Sleater-Kinney: No Cities to Love

Now is the time: breaking the decade of relative silence that followed Sleater-Kinney‘s prodigious supposed finale, 2005’s The Woods, the girls are back in town. We have arrived at the critical reappraisal and celebrated comeback of music’s most revered feminist saviors of American rock’n’roll. It is 2015 and we are staring down Sleater-Kinney’s wise eighth album—exactly 50 years removed from the birth of “R-e-s-p-e-c-t”, exactly 40 years removed from the birth of Horses, exactly 30 years removed from when Kim Gordon first yells “brave men run away from me” in the Mojave desert, exactly 20 years removed from Sleater-Kinney, a primal, insurrectionist warning shot from the margins. Ever since, we have had Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss to soundtrack our societal chaos and progressing zeitgeist: tangled agitation, pummeled norms, principled wit, sublimity, sadness, friction, kicks.

Nowadays, there is a prevailing notion that we ought not want such epochal bands as Sleater-Kinney to reunite, because why tarnish the legend of “Best Band in the World” acclaim and a perfectly ascendant seven-album streak? But if any band in the past two decades has proved they’ve got the intellect, skepticism, and emotional capacity to deserve this—to keep living—it’s Sleater-Kinney. No Cities to Love is a disarming, liberationist force befitting the Sleater-Kinney canon. Fervent political leftism has been implicit to this Olympia-born trio since they first inverted Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” on a 1994 comp and that goes on here as well; we desperately need it. It is astonishing that a radical DIY punk band could grow up and keep going with this much dignity and this many impossibly chiseled choruses. No Pistol, Ramone, or unfortunate mutation of Black Flag could have done this.

The necessity of change—the creative virtue of ripping it up and starting again—remains a crucial strand of Sleater-Kinney’s DNA. This is still them: low-tuned classic rock tropes resuscitated with punk urgency, raw and jagged like Wire compressing crystalline Marquee Moon coils. Weiss’ massive swoop is still the band’s throbbing heart, pumping Sleater-Kinney’s blood. But Brownstein has said they set out to find “a new approach to the band” and that is true of No Cities to Love. It is no less emphatic and corporeal than punk classics Call the Doctor and Dig Me Out. But unlike their last two albums of monstrous combat rock, No Cities to Love keeps only the most addictive elements—if Sleater-Kinney are still taking Joey Ramone as a spiritual guide, this is their mature, honed, and clean-sounding Rocket to Russia. Catchy as all-clashing hell, it’s Sleater-Kinney’s most front-to-back accessible album, amping their omnipresent love of new wave pop with aerodynamic choruses that reel and reel, enormously shouted and gasped and sung with a dead-cool drawl. The album has the particular aliveness of music being created and torn from a group at this very moment—tempered, but with the wild-paced abandon that comes with being caged and then free.

As ever, empathy is Sleater-Kinney’s renewable energy source. They have always made a kind of folk music—songs of real people—and opener “Price Tag” is an honest example of this, fueled by Tucker’s motherly responsibility. In concrete detail, it describes the struggle of a working class family in the context of American capitalism and financial crisis (it rings of the high cost of low prices). Real life power dynamics permeate No Cities, among the rubbery synth lines of the otherwise venomous “Fangless” (which I know will frighten off a couple to-the-bone punk purists, like garlic wards off evil) and the anxious post-hardcore lurch of “No Anthems”, which Albini could have produced. On the glammy “Gimme Love”, Tucker plainly wants more of that four-letter-word for girls and outsiders (she seems to wish, in the words of de Beauvoir, “that every human life might be pure transparent freedom”). Brownstein, meanwhile, sings some of the most elliptical and oblique lyrics of her career: “I was lured by the devil… I’ll choose sin ’til I leave,” she hollers like a Bad Seed, clenched and possessed. In lighter moments, it’s heartening to hear Tucker and Brownstein in unison at the record’s sing-song center: “No outline will ever hold us/ It’s not a new wave/ It’s just you and me.”

