and the Boyz and a copy of Color Me Badd’s self-titled offering (including the sublimely subtle “I wanna sex you up”).

(At least I wasn’t listening to “Everything I do…” by Bryan Adams or “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Michael Bolton. But, there’s only so much solace to be had there).

Now, the “More than Words” fixation is not one I am actually that embarrassed about. The song remains, if trite and a little too polished, a unique and pretty song. Certain aspects of it reflect tastes that I never quite shook: intricate harmonies and acoustic guitars. (As you can imagine, I saw the Simon and Garfunkel reunion special on PBS many times when I was very young. That explains it all, really. And this: I think my parents preferred Art to Paul. Seriously.)

“More than Words” came on the radio as I was just beginning to think about someday, just maybe, dating girls. The tone, rhythm, pace and overall arrangement made it sound like quite the love song. Upon contemplation, however, I was in a quandary. At first, I thought the singer was trying to guilt-trip his girl into sex. After almost rejecting the song for such a base message, I decided instead that it was really about matching words with actions (thus beginning a long personal practice of debating, rejecting, and reconciling song meanings).

The dark side of this song is the rest of the album. My recent album training under M. C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice led me to expect “More than Words” to be surrounded by songs that were more or less like it (just not quite as good). My shock, upon discovering that Extreme’s name was no accident, was incurable. I don’t think I could ever get through the screaming vocals and heavy guitars of the rest of the album.

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One Word Wonders: Bush, Oasis and David Gray

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya

Poets vary in their use of words. Some are verbose; others are prolix. A basic rule of thumb for good poetry, however, is that each word should be measured and weighed; each sound and verbal idea should contribute to an overall sense.

(Another word for prolix: Laconic. This comes from the ancient Greek Lakonian, a synonym for Lacedaemonian or Spartan. The Spartans were known for using few words and being hostile to rhetoric—in contrast, of course, to their enemies, the Athenians.)

Now, while some might disagree with the contention, I think that the same standard should apply to similar genres—in this case, pop music. The lyrics of popular songs shouldn’t waste words or images—they should be carefully considered and placed to contribute to an overall, coherent idea. This, of course, may be too aspirational for most contemporary songs. But, then again, who will remember 95% of what is popular on the radio 20 years from now?

(Ryan Seacrest, maybe)

We are all familiar with ‘one hit wonders’—artists who flare up for fewer than fifteen minutes of fame on the virtue of one brilliant (or at least successful) song. In fact, with VH1 specials and the like it would almost be impossible to have escaped the concept over the past decade. There is something noble, I must say, about these artists. Like leaves on the tree (or human beings) they live vibrantly, die and pass away, leaving behind, for the best of them, the memory of an impressive flourishing.

I am interested in a different concept that is far from coterminous with the one-hit wonder, and that is what I call the “one word wonder”. I use this phrase for songs that have particularly bad or obscure lyrics and use as a hook, title, or chorus a word that appears nonsensical , misplaced, or merely misunderstood. So, the usage makes you wonder. Get it? One word makes you wonder?

(So clever, it hurts. Who needs a day job?)

Now, this is a phenomenon that I have noticed for some time and the interesting thing is that this sense-defying use of language has no direct impact on the aesthetic reception or commercial success of the song if all other aspects are equal. I would dare say, that the mystery or inaptness may even contribute to its success. Maybe? For sure.

The first song I remember thinking this about is “Glycerine” by Bush. The song, which is clearly about regrets in a relationship, is fairly straightforward. Built around a brooding chord progression with distortion, it basically features Rossdale’s voice mumbling and moaning about his failings. For the time, it was actually quite catchy and different.

The problem is that the chorus is merely one word: glycerine. I have long mused about what it means. Is Rossdale saying that he is unstable like nitro glycerine? (That wouldn’t be a terrible or unpoetic interpretation; but it possesses more subtlety than I would usually attribute to Bush’s lyrics.)  Is he talking about the viscous liquid instead or lubricant? (The first interpretation would be nonsensical and asymbolic as far as I can tell; but, then, even more justly parodied by Homer Simpson’s garage band with “Margarine” in Episode 411. The second interpretation would be, well, not gross but at the very least unpoetic).

