Alex Chilton – “120 Minutes” (TV – 1985)

March 31, 2010 at 9:10 am (Music)

Alex Chilton, who at the time was trying to resurrect his career, appeared circa 1985 on MTV’s 120 Minutes program (hosted by The Fleshtones’ Peter Zaremba)….on here, Alex plays some songs from his first group The Box Tops & talks about his early days with them…may Alex rest in peace…

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Bob Dylan – “Desolation Row” (1965)

March 30, 2010 at 6:56 pm (Bob Dylan, Poetry & Literature)

They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

Cinderella, she seems so easy
“It takes one to know one,” she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets
Bette Davis style
And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning
“You Belong to Me I Believe”
And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place my friend
You better leave”
And the only sound that’s left
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row

Now the moon is almost hidden
The stars are beginning to hide
The fortune-telling lady
Has even taken all her things inside
All except for Cain and Abel
And the hunchback of Notre Dame
Everybody is making love
Or else expecting rain
And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing
He’s getting ready for the show
He’s going to the carnival tonight
On Desolation Row

Now Ophelia, she’s ’neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid

To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row

Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood
With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago
With his friend, a jealous monk
He looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the alphabet
Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world
Inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients
They’re trying to blow it up
Now his nurse, some local loser
She’s in charge of the cyanide hole
And she also keeps the cards that read
“Have Mercy on His Soul”
They all play on pennywhistles
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
From Desolation Row

Across the street they’ve nailed the curtains
They’re getting ready for the feast
The Phantom of the Opera
A perfect image of a priest
They’re spoonfeeding Casanova
To get him to feel more assured
Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence
After poisoning him with words

And the Phantom’s shouting to skinny girls
“Get Outa Here If You Don’t Know
Casanova is just being punished for going
To Desolation Row”

Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting
“Which Side Are You On?”
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row

Yes, I received your letter yesterday
(About the time the doorknob broke)
When you asked how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name
Right now I can’t read too good
Don’t send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row.

Bob Dylan

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Sean Murphy – “God Is Not Dead: The Jimi Hendrix Reissues” (2010)

March 30, 2010 at 6:02 pm (Jimi Hendrix, Music, Reviews & Articles)

Taken from the PopMatters website, March 12, 2010, comes this dissection of Jimi Hendrix’s recorded output — the first 3 albums with the Experience, the unfinished First Rays of the New Rising Sun, and the new collection of outtakes, Valleys of Neptune. And I agree with Mr. Murphy’s statements that, first, Hendrix’s music never gets dated or old sounding, and will remain brilliant for as long as humans walk this earth, and secondly, the DVD documentaries included with these albums are great but should have been much longer. Listening to Eddie Kramer talk about the makings of certain songs is extremely fascinating and enlightening. Each DVD is about 17 minutes long but clearly could have gone on for 2 hours without being boring. Hopefully someday they will do a definitive documentary with Mr. Kramer discussing every song Hendrix recorded…


Get excited. There is a new Jimi Hendrix album fully comprised of previously unreleased material.

I know I was excited when I first heard the news of Valleys of Neptune, which takes the name of one of Hendrix’s most widely bootlegged tunes. I was, in fact, so excited, I caught myself reconsidering the concept of Intelligent Design and felt the existence of Santa Claus was, all of a sudden, conceivable. Then I actually heard the album and am now here to tell you about it.

Get excited, but don’t get too excited. Here’s the deal: Valleys of Neptune is not, as some of the early buzz is incorrectly reporting, the last material Hendrix was working on before his death in September, 1970. Nor is it a collection of polished or even complete studio sessions; rather, it is a smattering of assorted jams, sketches and works-in-progress—some of which would be repurposed on Hendrix’s posthumous album, the one he was working on just before his death (of which more later). On the other hand, this is new, previously unreleased music by Jimi Hendrix! That alone is cause for unrestrained celebration, and the arrival of this album is—and will remain—one of the significant musical stories of 2010. And there’s more: in order to properly commemorate the occasion (and the fortieth anniversary of Hendrix’s passing), all of the original studio albums are being reissued with the deluxe remaster treatment, including bonus DVDS (of which more later).

