Best Albums: Man Man, Arctic Monkeys, Balance and Composure, Obits, Cock & Swan, Tremor

This week’s best albums

– With its fifth album, quirk-rock quintet Man Man offers a “band reboot,” merging its Tom Waits-ian, trop-pop weirdness with Talking Heads inspirations, old-school soul, and other oddities.

Arctic Monkeys makes another surprise transition, this time with a slinky nightclub record that channels bluesy rock riffs from the ’70s.

Balance and Composure, among the new guard of indie-rock bands that actually rock, makes an advancement of musical and songwriting depth.

– Rick Froberg’s Obits, on its third LP, better balances its members’ blues, rock, psych, and world-music influences with the more familiar snarl of their post-hardcore precursors.

– Following a more acoustic LP, Seattle duo Cock & Swan crafts an album of washed-out ambience, breathy vocals, glitching syncopation, and pop nostalgia.

– Argentinian “folklorica” outfit Tremor utilizes human voice for the first time, offering a poppier blend of folk and electronica.

Honorable mentions

The Weeknd: Kiss Land (Republic)

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Review: David Byrne & St. Vincent’s Love This Giant

David Byrne & St. Vincent: Love This GiantDavid Byrne & St. Vincent: Love This Giant (4AD, 9/11/12)


David Byrne & St. Vincent: “Who”

David Byrne has one of the most recognizable voices in music, ranking somewhere between Bob Dylan and Michael Stipe. No doubt this is why everyone wants the former Talking Heads front-man to guest on their records. Dirty ProjectorsArcade Fire, Jherek Bischoff — they’ve all taken advantage of the static friction of that back-of-the-mouth tenor.

But Love This Giant, Byrne’s collaboration with St. Vincent, a woman who’s known more for her multi-instrumentalist abilities than her voice, is the first full-length he’s co-written with anyone other than Brian Eno.

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Qua: A Digital-Analog “One-Stop Shop” for Texture, Color, and Melody

This story first appeared in Chromatic: The Crossroads of Color and Music. Order your copy today.

Qua: Q&AQua: Q&A (Electric Dreams, 4/27/10)

Qua: “Circles”

[audio:|titles=Qua: “Circles”]

Given the proliferation of programmable equipment and digital production techniques, kids all over the world are growing up and playing music without ever touching a physical instrument. Who can blame them? Nearly every imaginable texture, pitch, effect, and beat is just a few clicks away. This sea change from analog to digital musicianship hasn’t just changed the way that we create music; it has changed the way that we see music too. Distinctly electronic timbres are coupled with the colorful swirls of an iTunes visualizer, the bright strobe lights of a dance club, and the neon aesthetics of genre giants like Daft Punk and MIA.

Though he grew up playing guitar in rock bands, Cornel Wilczek, better known as Australian electronic artist Qua, set aside his guitar and took the solo electronic road early in his career. His decision was made possible by a discovery of electronic music, a genre wherein Wilczek realized that he could become, as he says, a “one-stop shop.” He could handle production and technical duties without having to rely on anyone but himself.

At 17, Wilczek won a Yamaha guitar competition and moved to the USA to do session work and guitar demonstrations. “It was really quite amazing at the time,” Wilczek says, “but it was also the end of an era for me, because I had met so many of my guitar and music idols who were complete assholes. I actually came back [to Australia] and stopped playing guitar for about five years, and that’s when I found electronic music.”

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Album Download: Kenan Bell’s Summer Solstice Vol. 3

Kenan Bell: Summer Solstice Vol. 3Kenan Bell: Summer Solstice Vol. 3 (12/21/11)

Kenan Bell: “Book of the Month (feat. Ayomari & Carl Roe)”

[audio:|titles=Kenan Bell: “Book of the Month (feat. Ayomari & Carl Roe)”]

Indie rapper Kenan Bell releases the third installment of his Summer Solstice mixtape series tomorrow, the summer solstice for the Southern hemisphere. On this collection, the former Montessori schoolteacher samples the likes of Caribou (“Caribou”), Lovage (“Book of the Month”), the Talking Heads (“Home”), and plenty more, layering his signature nerd rap over each and making them his own.