Why is this one word there? My guess is that the band liked it because it sounded cool. We can vindicate it to a certain degree because it forces you to think about it, to weigh the possible meanings (or not) and select or dismiss. By using a known word in an uncommon way, the song invites the intervention of interpretation. I fear, however, that I am still crediting Bush too much.

Or, perhaps the audience thinks it sounds cool. Rossdale’s bending of the vowel in “ine” and the contrast between his earlier growling and the gliding “gl” is certainly attractive. I guess. At some level, the use of this word is poetically effective because it defies direct understanding. On the other hand, it may just be a crap lyric.

Another example, in brief. In Oasis’ first American hit “Wonderwall” the title and final word of the chorus is a neologism alleged to mean “an imaginary friend who’s gonna come and save you from yourself” (Thank you, Wikipedia). But, I suspect in truth, that the word has somehow filtered down from the 1960’s movie Wonderwall, the music for which was written by the Beatles’ George Harrison (thank you, again, Wikipedia). There is, certainly, an obvious allusion to the Beatles in the second stanza of the song (“Backbeat the word was on the street”).


My suspicion, however, is that despite all of these possibilities and the claims of the band, the word “wonderwall” is meaningless. More importantly, even if the songwriter understood the word in such a way, the fact that the audience isn’t clued in to the meaning creates a similar indeterminacy to that of “Glycerine”. We wonder what a wonderwall is; we like it because we don’t know what it means and, most importantly, it sounds cool. (What the fuck is a wonderwall? I remember this being a hot topic of conversation. Man, life was lame before the interweb.)

A final and truly brief example: David Gray’s “Babylon”. The word makes no sense to me. Is it a biblical reference? Is Gray asserting that he is somewhat like the sinful city or the whore? Or, is this an archaeological reference? Is Gray talking about ancient Mesopotamian civilization? Probably not. The word sounds cool. The reference sounds sophisticated. If we receive it that way, then we make it that way. Because it is mysterious, it works. The audience, it seems, is bamboozled.

But is that all that bad?

What do you think, mi germano? Is the label “one word wonder” useful? Are my explanations sensible? Can you think of other examples?

Airport Bar Music

Yeah I didn’t hear this song in the airport bar, but I wanted to include a cover of the John Denver classic and this one was my favorite after sifting through a lot of them. I always loved this jam and seeing as I’m very into hip hop right now, it felt like the right one.

I’ve written about airline music and dive bars, but never about airport bars and the music played through in the background. I’m currently in Texas visiting the Elder J and family, flying in last night from Portland, Maine to Newark, NJ then on to San Antonio. I had a three-hour layover in Newark and as I hate to fly, I naturally had the compulsion to have a few drinks to settle my nerves. I stopped into a Heinekin owned lounge and found no place to sit, so I moved down the concourse and found a NYC inspired oyster bar where I quickly got a table. Instantly and aptly, I heard this song.

The Outlaws are great and the guitar soloing on this track is amazing. This version is my favorite, even above Johnny Cash’s because of the instrumentation. I never saw the Ghost Rider movie but Nick Cage looks pretty bad-ass. I think it was an apt choice because of the flying occurring, not because I am part Native American because this song is about the plight of our Native brothers. Lastly, I am in no way a Native American, 100% Scandinavian. 

I rarely hear songs in restaurants that I like anywhere, much less in an airport so this  is pretty cool. Because of the proximity to NYC and my affinity for bourbon, I chose to order a Maker’s Mark Manhattan. Airports are weird because people generally don’t want to communicate too much and use every distraction available to trick themselves into thinking they aren’t just killing time while in transit. I like to have random conversations with people while traveling, but had picked up Keith Richard’s autobiography on the way to the airport and was trying to get into it. As I settled on the shrimp Po’ Boy, this next song came on much to my surprise.

It’s public knowledge that the Elder J and I love Soul Coughing and Mike Doughty so it was awesome/strange to hear this song sitting in an airport bar. I watched an interview with Doughty a few weeks ago where he blames the other members of the band for all of their issues, saying they bullied him into giving all of them credit for songwriting and kind of glossing over his significant smack habit. Who knows what went down, but I love their music.