Sleater-Kinney began work on No Cities in earnest around May 2012, they have said, but especially on the anthemic title track and “Hey Darling”—the first two songs they wrote—you can hear echoes of that decade of pause, an airing out of just why. The titular phrase is abstract enough, but considering Brownstein’s vocal incompatibility with the van-show-van-show tour-life void—and her lines, here, about “a ritual of emptiness”—it plays like a direct take on the complicated reality of the rootless rock band and its scattered tribe. On “Hey Darling”, one of Tucker’s gummiest melodies becomes a letter to fans, reasoning her hiding: “It seems to me the only thing/ That comes from fame is mediocrity,” and then, “Sometimes the shout of the room/ Makes me feel so alone.” The slow-burn of “Fade”, the closer, also takes on Sleater-Kinney’s hiatus. Tucker is like a Robert Plant putting her supernatural quasi-operatic range on display over epic, minor-key hard rock, switching from sly-voiced ballad to high-pitched inflection: “If there’s no tomorrow/ You better live,” she sings of a dimming spotlight, her slipping self-perception. It’s the closest No Cities gets to The Woods’ feminist rewrite of ’70s rock grandeur, and yet sounds like nothing on that record. Sleater-Kinney’s discography is full of songs delivering meta-commentaries on what it means to be women playing rock; No Cities is more purely personal and explicitly political, evidence enough that in the context of family, middle-age, and multiple careers, it is possible to have everything.

For the first time in 21 years, Sleater-Kinney have written an album without a proper stomach-twisting tearjerker; no wistful confessions, breathless breakups, or dying lovers, no “Good Things”, “One More Hour”, or “The Size of Our Love”. But I predict Sleater-Kinney will be making more people cry this year than ever before—maybe Lena Dunham, maybe Perfect Pussy’s Meredith Graves, definitely Fred Armisen (tears are highly subjective, and yet my claim is substantiated). “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously wrote, and we align ourselves with the potent narratives of great bands for the same reason. Their songs guide us through the restless process of figuring out who we are. We search for meaning in rhythm and couplets and distortion, and if a band is grounded with as much purpose as Sleater-Kinney, they charge our consciousness, occupy space in our relationships, symbolize what we want to become. Sleater-Kinney’s music still does this. It tells us—women or anyone who has ever felt small and othered—the truth, that even when the world seems to deny it, we are never powerless. Now the story goes on longer; it didn’t have to end.

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Various Artists: Inherent Vice OST

Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice gave filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson an outlet for his more antic, erratic impulses. Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 film Inherent Vice, meanwhile, gives composer and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood a chance to indulge his inner Hollywood romantic. As a composer, Greenwood has mostly been called on for slashing chords, thick string textures, and foreboding. But “Shasta”, which opens the Nonesuch OST and appears early in the film, opens on a rosy blush of strings and woodwinds that calls to mind sinuous old Hollywood scores. It is by far the most conventional orchestral music to emerge from his pen.

The soundtrack, sequenced out of order from the film and featuring a few spots of dialogue, read by Joanna Newsom, is a series of blindsides, which takes the conventions of the Raymond Chandler detective story down a series of batshit rococo detours. The film aims, as did Pynchon’s book, to blur the question “Whodunit?” until it looks more like a dazed “Whuh?” The soundtrack, which crab hops from psych-rock to Minnie Riperton to Disney orchestral interludes, faithfully recreates this sensation of dislocation and head-scratching befuddlement. No matter where Doc Sportello was in Inherent Vice‘s sun-baked, taupe-and-polyester landscape, it was the wrong place, and the selections are a series of similar awkward encounters.

The second selection, after Greenwood’s plush opening, is Can‘s “Vitamin C”, a gonzo piece of insect-throated avant-rock that hits you in the face like a scalding cup of gas station coffee. It shares time with Neil Young‘s idyllic “Journey Through the Past” and the medicated lounge lizard cheer of Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki”, all of which finds itself jostled up against bits of Greenwood’s score, which tries on some truly weird duds: The misty strings and woodwinds on “Meeting Crocker Fenway” don’t feel far from John Williams’ Harry Potter scores. The vaguely Morricone-esque “The Golden Fang” features mallet percussion and guitar arpeggios that shimmer like exhaust off a motel parking lot.

