Saturday, July 28, 2007

Goodnight-Gracie Podcast #2-Red, Hot & Country


Click on Link Below

  • Goodnight-Gracie Podcast #2-Red, Hot & Country

  • Red Hot & Country Podcast Playlist

    Alone & Forsaken-Hank Williams
    Funny How Time Slips Away-Wanda Jackson
    The Price of the Bottle-The Louvin Brothers
    If I Were a Carpenter-Johnny & June Carter Cash
    Agnes Queen of Sorrow-"Bonnie 'Prince' Billy"
    Tulsa County-The Byrds
    Burning Bridges-Connie Smith
    Waiting Around to Die-Townes Van Zandt
    Nine Times Blue-MIchael Nesmith & The First National Band
    Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain-Willie Nelson

    Dexy's Midnight Runners-Don't Stand Me Down, 1985


    Kevin Rowland, the singer and principal songwriter behind Dexy’s Midnight Runners, seemed a man fraught with contradictions that on the group’s third and final album—Don’t Stand Me Down—came bubbling to the fore. Rowland, an ethnic Irishman born and raised in Birmingham, England who named his band for a psycho-stimulant, while at the same time alienated band members with a temperance policy that banned drink and drugs, dressed up in opulent Brooks Brothers attire while promoting an album that seethed with an almost pathological hatred for the British upper class. Contradictions though, are often the fuel of bright and brilliant progress.

    Don’t Stand Me Down is a sprawling epic; a mass of half-thoughts and a tangle of reminisces, regret, and long whispery dialogues; it is a tour de force of minimal pop, Memphis soul, Irish folk, and political rabble rousing. It is a treatise on love, the artifice of memory, and the burning, fleeting flame of youth as it moves hurriedly toward being forever extinguished. It is spectacular in its messiness, its pugnaciousness, its maturity, and its failure to make a commercial dent; and on that last count it is a famous and incomprehensibly brilliant flop.

    Like many a commercial failure, Don’t Stand Me Down, has a muddled and chaotic past. After having conquered the UK and America—“Come on Eileen” shot to number one in the spring of 1983 giving Americans a brief respite between “Billy Jean” and “Beat It” as Billboard Hot 100 singles—with the rollicking Irish folk-pop mega seller Too-Rye-Aye, the group was poised to stay atop the commercial tidal wave. But Rowland’s brash sense of perfectionism coupled with crippling self-doubt caused the recording of the follow-up to drag on for years. It was not until the end of 1985 that Don’t Stand Me Down was finally released and to make matters worse, Rowland refused to release a single.

    A desertion by short sighted pop fans perhaps confused by yet another image make-over, critical savagery, and Rowland’s initial refusal to promote the record, together with ultra-expensive recording sessions—the album was recorded in Montreaux, London, Reading, Hertfordshire, and New York with a host of session musicians—rendered Don’t Stand Me Down the Cleopatra of records. Fans are meant to be like sheep herded from one musical pen to the next, but why critics failed to grasp the brilliance of the record is a mystery.

    The opener, “Kevin Rowland’s 13th Time,” apparently about Rowland being arrested for the thirteenth time, sets the acidulous tone with Rowland holding court and telling “jokes”—“You ever hear the one about the um, the middle class idiots who sorta spend all their time analyzing their own emotions, and writin’ bullshit poetry you know, that we’re supposed to read? (Laughter) I mean, as if we’re fuckin’ interested.” Rowland peppers the album with like-minded conversational jabs and asides meant to skewer the British upper classes, which seem to stem from an almost militant Pro-Irish sentiment and a masked sense of self-recrimination.

    The record though is almost like a beautiful box filled with ornate straw that protects a perfect pop epic, which lolls lovingly almost decadently in the womb-like middle. This chill-inducing epic, called “This is What She’s Like” clocks in at nearly twelve and a half minutes with its many leitmotifs, codas, and bridges; it is a confluence of Memphis horns, Irish-folk banjos and fiddles, nods to British Music Hall,love-worship, and clear-eyed pop.