It would be understandable to assume that Valleys of Neptune represents Hendrix’s final recordings, and, again, it’s disconcerting to see this release erroneously being described as such. In fact, the songs are mostly culled from a series of sessions in early ’69, more than a year before Hendrix laid down his final tracks. Fans will recall that the double-album Hendrix was unable to complete before his premature departure from this planet was released posthumously in as faithful a fashion as possible (first as the single album The Cry of Love and much later, and more satisfactorily, as the double-album length CD First Rays of the New Rising Sun).

These sessions do represent the last occasions that the original Jimi Hendrix Experience recorded together, and bassist Billy Cox, who would replace Noel Redding, can be heard for the first time on several songs. The press materials describe Valleys of Neptune as “12 fully realized studio recordings.” That is not exactly a misnomer, but it’s misleading. Again, this is Jimi Hendrix material recorded in the studio which means, by definition, it is serious stuff. But in the interest of accuracy, these are mostly rough, unfinished and occasionally unfocused cuts. If that sounds like semantic nitpicking, it is offered out of deference to Hendrix: not for nothing, but these recordings were all in the can many months before Hendrix died, and there are good reasons none of them, in their existing form, made it onto an album before now.

While listening to the new songs repeatedly over the course of a week, I kept thinking how revelatory they would be to watch as much as hear. If this studio footage had been caught on video, it would offer a fortuitous chance to see Hendrix (and his band mates) testing out material and taking the creative process for a test drive. As they exist, these tracks should best be received, and appraised, as the interesting and often quite worthwhile results of typically inspired jam sessions. Also interesting, if not especially illuminating, is the opportunity to enjoy Hendrix revisiting some of his famous songs. The set kicks off with “Stone Free,” a significant song that was the B-side of Hendrix’s first single, “Hey Joe.” As is the case on all 12 tracks, the guitar playing is, unsurprisingly, astonishing. It will be interesting to see how many aficionados feel this, or any of the other new versions improve upon the originals. For my money, they do not come close (“Stone Free” lacks the dangerous and almost desperate vocals, while “Fire,” incredibly, sounds almost tame and misses the machine gun ferocity Mitch Mitchell employed so indelibly on the debut album).

The results are more compelling when Hendrix updates two songs that were (and, based on his live performances, remained) crucial stepping stones for his rapid development, “Red House” and “Hear My Train a Comin’.” The former gets slowed down and dragged out for more than eight minutes, featuring the full spectrum of Hendrix’s dexterity and imagination. The latter, heretofore best represented as an acoustic blues, gets the plugged in and amped up live-in-the-studio treatment. Both songs are triumphant and illuminate the ways Hendrix continued to utilize traditional blues in the service of his ambitious but sophisticated acumen. Another concert staple, the band’s aggressive interpretation of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” is a launching pad for Hendrix: for almost seven minutes he employs many of his favorite tricks, toying with tempo that at one instant echoes the original, stops on a dime, and veers off into entirely other places. The other cover is a spirited update of the great Elmore James’s “Bleeding Heart” that splits the difference between sloppy and inspired, just as one would expect (and hope) for from a jam session.

The highlight of the album has to be the title track which, of all the songs, comes closest to standing alongside Hendrix’s better material. It is immediately evident that the close-but-not-quite version we hear is the result of considerable work, and the liner notes confirm that it had evolved over time from a solo demo. The ethereal drone and cymbal wash that introduce the track recalls “Angel,” but the gears shift and the guitar soars into the main melody, full of the clean, crisp pyrotechnics we associate with vintage Hendrix. The lyrics are a tad half-baked (this was, after all, 1969) and it’s intriguing to imagine how this song would (should?) have worked as in instrumental.