If this soundtrack were a room full of furniture, in other words, you would shield your eyes from the clash. But it might actually make for a sleeker and more condensed vehicle for the film’s stoned, clammy energy than the film itself, which sank into a narrative tar pit in its last hour and tested the patience of even PTA’s most steadfast devotees. It’s exciting to hear Greenwood stretch into new styles, and “Adrian Prussia” is incredible, a crunching meeting point between digital static and strident violins. Like the movie, the soundtrack is a pungent, incoherent, occasionally haunting trifle. The feeling is of a bunch of intelligent and talented people trying on a bunch of funny-colored clothing and giggling at each other. If you’re not wearing the costumes, there’s a limit to just how entertained by all of it you can be.

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Canooooopy: Disconnected Words Connect the Worlds

Japanese producer Canooooopy draws from the more mundane moments of daily life. “The sound of an air conditioner, the rhythm of a pen falling down, a conversation from other people,” are just some of the ho-hum influences on his music that he mentions in an interview with Japanese music blog Hi-Hi-Whoopee, capping his answer off with “a monotonous life.” Canooooopy subscribes to a “100% sampling” ethos, and builds every track on his first CD release Disconnected Words Connect the Worlds from noises that seem innocuous enough in their original context—an automated telephone greeting, people chatting, children singing. Yet he’s able to warp them into disjointed little worlds, and Disconnected serves as a solid introduction to one of the wonkier beatmakers to pop up out of Japan over the last couple of years.

A lot of what makes Canooooopy interesting emerged via a recent collaborative project, wherein he teamed up with fellow Japanese trackmakers Lidly and Axion117 to form Ganghouse Fungi. That trio’s work often featured experimental dashes that hinted at what Canooooopy would do on Disconnected, but his partners hailed from a more traditional crate-digging beat scene, one influenced by the sound of American hip-hop and favoring jazz samples. Canooooopy, meanwhile, appears tied to nothing—he loads up on samples and field recordings and melds them together into forms few rappers could contend with, all in Garageband (an approach he shares with Grimes, who along with James Brooks of Default Genders have shared Canooooopy’s music online).

Despite the herky-jerky nature of his collage approach to music, Canooooopy shows an attention to detail on Disconnected that makes his best tracks click just right. “Viral Address Stalker” kicks off by nabbing the intro to Marnie Stern’s “Plato’s Fucked Up Cave” (“Get me out of this prison, man/ Let me run, run, run, run, run”) and looping her stuttered “run,” building a beat around it before playing with the vocal some more. “Songs About a Sunken Hope” bounces between various vocal samples of British-accented words and syllables, Canooooopy timing it just right so no voice rams into the other and everything syncs with the skittery beat. Even brief numbers such as “Kaleido World Mysty Sisters” and “Doppelinedancerstomps” treat every second and sound with care, not wasting anything during their 90-second runtimes.

Disconnected’s jagged construction also emphasizes an eerie atmosphere, the rush of voices often making for some uneasy moments. Sometimes it’s simply an unexpected sound—”Mono Montaged Oratorio” is packed with sampled dialogue, but none comes through headphones more clearly than a cutesy voice saying “baby” for a jarring second. Usually, though, Canooooopy lets the mishmash of sounds create an unnerving feel that lingers over the entire beat, such as on the bouncy “Too Long Way Home”, where voices mixed deep in the track constantly sneak into the main rhythm. The album suffers when Canooooopy strips the music down and tries to create something creepy with minimalism, as he’s at his best when sounds jumble together and unsettling moments emerge from the clamor.

Even though Canooooopy has an attentive eye when it comes to individual tracks, Disconnected doesn’t quite click together as an album, as certain stretches of it can get a little too cluttered. But then an individual track will burst through—such as the burbling “The Polygonic Spree” or clattering “The Phantom of the Gauss”—and remind how he’s able to turn a scattershot collection of samples into something otherworldly. It’s a great introduction to a producer able to alchemize the everyday into the surreal.

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Diplo: Florida

It’s a familiar ritual to anyone who’s recently gotten deep into a veteran artist’s catalog: at some point, a new convert’s going to dig back far enough to find something that confuses the hell out of them. By the end of 2004, Diplo was already established as one of the brains behind electro-crunk hybridizers Hollertronix, and his name was attached to under-the-wire ’04 best-of lists with the similar-minded M.I.A. mixtape Piracy Funds Terrorism, Vol. 1. And those are roots that even his most recent work, and that of the Mad Decent imprint, can be traced to in more or less a straight line.