    Abandoning the usual rhetorical nature of the pop song, “This is What She’s Like” is essentially a protracted and sometimes maddeningly frustrating conversation in which Rowland tries explaining to his constant foil, banjo/guitar player Billy Adams what she is like by what she is not. For example: “You’re familiar with the scum from Notting Hill and Moseley, The C.N.D.? Sure. They describe nice things as wonderful. She never would say that, she’s totally different in every way.” Like most of the songs on the album, it is thick with the aforementioned class warfare.

    There is also a rather interesting—some may say troubling—aspect of Don’t Stand Me Down, which is a penchant the band shows for aping influences. The most famous example of this is a song called “One of Those Things,” in which a copyright case by the late Warren Zevon was successfully prosecuted against Rowland and the group for its uncomfortable closeness to Mr. Zevon’s 1978 hit “Werewolves of London.” Also, the song “My National Pride,” a lilting, contryesque song replete with pedal steel reminds me in the beginning of Bobby Vinton’s “Mr. Lonely,” before being accented with grafted bum bum bum's lifted straight from Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love.” Finally on Rowland’s defiantly upbeat yet mournful ode to his youth “Reminisce (Part 2)” he name checks the 5th Dimensions’ “Wedding Bell Blues” and the Kinks’ “Lola” before singing the refrain from Jimmy Ruffin’s “I’ll Say Forever My Love.” In a way Rowland sometimes turns the record into a jigsaw puzzle of workable and explicit influences.

    Don’t Stand me Down is an uncompromising document that some would say depicts a band at their most arrogant and bombastic. It certainly marked the beginning of the end for the band as a whole and a cocaine-fueled downward spiral for Rowland. The record has taken on a mythic status in which critics have hailed it as a “lost classic” or a “buried treasure.” It has been re-issued twice, once by Alan McGee’s Creation label; and then later on EMI, Rowland was enlisted to re-cut it, in which he remastered the record, added the opener, “Kevin Rowland’ Thirteenth Time,” and changed the name of “Knowledge of Beauty” to “My National Pride,” and “Listen to This” to “I Love You (Listen to This).”

    The album is oftentimes wantonly self-indulgent and in places overlong. It is written in a piquant hand that is sometimes unnecessarily cruel. The barbs are so full of redundant venom though that it seems as if they reflect Rowland’s own sense of self-loathing than his hatred for others. It is like the boy whose mean streak is meant to mask a crippling sense of self-doubt; and in that way, Rowland’s cruelty is endearing. But really, Don't Stand me Down conveys a brilliance and a hardness that goes beyond conventional ideologies. Rowland's burning, zealot-like agenda makesa kind of sense wrapped in his pure-pop smarts and his feeling for confrontation.

    On his last Dexy's Midnight Runners album, Kevin Rowland seems almost out of his mind with love and hate, yet still perfectly in tune and totally engaged with his most treasured influences making Don't Stand me Down one of the most beautifully off-kilter pop albums to emerge in the last thirty years.


    Sunday, July 22, 2007

    Goodnight-Gracie Podcast #1-Flummoxed and in Error


    I decided to do a weekly podcast which will be posted henceforth on Sundays. I have not worked out the intricacies of posting or hosting podcasts so for a while this will be a bit rough, and jury-rigged; a bit by the skin of my teeth. If you have any questions, corrections, ideas, or requests for the podcasts, I can be reached by email at After today's, each podcast will have a theme, starting with next week's country podcast. They are short, so give a listen. This one has no central theme. Please click on the link below.

  • Goodnight-Gracie Podcast #1-Flummoxed and in Error

  • Podcast #1 Playlist

    Lookin' For Boys-The Pin-Ups
    Egyptian Shumba-The Tammys
    He Hit Me (And it Felt Like a Kiss)-The Crystals
    The Red Door-The Aisler's Set
    Sister Ann-The Gories
    Jack the Ripper-Link Wray
    Like Flies on Sherbert-Alex Chilton
    Believe What You Say-Rick Nelson
    If Only You Were Lonely-The Replacements


    Sunday, July 15, 2007

    The Velvet Underground-The Velvet Underground, 1969

    The Velvets Forgotten Third Record—an Exquisite and Subdued Guitar Masterpiece

    As the Sixties drew to an untidy close, The Velvet Underground released their third and penultimate album, which was elegantly self-titled. 1969 was a considerable year for records that saw the release of The Flying Burrito Brothers’ The Gilded Palace of Sin, Tommy James and the Shondells’ Cellophane Symphony, Dusty Springfield’s landmark Dusty in Memphis, Judy Henske and Jerry Yester’s creepy and weird Farewell Aldebaran, Skip Spence’s ghostly Oar, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, and of course, Abbey Road.