A day before its official release, ALARM presents an exclusive download of SSV3. (And if you haven’t already, be sure to download Summer Solstice Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.)

Bell also provided some commentary below for SSV3. We advise that you listen to it in its entirety while enjoying his behind-the-scenes notes.

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Moses Supposes: Major labels brace themselves for loss of their most popular catalog in 2013

Moses Avalon is one of the nation’s leading music-business consultants and artists’-rights advocates and is the author of a top-selling music business reference, Confessions of a Record Producer. More of his articles can be found at

The Mayan calendar claims that the world will come to an abrupt end in 2012. We have all heard the hype and suffered through the movies. But even if that prediction falls flat, the pop-music business may still experience its own armageddon shortly thereafter. Are these just the ravings of another music-industry expert flying off the rails? Let’s see.

In 2013, many classic recordings are scheduled to slip out of the control of their major labels. No, I’m not referring to odd recordings that no one actually collects. This list of records includes some of the top-selling albums of all time (abbreviated list below)!

Even though music-business insiders have been dreading this for years, the New York Times finally decided that it was a newsworthy enough subject and published a piece a few weeks ago about this issue (called “termination of masters”). Unfortunately, the reporter they assigned seemed to a have limited understanding of how the music business really works, as well as of copyright in general. In his article, he kept interchanging the word “songs” with “master recordings,” which littered his post with inaccurate statements like, “artists can claim their songs in 2013.”

Though this New York Times piece may be new info to outsiders, it is a subject that has long been on the minds of those concerned with the recording industry and artist rights. I reported about the subject in a 2008 Moses Supposes article. Here’s the reprint for your perusal:

Mayan meltdown at majors

The hot topic for the American Bar Association conference in 2008 was “termination of masters,” a little raison d’etre in the copyright act that supposedly levels the playing field for authors who are often at a disadvantage to the big, bad publisher (or record company, in this case). The copyright act states that after 35 years, the license or transfer of a work must “terminate” and revert back to the original author.

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DeVotchKa: Gypsy-Fusion Quartet Hits the Big Time

A Mad and Faithful TellingDeVotchKa: A Mad and Faithful Telling (Anti-, 3/18/08)

When DeVotchKa landed a Grammy nomination for its contribution to the soundtrack of 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine, it was a welcome vindication. The Denver-based quartet had been waging an uphill battle for recognition since the late ’90s, when bandleader Nick Urata (vocals, guitar, trumpet, piano, Theremin) put together the first version of the band with largely different personnel.

“It took a long time to find the right quartet,” Urata says from his Denver home, where a blizzard rages outside. “I was a sideman for my whole life, so at the beginning [of DeVotchKa] I was having such a good time doing my own songs with my own band, I let anyone who wanted to play join in. When we finished the first record (Supermelodrama, 2002), everyone was done with school and needed to move on. [Multi-instrumentalist] Tom Hagerman was one of them, but in the long run it was good. It forced me to find people who wanted to play for a living. Finding Jeanie [Schroder] and Shawn [King] is a long story, but eventually Tom came back and we convinced him to stay.”

Urata grew up near New York City in a large Italian family. “My grandfather was a musician and had a great influence on me,” he says. “I began studying trumpet at age eight and was exposed to music from all over the world. There was always talk of Gypsies in our bloodline. As I got older, I began to pine for those old-world sounds.”

It’s those old-world sounds that make DeVotchKa so unique and hard to define. The band is tagged with blurbs like “Gypsy mariachis playing funky boleros at a Greek taverna” or “Eastern Bloc cabaret rock,” but its blend of rock and world music is part of a burgeoning new style one could call global pop. DeVotchKa’s mash-up of American R&B, Gypsy, spaghetti western, Argentinean tango, surf guitar, odd Balkan back beats, and angular funk sounds eccentric and strangely familiar, even to those unfamiliar with the band’s myriad influences.

“Music-business people are always telling me there’s no place for [DeVotchKa],” Urata says. “But the fans are saying, ‘Give me more, and the wackier, the better.’ Almost every label in America turned us down. One of them, after a long courtship, walked away because we were too ethnic. Nine months later, right about the time they would have put our record out, we were featured in Spin as part of the hottest new trend in music.”