But the debut solo album he released in the midst of all those identity-building works tends to throw people off. For the unfamiliar: Florida is a trip-hop record. Crucially, it’s a trip-hop record from 2004, released two years after obvious comparison points DJ Shadow and RJD2 had released albums (The Private Press and Deadringer) that were tearing that genre’s remnants to pieces. So where’d this morose, rarely danceable, sometimes weirdly beautiful record come from, and why does so little Diplo’s done since sound anything like it?

The reissue titled F10RIDA takes a shot at giving some additional background to Diplo’s come-up during the making of this record, a massive undertaking that includes a special BitTorrent partnership and a multimedia-minded take on archival materials. (Meaning mostly photos, email correspondence transcripts, remixes, unreleased material, and the component “stems” of the track “Into the Sun”.) Alongside the promotional-kit feel to all this is the nearly 10-minute commentary Diplo contributed to Big Dada‘s SoundCloud, where he lays out his mind state at the time the record came together: rooted in an upbringing in both South and Central Florida, making self-taught loops on a cheap stolen sampler, taking inspirational cues from Shadow and DJ Premier and J-Swift, and trying to conjure up ethereal, spooky weirdness with limited means. What he came out with was inspired by “the truest thing I know”—where he lived, and what he took from those environs.

Diplo’s Florida is a place to escape before it swallows you: the sun goes down even in the Sunshine State; it’s a place of late-night post-job bus rides and weed-and-headphones rumination sessions. The album has the feel of a Southern Gothic elegy for an early life since abandoned, which makes the uncharacteristic nature of the record a bit more compelling. Bummer Diplo isn’t a facet we see or hear much of, and even when the album is derivative and simple, if offers some insight into where his head was when he started.

But this is the work of someone who’s not quite there yet, especially because his “there” isn’t even mapped out. Wesley Pentz has been everything from savvy adapter to clumsy appropriator, but in the process he found a route into a distinct persona. Florida, meanwhile, is little more than the sum of influences. Given the Diplo we know now, it seems (proto)typical that even a primordial release of his would boast a Vybz Kartel appearance; the Nintendo-cartridge banger “Diplo Rhythm” makes his Major Lazer moves seem like a foregone conclusion in retrospect. It’s a bit more surprising that this record would also have a guest spot by Freestyle Fellowship‘s P.E.A.C.E., right in the middle of an era where left coast indie rap was maybe the last thing your average Hollertronix party attendee would claim allegiance to. But the fact that it’s a rubber band double-time over the Timbaland-tabla pastiche “Indian Thick Jawns” at least makes it a stealth classic in both artists’ catalogs, one that plays to both their familiar strengths.

It’s the atypical moodier stuff that’s more mixed. Sometimes it’s just a loop that sounds interesting until it doesn’t. There’s some ambition in the longer cuts, an urge to fit in all sorts of ideas and sources in tracks like the snare-riddled, soul-jazz gloom of “Way More” and the swampy, bleary-eyed nine-minute break parade “Works”, which pulls strength from restlessness. It all comes together brilliantly in “Summer’s Gonna Hurt You”, a keyboard-driven Brit-prog lament that he rewires with intricate boom-clap drums. It’s like he heard the thunderstorm breaks on Shadow’s “Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain” and pledged to make a version informed by UGK.

There’s more of that on the bonus material, the best of which comes from 2003’s Epistemology Suite EP, triangulating early Funkadelic, sound collage, and Mannie Fresh snare rolls. Other material’s a bit shorter on weirdness and personality. The remixes go even further in tracking a big muddy footprint all over the context of this record—I know things have changed for Diplo, and as goes Diplo so goes the pop world and all that, but hearing Metronomy rework “Diplo Rhythm” progenitor “Newsflash” into galumphing synth-horn overload or Derek Allen slather wubwub seizures all over “Summer’s Gonna Hurt You” doesn’t say much for progress. Diplo’s music hasn’t regressed over the last 10 years, and neither have his sensibilities. But sometimes it’s best to let the weirdness stand on its own, make a special place for it, and wonder where else it could’ve been taken.