I also think back to Fight Club when talking to random people while in transit, the whole concept put forth by Tyler Durden of single serving friends you meet at airport or on an airplane. You will almost certainly meet these people only once so you have ultimate control over their perception of you and the ability to talk about whatever you want. I had a five-minute conversation with a middle aged looking woman about how Maker’s Mark is the most drinkable bourbon and a roughly 8 minute conversation with how silly most airplane safety measures are with a teenager. Lets face it, if a plane falls out of the sky at 20,ooo feet, a seatbelt ain’ t gonna do much for you. I missed a few songs and my second conversation ended as this song came on.

My brother and I obviously love the Pixies and Fight Club so it was pretty cool and coincidental that this song came on at this time at this airport bar. This is one of the best songs by the band and probably my top ten use of songs in a movie which is another post we should write. However, the Elder J is annoyed enough that three days into my Texas visit I still haven’t finished this post so first things first.

I was feeling pretty relaxed at this point and my boarding time was near, so I wandered back to my gate and tried to delve further into Keef’s life story. It was pretty slow at the beginning because he felt the need to recount endless details of his childhood but it heated up as he got into his early love of music and the first time him and Mick Jagger met. I am very into this book three days later and glad I spent the twenty bucks on it. I got onto the plane and was seated next to a harried looking woman and what I assume was her very young son, although the ages didn’t really match up. From the get-go, this kid was running across both our laps so I smiled and plugged my headphones into the armrest like I did the last time I flew to Texas. This song was what I heard first.

The last time I heard about Fatboy Slim was when he did that sweet music video for “Weapon of Choice” with my boy Christopher Walken doing some gravity defiant dancing. It doesn’t surprise me that Slim would have a career resurgence because electronic music is so big right now. I hope he does well and steers clear of  dub step music.

The kid kind of settled down and his father, who was the next row over, bought me and the mother a Jack Daniel’s nip so that made me feel much better. Besides the kid and a terrible movie called Last Vegas, the flight was pretty uneventful. I got off the plane in San Antonio and as I waited for my brother, I watched a man get busted for drunk driving right in front of the airport. He literally had an open Dos Equis in his newer Chevy Sedan  and by the look on his face, you could tell he knew he’d made a grave mistake. Besides that, my trip has been very chill and spent mostly with the kids who now are much bigger and have equally bigger personalities. I love it and it makes me happy to see the Elder being such an adept parent and sad I live so far away. Every time we get into the car, they want to hear this song which I think I introduced to my brother a little while back.

Our enthusiasm for J. Roddy has not waned. I love this band and I hope to catch a show in Boston this spring. It makes me very happy I can enjoy this music with my family while on the other side of the country.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. My brother just brought the kids to school and is hitting the gym while I finish up this post. I only came for a few days and as per usual, it feels like I just got here and I really don’t want to go back to the frozen north tomorrow at noon. We are going to go out tonight after we go shotgun shopping and then I’ll spend some time with the kids tomorrow morning before I get on the plane. I guess I should consider myself lucky for being able to come visit at all and cherish the time I got with my brother and his family whom I don’t see that often. This is what the Elder would do but as I am the youngest of the siblings, I’ve always been the emotional one. So on that note, I leave you with a happy/sad song about the fleeting nature of existence and the advice that you should spend as much with your family as you can because blood runs thicker than anything else. Also, take my other advice and spend some time in an airport bar, I know I will tomorrow.

One of the best shows I’ve ever been to is the Flaming Lips and I highly suggest you all check them out if you have the chance.

On the Radio (Flashback): Time Bomb

In the mid 1990s I used to work about 45 minutes away from home at a gas station–much to the chagrin of my parents who couldn’t understand why the hell I had to drive 45 minutes to pump gas when there were perfectly good places to pump gas in our home town.  The long and the short of it was: (1) I didn’t want to be caught pumping gas by someone I actually knew and (2) there was a girl involved (the place was owned by her father).

As with most things, the law of unintended consequences had a powerful showing here.This was the glorious year of the Ford LTD Stationwagon.  First of all, since I was young and driving a lot not only did I get into my first fender-bender, run out of gas during a snowstorm and receive my first, second and third traffic citations, but I also got to listen to the radio constantly at a time when alt-rock was king. During many of my long drives into the cold, I heard songs by the band Rancid.