Undaunted, the band created its own label, Cicero Recordings, and followed up Supermelodrama with two more excellent recordings: Una Volta (2003) and How It Ends (2004). When the directors of Little Miss Sunshine put tracks from How It Ends on their soundtrack, it brought the band some well-deserved mainstream recognition, as did its one-off EP, Curse Your Little Heart, for independent label Ace Fu.

Enter Anti- Records, the adventurous LA label that’s home to Tom Waits, Merle Haggard, Billy Bragg, and Nick Cave. “We were interested in Anti- because they have Tom Waits,” Hagerman says. “They finally came to a show and signed us.”

A Mad and Faithful Telling, DeVotchKa’s new album, is their most ambitious yet, featuring ten luxuriously produced tracks that brim with international rhythms, lush orchestrations, and Urata’s soulful croon. The band produced the album with Craig Schumacher (Calexico, Giant Sand), who also helped with Una Volta and How It Ends.

“Craig has great musical ideas and keeps us from hurting ourselves when we record,” Urata jokes. “He’s good at placing mics for maximum effect and coaching a good performance out of us.

“There was an urgency when we wrote and recorded the last two albums. This time we were more ambitious musically and little more relaxed. I felt like we could sit back and let this one be itself without trying to interfere with the creative process. We left a lot to chance, with more improvisation and input from the other members — more spontaneity. The last few I had mapped out before we recorded, due to financial constraints and lack of confidence.”

The tunes on A Mad And Faithful Telling are marked by a clear, clean mix that gives every instrument its own distinct voice. “Basso Profundo” begins the album with Latin-influenced spaghetti-western sounds before moving into a Russian Gypsy jam during the coda. The backing vocalists sing a merry wordless hook that instantly embeds itself into your brain, while Hagerman’s fiddle goes into overdrive, zooming through the mix like a hummingbird on nitroglycerine.

“For me, playing violin is the most potent musical expression.” Hagerman says. “Communicating an emotion through a wordless musical phrase is really powerful.” Hagerman also shines on “Comrade Z,” an instrumental rave-up that’s part Balkan brass, part Gypsy fiddle insanity, with a driving, irresistible bass line. “We tried to cram as many notes into the motif as possible,” Hagerman says of the tune’s frenetic pace. “It’s a tune we started a long time ago. The string quartet we use on that tune gave us more choices in orchestration. I like arrangements where the strings take over the melody or rhythms that are usually played on guitar.”

“The Clockwise Witness” showcases DeVotchKa’s growing confidence in the studio. Toy piano and staccato strings set up the rhythm while Urata’s guitar, Schroder’s bass, and King’s drums counter with a dance-rock groove.

“Tom came up with the toy-piano riff a couple of years ago,” Urata explains. “We played a different version of it on the road, but when it came time to record, Tom wrote an amazing arrangement for strings and oboe. The new arrangement has a strict metronomic beat and reminds me of the seconds of our lives ticking away. The lyrics ask, ‘Is there redemption in living the straight life, or should we just trample everyone in our way for immediate gratification?”

Another dark track is “Blessing in Disguise,” a military waltz with a lyric of lost love and regret, with a lot of swing in the drums and string charts despite the martial tempo. “I wrote this on my own,” Urata says. “I was having a terrible time writing and couldn’t find anything good for months, then it wrote itself all at once. I tried to explain that process in the lyrics. In those rare moments of clarity, you realize that losing love or facing death, although extremely painful, can lead to profound changes. I wanted it to be somewhere between a wedding and a funeral march, so we brought in marching band instruments and recorded it all live in the same big studio room.”

“Undone” sounds like Roy Orbison fronting a Gypsy band while singing the tango; “Strazzalo” employs an odd oompha waltz; “Transliterator” features rocking disjointed funk that sounds vaguely like the Talking Heads, one of Urata’s favorite bands during his youth.

A Mad And Faithful Telling takes its title from a line in Edgar Allen Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, perhaps fitting because the lyrics Urata has crafted for the album are full of his usual concerns: mortality, lost or unattainable love, and the brevity of happiness. His vocals, which combine David Byrne’s uneasy yelp with Orbison’s powerful but restrained croon, often float free in the mix, adding another element of mystery to the music.