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Serengeti: Kenny Dennis III

David Cohn’s earned a reputation as a storyteller who can dredge up some pinpoint details and harrowing emotions in his more serious releases as Serengeti. And since Kenny Dennis first bellowed his way into the world, an alter ego that first seemed like a delivery means for some oddball Chicagoland Joe-sixpack comedy has become the sort of deeply familiar character that reveals new facets each time out. Increasingly less of a pure comedy character as time goes on, the raspy, mustachioed Cool Uncle of indie rap has also turned out to be a put-upon underdog, a proud yet self-conscious working artist who’s determined to shake off failure at all costs with a strident determination. In hindsight, his defense of Cubs scapegoat Steve Bartman feels like a strong solidarity with a guy who has to live with the weight of a “What Could’ve Been?” scenario that was actually out of his control.

Kenny Dennis III is technically a few Roman numerals behind the actual size of the Dennis discography (word to Tha Grimm Teachaz). But it does make for a strong thematic trilogy with 2012 character-study Kenny Dennis EP and last year’s pathos-injected Kenny Dennis LP. Odd Nosdam returns to provide more off-kilter, goofy yet stirring production, and there’s another suite of skits featuring Anders Holm from “Workaholics” playing Kenny’s on-again/off-again estranged friend Ders. But this time, there’s a stronger throughline to the concept: most of the feel to Kenny Dennis III hinges on what happens when Ders decides to move back to Chicago from L.A. and tries getting a hip-hop group going with Kenny. It all goes to hell pretty quickly over the course of two separate skit medleys, as Kenny’s big idea to record ’90s throwback freestyle house crossover as “Perfecto” brings out the worst in Kenny’s ego and puts another wedge between himself and Ders. As off-the-wall nonsense goes, it’s actually pretty affecting, a mixture of caricatured absurdity and real-folks groundedness worthy of Prince Paul.

But the frustration and the anger are also a little more palpable than on LP and EP, with Ders’ POV of Kenny’s jerk-ass behavior on tour offset by Kenny’s own diatribe-flow stories. He still liberally sprinkles in references to sports fandom, ’80s muscle cars, and basic-cable action movies, but now it feels more like those points of interest double as security blankets. “No Beginner” plants his feet firmly on the ground in opposition to calculated trendy weirdness — “I’m not tryin to kill turtles or dye my hair strange colors/ I’m just tryin’ to do rap songs and be down with my brothers”—but a daily diet of “hot dog for lunch/ hot dog for dinner/ don’t eat breakfast/ I am no beginner” isn’t exactly the glamorous life. He gets into chest-puffing brawls in “Shidoshi” over people mad about how he’s “makin’ it look good,” attempting to pull Dim Mak death punches on fools. (The video for this track, meanwhile, involves a failed intervention.) On “Buddy Guy”, the Chess Records legend’s name becomes a taunting way of addressing a hopped-up adversary who might just be himself. And “Tanya T” is the flashpoint where things implode, as Kenny helps bail out his little brother—a victim of domestic violence—and puts a (garage) roof over his head, only to see him become a police informant. When the track ends with Kenny screaming “and this the thanks I get?!” over and over, any impressions of Kenny Dennis III as “comedy rap” dissipate pretty quickly, and it’s hard not to feel for a guy once easily thought of as a funny voice and funnier mustache.

Serengeti inhabits the Kenny Dennis world so thoroughly that the affectations and tics have become a style to actually contend with, raspy muttering and roaring bellows concealing vivid free-association worldbuilding and playing with the joys of repetition. The characteristic Odd Nosdam production toes that line between awkward, whimsical discomfort and melancholy, muddy stoner soul, a Madlib/Black Moth Super Rainbow midpoint that flips from amusing to unnerving without you even noticing. And in the end, all the blue-collar detritus and supposed punchlines give a stark portrait of a man who invokes his ’90s glory days like a shield against their loss, making a clear point of the coping-mechanism properties of his nostalgia without either reveling in it or mocking it. “Sometimes I watch The Negotiator and think about life’s long times,” he admits in the midst of the downcast, reflective closer “Tickled Pink”, a search for perspective and meaning in a life that might not have turned out the way he wanted it to.