    The Velvets though trumped them all with their delicate masterpiece of sparse novelistic beauty, which acted as a silent—given that no one cared about this album when it was released—triumph for Lou Reed and a stunning rebuke of John Cale and the caustic and harsh decadence of their 1968 entry White Light/White Heat. The fact that Reed could erect such a monument of fragile grace out of the ashes of the Cale rupture is a triumph of vision.

    The cover, seeming no less iconic now than the Warhol banana that marked their first record, is an ashy photograph of the group: Sterling Morrison, with his page-boy haircut and funny moustache looks as if he is stubbing out a cigarette, Lou Reed, dressed daintily in a sweater, holds up a magazine, Moe Tucker sits cross legged, giving Lou a quixotic look, and poor Doug Yule lurks in the shadows, shunted practically off the couch and separated from his compatriots by a large standing ashtray.

    The photograph was taken by a Warhol denizen called Billy Name and looks like the kind of thing you may find among your parents’ things—not looking at all like it was taken at the Factory. After the holocaust of noise that was White Light/White Heat, Billy Name’s sweet and intimate family portrait of the new Velvets indicated that deep changes were afoot.

    The first Velvet Underground record, The Velvet Underground & Nico is a very cool and knowing album crammed with lyrics that range from gritty street talk and stream-of-consciousness jabber to pulpy sexual nonsense; blunt, minimal guitar work; repetitive drumming; proto-goth posturing; John Cale’s viola; Nico’s ugly Teutonic croon; and Lou Reed’s nasally, Dylanesque drawl. It was a very tough and seemingly uncompromising document, which was totally at odds with the world of American music at the time, whether it was pop, rock, garage, folk, psyche, or avant-classical, even within the crucible of New York City.

    The album, blessed by Andy Warhol, has pretty much made the Velvets’ reputation as obscene punk pioneers and arty farty New York anti-hippies, but it is flawed, being unfocused, incoherent and sounding sometimes like an uncontrolled experiment. It has darkly classic moments, some excellent songs—"I’m Waiting For the Man," "Sunday Morning," and the Nico songs are all well-written and rendered, but to be truthful it may have been better if Lou Reed had sung them.

    In the end Andy Warhol and actual producer Tom Wilson made it into a schizophrenic bastard by shoehorning in the unwanted Nico. And I like Nico very much, her album, Chelsea Girl with Reed, Cale, and other contributions from her conquests, is a brilliant footnote in the larger Velvets’ story, but her presence on the Velvet Underground’s first album signifies compromise in the midst of an otherwise uncompromising moment in American music history and by extension, a band at war with itself.

    After having gotten rid of Nico and Andy Warhol, the Velvets recorded White Light/White Heat, and entered full-headed into a scuzzy seemly morass of drugs, transsexuals, the dead, and almost dead, all spit through the conduit of harsh mind-splitting guitar squalor. Other naïfs had composed paeans that floated upon clouds of weed smoke or fantastical lysergic journeys through the inner-mind, but the Velvets eschewed that kid stuff in favor of the reckless twin-pursuits of amphetamines and heroin; the nihilism promised in the Velvet Underground’s first record had bore rank fruit.

    White Light/White Heat’s centerpiece is the squalid, epic blues poem, "Sister Ray," a seventeen minute three-chord juggernaut of sloppy guitars, pounding, loose-skinned drums and John Cale’s squealing and unmercifully over-driven organ. While Reed’s other overdrawn ode to drugs, "Heroin" is ultra-personal and very serious in an adolescently sincere way, "Sister Ray" is an impressionistic tale of a drug den populated by characters such as Miss Rayon, Rosie, Doug, Sally, the murderous, lascivious Cecil, and a soldier shot dead, that showed Reed’s growth and confidence as a writer and prefigured his crowning achievement as a solo-artist—"Street Hassle."

    If The Velvet Underground & Nico sounded like a band at war with itself, White Light/White Heat was pure cannibalism, and when it was over, the Velvets had shed yet another member as the rigid and classically trained Cale left—perhaps forced out by the increasingly megalomaniacal Reed—to pursue a quixotic career as producer, performer, and shepherd of the coming New York punk movement.