“I try to get across a mix of conventional wisdom and poetry, portraying emotional experiences with enough poetic license to make it interesting,” Urata says. “I like songs that are a little bit ambiguous. One day it means one thing, the next day it means something else, the way conversations you’ve had in the past can come back to you in a whole new context. The best stuff comes subconsciously; it has nothing to do with me. Once they’re finished, songs become their own entities that have nothing to do with you anymore. The vocal mix is dictated by what the song or that particular performance needs. Sometimes the band has to overpower the vocalist. I am a bit shy about putting the vocals way up front.”

Urata and DeVotchKa traveled a long road to achieve their current success, never compromising their sound or vision. Now that they’ve arrived, they find themselves lumped with other bands that are exploring Eastern European tonalities like Balkan Beat Box and Gogol Bordello, part of a so-called “Gypsy wave.” It’s a pigeonhole that has mixed blessings.

“We have been type cast as a Gypsy band from the beginning,” Urata agrees. “In our case, it was a positive thing. As we got to know other like-minded bands like Gogol Bordello, we started telling people that Gypsy music has been going on for a long time, so where were you ten years ago? In fact, the Gypsy influence has been shaping music all over the world for hundreds of years. To say it’s some new anomaly is kind of laughable.”

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Braids: Indie-Rock Balancing Act

Braids: Native SpeakerBraids: Native Speaker (Kanine, 1/18/11)

Braids: “Lemonade”

[audio:|titles=Braids: “Lemonade”]

At one point during the lead-up to the release of Braids’ first full-length record, Native Speaker, each of the band’s four members were on their cell phones talking to different reporters that all wanted to
know the same thing: who were they and where did they come from?

“’Can you give me a brief history of Braids? Where did Braids start? Tell me a little bit about the story of
the band,’” Braids’ drummer, Austin Tufts, says over the phone, slightly exhausted from constantly trying to find a new way to tell the same story. “I’m just glad we finally have a Wikipedia page.”

Tufts’ exasperation from answering the same questions, though, is as understandable as the benevolent unfamiliarity of the reporters asking them. After all, given the Canadian quartet’s nascent swell from relative obscurity to indie rock’s latest ambrosial darlings, the deluge of attention and interview requests is the kind of problem that most up-and-coming bands would like to have.

“That’s been the hardest thing, keeping the answers fresh when so many journalists ask the exact same questions,” Tufts says as the band mills about in the parking lot of its Little Rock, Arkansas hotel before heading to Dallas after an early-February winter storm canceled shows in St. Louis, Missouri and Norman, Oklahoma. “This is our fourth interview today. Right before the January [18th] release, we were doing like six or seven interviews a day while trying to work out six or seven new songs, and we had to constantly battle if we wanted to do an interview and make sure the shows on the tour went okay or write music.”

In the end, Tufts says that the band decided to just schedule massive “cluster-fucks” of interviews for each band member to take on his or her cell phone, all at the same time. That was the only way that the group could satisfy both the creative ambitions that put the band’s time at such a premium and the daily obligations of a young band thirsty for greater exposure.

There was a period of time, about a year ago, when most of what the American audience knew about Braids was that the group had filmed an intimate performance with music-video director extraordinaire Vincent Moon, known for his spontaneously penetrating music videos on the French music blog La Blogotheque. In one off-the-cuff, seven-minute clip, Moon follows Braids as it shambles and shuffles across an overgrown patch of railroad tracks playing “Lemonade,” the first track on Native Speaker. The bittersweet lyrics of Braids’ main vocalist, Raphelle Standell-Preston, echo a melancholic murmur set against Montreal’s graying urban landscape.

“…and what I’ve found,” Standell-Preston desperately croons in an Avey Tare-esque pitch, “…is that we’re all just sleeping around.”

The song’s fuzzy, unraveling guitar flutters between bustling surges of thick melody and ramshackle interjections of reverberating fluidity. Arpeggiated keys and an almost tantric duel of drum beats buoy the song’s contrasting harmonies before Standell-Preston’s percussive lyrics charmingly seep back in.