I can’t listen to this song without getting happy now. What the living hell was wrong with me?

As I mentioned a few months back when I was going through my obsessive phase with Palma Violets, I was dismissive of almost everything in second-wave punk for no good reason. Although I grudgingly acknowledged the quality of Green Day (and who didn’t? the radio played us all into submission), Rancid–with its snarling vocals and stripped down sound–seemed easy to mock and easier to dismiss. And yet, when I listen to it now, it seems so much more transgressive, immediate, and authentic (again, whatever that means) than a lot of the other schmaltz I thought was good. (“Wonderwall? What the fuck?)

I think that a good deal of my suspicion of punk’s second sailing has to do with poorly held and even more poorly defined ideas of authenticity and originality. At 16, I thought that such words had meaning and had no concept of things like appropriation, homage, and metamorphosis. Even worse, when it came to a band like Rancid, I was too fucking ignorant to know that two of the members were old-timers from Operation Ivy who had enough cache and real DIY punk character to make the members of Green Day blush. Hell, Rancid never even signed with a mainstream label.

So, I guess the lesson here is that if you’re worried that someone else is a poseur, you should probably check into their bona fides and, even before that, do the whole monkey in the mirror thing and make sure you’re not a complete fake. I’m trying to make amends for this and many other asshole moments in my youth.  Just today I downloaded the album.  My kids are going to be rocking out with safety pins this afternoon.

And what do you think of all this, my brother?

Addicted to Flapper Birds and the breakdown of human communication

 I discovered I could play the iPhone  game Flappy Bird on my laptop at the precise time I heard this song on the Palladia channel from that awesome show Live from Daryl’s House. I have always loved this song and honestly had no idea who Todd Rundgren was, but now I do and this version kills it. I would also like to not work and bang on my drum all day, just switch the drums with picking on the bass. The steel guitar flourishes and multiple forms of percussion turn an 80’s pop song into a Hawaiian camp fire tune and it’s even cooler because the steel guitar actually originated on those same islands. Thank you Daryl Hall, the culture of Hawaii and the polar vortex for giving me a day off from school today. 

I don’t have an iPhone and I’m addicted to an iPhone app. I don’t even own an iPod because the one I had cracked and was on it’s last legs anyway. My brother has referred to my lack of new technology as evidence of me being a “Luddite”,  but I seriously think the obsession society has with phones/instant access to unlimited information is destroying person to person to communication as well as the art of conversation. I defend my non-conforming ways by saying I don’t want to be one of these people in public places with their nose persistently two inches from a phone with nary a look around to real people. That and the fact that the NSA uses all of these devices to build individual profiles and companies buy our stolen data so they can target specific ads to our perceived tastes, but I digress.

If I didn’t go to dive bars more often than not, I’d lose it with all the people standing around staring at their phones and not each other. It can’t be good for you and I don’t only mean the lack of human contact.  Watch, in twenty years, all of these heavy iPhone users will have cross eyes or something. 

I played the game on a bus ride to a field trip of outdoor winter team-building activities with my class. It’s been a rough week for everyone and this trip was meant to bring us together, as well as to build our community and team ethic. Although our group has suffered a few losses, we are definitely coming together. One of them was talking about this new game everyone was playing and I asked to take a try. I have a pretty easy relationship with my students so they handed it over and I kept it for a solid twenty five minutes, the whole length of the bus ride! I was hooked, this game is incredibly amusing and everyone, including my co-teacher who is my opposite in every way, thought it was a riot that I was so transfixed by such a mindless game.

I’m not a huge Punk rock fan.  But when I was trying to break it down for myself why I like this stupid game so much,  it occurred to me that it was mostly that I’m pretty stressed right now and like hip hop music, it takes my mind of what I’m stressing about. Hip Hop has substance and a beat though. This game is just straight dumb dumb and clearly some type of digital sedative to me.