    The book on the Velvets seems to be that the first two albums—The Velvet Underground & Nico and White Light/White Heat—best the last two—The Velvet Underground and Loaded—because the first two are ostensibly difficult proto-punk records anchored by Cale’s bleak artistic vision and were unlike anything else, while the last two are pop records written and recorded in an attempt to sell out.

    There are of course many issues at play within this scenario, the first being the departure of the difficult Cale and the arrival of the pliable Doug Yule. Also, after the Velvets broke with Warhol, Reed hired a manager called Steve Sesnick who Cale called “a snake,” and who by all accounts was just that, given that after Reed left the band, Sesnick tried dispersing all the songwriting credits from Loaded to Yule, even going so far as to put a photograph of Yule all alone at a piano on the back cover, as if it was his, and not the band’s album.

    This reading of history may be true in terms of Loaded, because Reed, Yule, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Moe Tucker were all trying to score hits. Their third record though, seems to have no pretensions toward bearing hits. Loaded, with its garish cover of pink weed smoke wafting up from an underground entrance, which must have made Reed wretch and Cale laugh in disdain, was a commercial failure. But not for lack of trying—it was, so to speak, quite "loaded" with hits. The third album though, was too claustrophobic, too sparse in places, too dense in others; and though not as difficult as their earlier work, it was still just too complex to appeal to a mass audience.

    On The Velvet Underground, Reed’s schoolboy infatuation with drug culture is largely absent—or at least submerged—which allowed him to replace his grim, realist fantasies with a poetic web of relationships, conversations, and sideways pleas for direction that flew in the face of the empty nihilism of White Light/White Heat. It is the Velvets’ most mature record, with its mesh of brittle guitars, so fragile and understated that when coupled with swaths of church organ revealed a breathless requiem quality that went hand in hand with Reed’s lyrical motif of faith.

    Unlike their first two efforts, the Velvets’ third record has no real centerpiece, no "Heroin" or "Sister Ray." Its opening track, "Candy Says," was written for/about a Long Island boy named James Lawrence Slattery who liked to, what was called at the time, cross-dress, and who came to identify as a female, before becoming a Warhollian superstar under the moniker Candy Darling.

    The opening line, “Candy Says, I’ve come to hate my body, and all that it requires in this world,” shows a deft, world-weary empathy that Reed would show for the rest of his career, but never had before. With its gently plucked electric guitar, brushed drums, softly hushed bass, and Doug Yule’s whispering croon, "Candy Says" was like a lullaby, setting a soft tone, that was easily placid enough to calm the nerves of the up tightest of children.

    Even though the tone of "Candy Says" would be wisely revisited, the Velvets exploded the shivery mood with the buoyantly nonsensical "What Goes On," before slipping headlong into a sometimes cold, but very exploratory conversation—or perhaps one way monologue—between Margeurita and Tom, called "Some Kinda Love," which continued Reed’s fascination with naming his characters. Reed’s snake like vocals slither playfully between the choppy, tone-bending guitar, which recalls a kind of urban folk-blues made tangible partly by Maureen Tucker’s always-primal junk tub drums that drone machine-like toward the end, failing to ever change. No fills, no frills, no muss, no fuss.

    A quick note on Maureen Tucker—In almost every other rock band, the drummer along with the bassist establish a skeletal time-keeping rhythm that the guitarists, keyboardists and other players hang on to. Not so with the Velvets. Tucker was not there just to keep time, instead she stood like a small wizened child over her kit, replete with upturned bass drum and she banged along with mallets, creating a kind of heavy-thudded percussive universe that stood alongside all the other imaginative skill-sets that made the Velvet Underground the most progressive (in a forward looking way, not in the way that means to shoehorn neoclassicism into rock structures) rock band of the sixties.

    "Pale Blue Eyes" revisits the quiet terrain of "Candy Says," without being as claustrophobic. In fact it may be one of the most spacious songs the Velvets would ever record, with its barely audible church organ, wide open chords, tambourine and ever-present lead guitar that shifts deftly between gentle folk-picking and soft, angular lines.