“We had to constantly battle if we wanted to do an interview and make sure the shows on the tour went okay or write music.”

“All we really want to do is love,” she sings, pausing intermittently for a succulent and chilly windswept effect — and for a long time, that ephemeral video clip served as the basic starting point for anyone trying to find out who the hell this band was.

“Things have definitely picked up for us in the last year,” Tufts says. “I’d say even more so in just the last five months; doing all the press lead-up to the record, we’ve just been focusing on the business end and getting our team sorted out. Wherever we put our focus is where we seem to excel.”

Excel they have. Braids is quickly learning that regardless of how long it has been playing— four years this February, Tufts says — it doesn’t mean anything when you suddenly begin to populate the radar of the omniscient indie-music hype machine like a rapidly intensifying tropical storm.

Formed four years ago in Calgary by guitarist and lead vocalist Standell-Preston, keyboardist Katie Lee, multi-instrumentalist Taylor Smith, and Tufts, the group moved to Montreal immediately after finishing high school and steadily worked to elaborate and refine its intricate blend of pop ambiance and experimental instrumentation. As evidenced by a clear rise in name recognition and media attention, Braids is just now beginning to taste the sweet nectar of the fruit that it has waited so patiently to grow.

With that newfound recognition, of course, comes the pitfalls of the loud-quiet-loud music-industry machinations. Native Speaker hasn’t been out for more than a month, but Tufts says that the band is already looking ahead to what’s next, contemplating more songs and a new record, but all in an undetermined future that is somehow already nostalgic.

“There’s this really great Karen O quote where she says she had 20 years to write her first record and 18 months to write her second,” Tufts says, “and that’s so true, because your first record is a culmination of all the experiences thus far in your life. For us, I think we’re really blessed because we’re not, in any of the territories we’re represented in, locked into anything more than a one-record deal, so we don’t have any label pressure for a second release.”

Without even 100 years between its members combined, Braids is a young band in many ways. Though it has toured the length of Canada twice over and ventured into New York and a handful of US cities periodically for shows, this is its first extended trek through the States.

But what Braids lacks in age, it makes up for in maturity and self-awareness. It’s a dedicated group with a positive grasp on the present and a well-balanced outlook on the future. In the past year, the Canadian quartet has had to hire a team of Canadian, US, and international representatives, including three different publicists, a booking agent, and two record labels — Kanine Records in the USA and Flemish Eye in Canada. Having previously booked, produced, and promoted itself entirely on its own, the band has had a hard time relinquishing some managerial control, but Tufts makes it clear that the band will ultimately be calling the shots.

It’s a difficult adjustment to transition from fun-loving twenty-somethings to ambitious musicians, to industry professionals, and then back again. Yet Tufts says that one thing remains constant: working for an abstract symmetrical balance, an equilibrium between obligation, necessity, and want.

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31 Knots: Worried Well

So tight that merely listening to it raises shoulders to ears, Portland trio 31 Knots mixes the dissonance of Sonic Youth, the time signatures and stop-start changes of Fugazi, and the deconstructed funk of Talking Heads to create a nervous, hysterical din that reads like Michel Foucault having a nervous breakdown. Read More

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NOMO: Defying Categorization with Expanded Electronics of Ghost Rock

NOMO, the alternative Afrobeat collective from Ann Arbor, Michigan, marches to its own beat, or more accurately, to the beat of four different percussionists.

Led by the lanky, baby-faced founder and composer Elliot Bergman, the nine-piece multi-ethnic/gender brigade is a mash-up of cultural and musical influences.

Defying classification to create an Afrobeat/funk/electronic hybrid (think Remain in Light-era Talking Heads with the sensibilities of Fela Kuti), the band has old-school jazz purists, hipsters, and indie rockers cocking an ear and taking notice.

With choice gigs at Bonnaroo and the 2007 Chicago Pitchfork Festival, along with opening slots for Ozomatli and Earth, Wind, and Fire, the road warriors of NOMO warmly embrace any scene or genre that will have them. In an industry obsessed with genre profiling, the band defies categorization, opting simply to attract the uninitiated with freewheeling live shows and an “all are welcome” credo.