I was hooked on this game bad for a short time. I competed against the kids at the beginning and end of the day, briefly holding the highest score in the classroom.  The background animation reminds me of Super Mario Brothers on the NES and SNES which is basically the core of video games I’ve ever played. I don’t play any video games play often and barring the occasional Call of Duty zombie mode foray with an old friend from high school, it is only Sega Genesis or one of the aforementioned consoles. Video games can be a welcome distraction and this is why I’m so enamored with this game. Life is not always easy and you can’t be on point all the time so why not take five to ten minutes to keep a bird afloat betwixt two green sewer pipes at various heights?

Grouplove is kind of like this game for me  but with quite a bit more going on here. The music is very simple and unrefined yet cool and very catchy, kind of like a less morose version of the Pixies. Their drummer Ryan Rabin is the son of one of the drummers from Yes which gives him major points with me. Lastly, I find the flannel plus leather pants look on the female singer pretty hot.

I guess it’s not a real addiction because I just now found out I can do it on my laptop and I run about five minute intervals in between doing school work, shoveling in this storm and other household tasks. I do think our modern population is too dependent on SmartPhones and you can see the effects in the teenagers now.  They don’t express themselves verbally or in writing well most of the time, they’d rather text than call someone and are completely lost if their state issued laptops are un-available for whatever reason. Even teachers prefer to email even when your classroom is twenty steps away.  I think that if things continue as they are, the next generation will be on the road to completely losing the art of person to person conversation. I like teaching because my only real skill is communication so I’m not even sure I’d want to teach in that context. This isn’t Flappy Birds fault, but it isn’t helping either.

I think the breakdown of real human communication is far more dangerous than a stepping razor. Reggae has never been the same without Peter Tosh, my personal favorite reggae artist, but more on that in the very near future.

I get the most joy in life from communication in the real world. My only real skills are of the people variety, barring any minor knowledge of landscaping or bar tending.  Whether it’s teaching youngsters, playing out with my band, or even just shooting the shit with my friends, this is what makes life fun for me. If that ends, I don’t think I want to be around to see it. I do love Flappy birds but my enthusiasm is waning with it as these things do. There is hope I think, but it’s going to take an electromagnetic pulse to temporarily end all telecommunications for us to realize it.

Everything (is) Good (On Criticism)

“When the critic has said everything in his power about a literary text, he has still said nothing; for the very existence of literature implies that it cannot be replaced by non-literature.” Tzvetan Todorov
“Fuck y’all, all ya’ll / if ya’ll don’t like me, blow me” Dr. Dre

In The Simpsons Episode 229 (“Guess Who’s Coming to Criticize Dinner”), Homer’s ability to speak eloquently and evocatively about food—from his own gluttonous experience—earns him a position as a restaurant critic. His early enthusiastic reviews attract the gratitude of the restaurateurs and the scorn of fellow critics who see his approach as too easy and, I suspect, unsophisticated and popularizing.

Under the spell of the evil critics’ cabal, Homer becomes an all too easily recognizable caricature of a critic who barely deigns to judge his material and whose blistering reviews can be explained only by how elevated and sophisticated his taste has become. Of course, Homer can’t have it both ways—he cannot be the food-loving hero of the people and the gastronomic esthete.  The restaurateurs conspire to poison him.

What does this have to do with music? It flirts with several issues at the center of criticism—issues that make the act of reviewing or judging music, for me, nearly paralyzing. What is the relationship between the critic and the object of criticism? Is it love for the form/genre? Is there a profit/commodification link between the two?

These questions are not restricted to food and music—indeed, anyone who has followed the 20th century crises in literary criticism will recognize some of the same issues. Why does a critic make judgments? Is it to  understand the specific instance of a genre or the genre as a whole? Or, more problematically, how can we tell when the review stops being (primarily) about the object of criticism and instead is really about the critic?

In reverse order. Criticism almost always reveals more about the judge than the judged. And this isn’t a bad thing. For instance, each generation’s reaction to Shakespeare communicates the values, emphases, and historical contexts of that time. On the other hand, a great deal of criticism suffers from personality cults. Too many critics write for the purpose of glorifying the critic by revealing through the sensitivity of the critic’s judgments and the dexterity of his/her writing the superiority of the critic over the creator of the object, other critics, and, of course, the reader.

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