    Reed, who has always tried to reconcile his twin-fascinations with poetry and novelistic realism with varying degrees of success, composed a masterpiece with the the almost apologetic "Pale Blue Eyes." His fascination with faith, or some approximation thereof, is on display if not as explicitly addressed as it is in "Jesus" and "I’m Beginning to See the Light." In a moment of guilt-soaked romanticism that recalls Graham Greene in its nearly joyless pathos, Reed sings, “It was good what we did yesterday. And I'd do it once again. The fact that you are married, only proves, you're my best friend. But it's truly, truly a sin.”

    Lou Reed destroys the gospel notion of being caught in the midst of a Jesus-loving epiphany with the glorious, perfect "I’m Set Free" as he states, “I’m set free, to find a new illusion.” Faith is just a dream. Tucker shines, wielding her hammer-like mallets and "I’m Set Free" displays, what I believe to be the most dramatic and effecting guitar solo that I have ever heard. Everything but Tucker’s drums drop low in the mix, the rhythm guitar switches to the right channel and the lead guitar, flooded with reverb gracefully skates along toward a climax of quiet cymbals.

    For the first time, the Velvet Underground had constructed a coherent record, a document with a unity of purpose, where each part interlocked and engaged with the next in an intricate and meaningful way. Unlike their earlier efforts, this record did not denote the tone of saber rattling. Thematically, it was not led by the collar by drugs and sex; sonically it was not once abrasive or irrational, it was quietly, soberly majestic. The unwavering agendas had been sunken, and for the first time the Velvet Underground did not sound like a band at war with itself.

    If I were to poll myself once a year for ten years, this album would be number one on my list six times probably. If I had my druthers, I would cut the overlong and artistically decadent "Murder Mystery" out, because it sounds a bit like run of the mill sixties psyche experimentalism. "After Hours," sounding as if it were written in an era of bathtub gin and bobbed hair, may be one of the best closing songs on any record. It was Moe Tucker’s first shot at a lead vocal and she did much better with it than Ringo did on the Buck Owens classic "Act Naturally."

    In the end, I think it may be helpful to view the Velvets in four discreet phases instead of two. The first album was influenced by, not only the presence of Nico and the guiding hand of Warhol, but also minimalist composer La Monte Young. The second conveys a certain sense of liberty, as the band got free of Warhol and Nico, but it is also alienating in its nihilistic rage. The third is again marked by a sense of liberation, this time from Cale’s high-art shackles and the dread of nihilism, which furthered a true attempt at introspection by Reed that shows an engagement with a higher power. And the last phase is a kind of crass attempt to cash in on their potential that was ultimately a commercial failure but a songwriting success.

    Loaded-Era Velvets-Garish?


    Monday, July 02, 2007

    The Go-Betweens, My Past, and Two of the Best Songs


    When I was 16, I went to a new school and made friends with a boy my age that liked the Smiths. Well, to be honest, he seemed to like Morrissey and then in retrograde the Smiths. We both read Morrissey and Marr-The Severed Alliance—which was probably the only non school-related book I read in high school, and bought Smiths records on vinyl even though neither of us had the means to play them. This boy and the Smiths helped to save me from the perils of the then burgeoning modern rock radio.

    Now I hardly listen to the Smiths except for the occasional nostalgia jag, but I have sought out their echoes wherever I could find them, most notably in the Go-Betweens. To be fair, the Go-Betweens were Australian-born contemporaries of the Smiths who should not be reduced to an echo, but I came to them by way of attempting to fill a Smiths-sized hole rendered by over listening.

    There is an obvious similarity between the two groups, but perhaps the echo is only faint. The Go-Betweens had two lyricists—Grant McLennan and Robert Forster—as sophisticated and idiosyncratic as Morrissey, and where Johnny Marr displayed the Smiths’ musical ambitiousness stylistically, the Go-Betweens exhibited an elegant, eclectic classicism.

    Lyrically, the Smiths spoke explicitly to adolescent frustration; so much so that it seemed as if Morrissey was not only tortured, but a kind of lyrically gifted Peter Pan whose solipsism appealed to sensitive and self-centered teenagers who engaged primarily with their own dark feelings. The Go-Betweens however, who wrote no less about the disappointment of not getting what they wanted, utilized a richer, more adult lyrical palette.