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Richard Dawson: Nothing Important

Richard Dawson’s music often deals with death or disaster. The Newcastle singer-songwriter’s breakthrough album, 2011’s The Magic Bridge, features songs like “Grandad’s Deathbed Hallucinations” and “Man Has Been Struck Down by Hands Unseen”, as well as a “Black dog in the sky/ Who pisses and slobbers all over the world.” When looking for inspiration for his follow-up (2013’s concept piece The Glass Trunk) Dawson began with a database search for “death” at his hometown museum. The album’s a capella ballads, inspired by centuries-old news clippings, tell tales of mutilated horses, murder, and the moors. His latest LP, Nothing Important, is no less morbid in its talking points, but the tragedies described are less outlandish. The subject matter feels personal, often uncomfortably so, and Dawson always falls far from sentimentalizing or softening it.

The primary sonic forces on the album are Dawson’s brittle, crudely amplified nylon-string acoustic guitar—which recalls the timbre of UK free-improv giant Derek Bailey’s playing—and his fitfully expressive tenor voice, which, when not incited to the point of howling self-evisceration, evokes Robert Wyatt’s. On other albums Dawson has explored his disparate musical tendencies separately from one another: Experimental drones, folk sketches, imitation field cries, and free jazz diversions were relegated to separate tracks and even different releases. Nothing Important fulfills and extends the promise of this earlier work; incongruous stylistic elements are overlaid upon one another, and packed into unwieldy but tightly-wrapped packages (particularly, two dense, 16-minute long compositions).

The album’s lyrics begin with a birth, but the time stamp suggests that it is not Dawson’s: “I am born by Caesarean section at 9:30 AM/ In Princess Mary’s Maternity Hospital on the 24th May/ Sixty years ago today.” In a handful of lengthy verses—often fit to iambic rhythms and lilting melodies reminiscent of 16th-century madrigals—Dawson sketches painful but faint memories, including the death of a baby and an uncle who reappears as a ghost. The choruses are explosive, and derail easily (“I am nothing/ You are nothing/ Nothing important”). Running through a laundry list of mundane, still-life images maddens the title track’s narrator to the point of surrendering: “Why do they remain so clear while the faces of my loved ones disappear?” Eventually Dawson’s voice trails off, and the instrumental themes which hold the piece together reappear briefly—fatigued and sluggish—and fade. Full of unlikely musical juxtapositions and bizarre imagery (dark omens like “a barracuda chewing on a chrysanthemum” or “a forking hairline seam of superglue through the Black Gate”) “Nothing Important” is perhaps Dawson’s most ambitious and affecting composition to date.

“The Vile Stuff” is less nuanced: a slow-burning dirge based around a snippet of a sinister, raga-like melody. Dawson’s lyrics center on a group of classmates (“year 7’s”) who suffer dire consequences after sharing a Coke-bottled slurry of mixed liquors on a fieldtrip. The humor here is pitch black, similar to that of an Edward Gorey picture book: Dawson’s narrator and his fellow transgressors suffer fractured skulls and cheekbones, stab screwdrivers through their hands, and hop into bed with their teachers. The song culminates in a blistering cacophony of bowed harp drones (courtesy of Dawson’s frequent collaborator Rhodri Davies), funereal percussion and feedback—the sound is only as discordant and unpleasant as adolescence.

Nothing Important is driven by an ongoing conflict between entropic impulsiveness and an almost classical sense of beauty and order. The music is frequently caught in a tug of war between melody and harmony. In the guitar instrumentals that bookend the album, for instance, Dawson always runs the risk of letting a particularly effusive riff overwhelm the chords and rhythms, and topple the whole musical edifice into a series of fragmented stabs and melodic shards. The lyrics, meanwhile, alternate visions of despair, pain, and anger with moments of reconciliation and acceptance. The ritual drama of falling and picking one’s self back up again (taking “responsibility,” as Dawson prefers in interviews) plays out in every element of this music, and is key to its elusive power.

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