“NOMO is a big melting pot of ideas and influences,” explains Bergman from his home in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. “It started with a bunch of us getting together and saying, ‘Let’s have a big Afrobeat jam.’

“I met most of the band through the University of Michigan, and we unified the vision to have a sound that is mostly instrumental, with a lot of horns and percussion that would get people dancing. I was always into jazz, particularly electric Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, but when I got to college, the doors opened.

“Ann Arbor is a pretty arts-orientated community, and when I started working at crate-digger’s paradise Encore Records, I started getting parallel educations. I got really into Indian and African music, as well as European bands like Gang of Four and Can.”

During the early incarnations of NOMO, Bergman moonlighted as an active member of indie-pop darlings Saturday Looks Good to Me, which acted as an outlet for his rock leanings.

With the recording of New Tones (Ubiquity) in 2006, Bergman and co. harnessed the improvisation of their live shows by filtering rhythmic horn lines through a tight funk gauntlet. While the interlocking of horn, percussion, and thumping bass are tight, the arrangements never feel rigid, and the continuous groove ebbs and flows but rarely falls flat.

A large part of the album’s sound can be credited to His Name is Alive founder Warn Defever’s role as producer.

“He’s a Pro Tools genius who engineers from a moral and ethical standpoint,” explains Bergman. “He had very specific ideas about how every instrument should sound and how it all fit together. However, it’s a very collaborative process and I’m always sitting there with him when he’s mixing.”

Much of NOMO’s appeal stems from the raw energy of its live shows. “Since the music is mostly instrumental, it may be a bit more challenging to connect emotionally, but there can also be a very strong visceral and emotional response,” Bergman says. “We’ve had people come up crying and wanting to hug us after a show, so there can be a very powerful connection.”

Aided by the critical success of New Tones and the strong word of mouth generated by the live shows, NOMO landed a slot on the 2007 Pitchfork Festival. On a sweltering July afternoon in Chicago’s Union Park, NOMO dared the typically reserved crowd to resist the groove and shed hipster inhibitions.

“It was a weird day,” he says. “The stage sound was disastrous, but people didn’t seem to mind. It was like senior prom, where you wait and plan for it forever, and then it’s over and done so quickly. At the end of the day, I was like, ‘Shoot, I forget to check out all the other bands.’”

As for any tales of debauchery or star-struck moments, Bergman offers none except for a backstage mix-up. “If this is my chance, I’d like to apologize to Menomena for accidentally drinking all of their beer. There were ten of us on tour and it gets very confusing. I think we also ate their veggie trays.”

After the Pitchfork gig, the band headed directly into Key Club Studies in Benton Harbor, Michigan with Defever to start work on its third album, Ghost Rock.

“Our drummer was leaving for India, so we booked two days immediately after our five-week tour,” recalls Bergman. “The band was super tight but also burned out. Everyone’s chops were busted, but we laid down some good stuff.

“The next day we focused on loops and electronics. People talk about a natural progression in our records, and I feel that this is a big artistic, if not necessarily logical, step forward for us. It’s a lot more minimal.”

Set for a June 17th release on Ubiquity Records, Ghost Rock finds the band mining much of the same territory of New Tones, while diving deep into the European electro soundscapes of Can and Brian Eno. It is at once swirling and dense, but completely approachable and funky as all hell.

“World music, jazz, electronica, Afrobeat…I hope that we don’t get marginalized by any of these terms,” says Bergman. “We are an American band, and in our hearts, I think we’re more of a rock band than anything else, but we do love so many different types of music.”

What’s ultimately mystifying about the band is how it is able to deftly integrate itself into rigidly defined social scenes of music. In a crude summation: the jazz people get it, the indie rockers dig it, and the jam and electronic crowd feels it.

“In the same year, we played Pitchfork and the Montreal Jazz Festival,” says Bergman. “We played with Dan Deacon to a bunch of young kids, but we also played punk clubs. We played a gig in Iowa City for maybe ten people. One time we had a group of swing-dancing elderly couples at the show who heard about us on NPR. I don’t want to turn anyone away. I just want to get this music out to as many receptive people as possible.

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