    The Go-Betweens over the course of their career garnered absolutely no chart attention, making them the kind of band that I have been naturally drawn to. Unlike say, the Homosexuals who hung upon the skeleton of pop the rags of contrarianism, sloppiness, and obtuseness, the Go-Betweens crafted a version of refined pop that bested the efforts of their more mainstream contemporaries like U2, the Cure and Echo and the Bunnymen. But sadly—for them—they made no commercial dent, subsisting only on the crumbs of critical acclaim.

    I came upon them from, I think, a review in Magnet, but I can’t remember. The first thing I heard was Bellavista Terrace, and I warmed to it slowly. Though the fourteen-song disc has been generally derided, there is not a bad effort on it, and for a few dollars it is a treasure of an introduction. In a way, I entered through its back door, through the two closing tracks: Spring Rain and Dive For Your Memory, which I liked the most.

    Spring Rain opened their 1986 album, Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express, with a kind of gaping joyfulness that had theretofore been somewhat avoided. With its breezy multitude of guitars and reverentially nostalgic lyrics—“Dressed in a white shirt, with my hair combed straight,” and “Driving my first car, my elbows in the breeze”—Robert Forster and the Go-Betweens crafted an almost winsome, past-obsessed song that though bittersweet, shook the bones with its primal pop spirit.

    Dive for Your Memory closed the Go-Betweens final album, 16 Lovers Lane (not counting their late nineties second act) an elegiac farewell from one of the finest pop bands to ever emerge from Australia or otherwise.

    Their final track is a bit spare, with a four-chord repeating acousitc guitar figure augmented by atmospheric organ and reverb-thick plonks of electric guitar percolations; it’s saddest moment occurs in the opening stanza, a blast of doleful regret: “If the cliffs were any closer, if the water wasn’t so bad, I’d dive for your memory, On the rocks and the sand.”

    For those of us who have let friendships and other relationships go by the wayside because of stubbornness and blind fits of raging pride, it is a bitter mouthful—and a fitting end to a wonderful lyrical partnership.


    Sunday, July 01, 2007

    Notes From Underground

    I have taken a kind of leave from writing about music. I was working on a bit of personal history that I have wisely put away for a while. I have also fancied myself a story writer, and maybe one day it will be in my cards, but today—no. Also, I have been recording music, but that has proven to be a depressing enterprise. I have been reading. I quickly dispatched with Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, but then failed to get through Arthur Schlesinger’s Age of Jackson-attempted in anticipation of an 1820-1860 U.S. History Seminar I will be taking. Summer though, is a bad time to ponder Andrew Jackson and his hostility for paper money.

    Music has been slowly coming back to me. I have been listening constantly to Hallelujah in the original Cohen, which is lyrically a perfect song. Unfortunately, it suffers from the overblown production of its time. The Cohen version though does not succumb to the forced mawkishness of Rufus Wainright’s piano version or Jeff Buckley’s overdrawn guitar rendition, both of which people seem to love.

    Speaking of the Wainright-McGarrigle brood, I have also been listening to Loudon Wainright who has emerged as Judd Apatow’s stock father-like fool, first on the sitcom Undeclared—which I have been watching—and then as the gynecologist in absentia in the film Knocked Up. My favorite of his has been The Swimming Song from his 1973 album Attempted Moustache. The Swimming Song is a kind of beautiful and innocent, half-funny and unguarded metaphor of a song, the likes of which you don’t see these days.

    Listening to Jarvis Cocker on eternally baffled Terry Gross’ show Fresh Air was funny and a bit uncomfortable—it was a bit like listening to your mom flail about trying an interview. I realize that I was grumpy about his show, but I think his album is quite good. If I hadn’t been so damn drunk, I might have enjoyed him more at the Fillmore—but probably not, because of all those douche bags. Black Magic though is the high water mark on his album, a song that sounds explicitly like Crimson and Clover, but has entered into my mind with more than a whiff of Tommy James’ dumbly biblical Sweet Cherry Wine.

    I also have flashed back to high school and sought out a Material Issue song called Valerie’s Dancing from when I was about fifteen. They are not the most interesting band in the world, but they came from the great power pop burg of Chicago, and though they will never rank among Illinois greats like Cheap Trick or the Shoes, they represent a nice chart moment for the genre in the awkward and rebellious early nineties.

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