The rest of the songs feature sounds and motifs that would resurface on subsequent work. For instance, “Ships Passing Through the Night” is an early run at “Night Bird Flying” and “Lullaby for the Summer” would eventually coalesce as the superior “Ezy Ryder.” “Lover Man” is based on B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” and “Mr. Bad Luck,” which would mutate into “Look Over Yonder” is in fact a holdover from Axis: Bold as Love. The set closes with the instrumental “Crying Blue Rain” which leaves the proceedings on a tentative, softly hopeful note. And that seems just about right, aesthetically and historically. As we know, Hendrix would continue to work with Billy Cox (and Buddy Miles, captured for posterity on the seminal Band of Gypsys set), and he would revisit some of this material to great effect in the final months of his life. Valleys of Nepune, then, is not the Holy Grail, and it doesn’t need to be. That already exists anyway, and it is celebrated in spectacular fashion with the deluxe CD/DVD reissues of the four proper alums that preceded and followed these ’69 sessions.

It is exceedingly refreshing to see that Sony’s Legacy Recordings is making the most of this opportunity and reissuing the official Hendrix catalog, with bonus (DVD) material at incredibly—bordering on unbelievably—reasonable price points. Ten bucks for remastered sound and a mini-documentary DVD? This is no brainer, redefined. Which brings us to the crucial question: what more can possibly be said, at this point, about Jimi Hendrix? Actually, it is entirely fair to propose that we have not yet said enough about him. As it has long since been established that he is the Alpha and the Omega of electric guitar, conversation tends to stop there: what more needs to be said, we say, when we don’t say anything more. As a result, the actual scope of his virtuosity tends to, however unintentionally, get reduced to stock phrases (see above) and the sorts of encomiums that preempt elaboration. So how do we explain the truly singular genius that is Jimi Hendrix? Aside from the innovation (he did it first), apart from the obvious (he did it best), what sets him apart?

When it comes to Hendrix, there is really no conjecture. The growth he displayed in only a couple of years is unlike anything we’ve witnessed from just about any other musician or composer, ever. We’re talking light years, the universe expanding; real quantum type shit. Put it this way: Miles Davis, who didn’t have many good things to say about even the best jazz musicians, made no bones about his desire to get Hendrix in the studio to collaborate. That’s like Michael Jordan saying he’d like to play some pick-up, or Sugar Ray Robinson asking you to spar with him.

1967: there are the immutable opening salvos, those hit singles that remain radio-friendly four decades on (“Purple Haze,” “Hey Joe,” “Fire,” “Foxey Lady”) and the moodier harbingers of what lay ahead (“Manic Depression,” “I Don’t Live Today,” “Love or Confusion”) and then there are the outright masterpieces. Consider “The Wind Cries Mary”: written the night before, brought to the studio the next day and captured in one take. An example like this underscores the seismic shift that blasted an unsuspecting world when Are You Experienced hit the streets, the unambiguous arrival of a major, scary talent. But (as the companion DVD details in a series of interviews with engineer—and unsung hero—Eddie Kramer) it is the subsequent embellishment, courtesy of five overdubbed guitar parts, that move this track from mere classic to one-of-a-kind epic: the mood and feeling of melancholy Hendrix conveys calls to mind Poe’s edict about the totality of effect.

Then there is the psychedelic space jazz of “Third Stone From the Sun”: the ways Hendrix navigates an almost surf-rock elegance with proto-thrash distortion and makes it sound not just natural but inevitable, is part of why the first album continues to merit consideration as the most fully realized debut album in rock history. Finally there is the title track, which truly is one of those instances that defy time and description on so many levels. This song could only have been released in ’67, but it still sounds unsettling and slightly ungraspable in 2010. Perhaps more than any of the other tracks, this one signified the summation of Hendrix’s strategy at that stage: backwards solos, restless feedback and subtly effective piano plinks build up the tension like the song was programmed to detonate. And by the time anybody knew what had hit them; Hendrix was already back in the studio.

The songs on Axis: Bold as Love, for the most part, are concise and unencumbered (the clarity of sound on these remasters more than justifies their acquisition), and this is in no small part due to producer (and then manager) Chas Chandler, who brought a strictly-business professionalism to the proceedings all through ’67. He explains his old school M.O. on the companion DVD: “If a band can’t get it in two or three takes they shouldn’t be in the studio.” How can you not love this guy? And watching Eddie Kramer at the console, isolating guitar tracks and vocals while recalling how the songs came together is a treat true Hendrix fans will lap up like voodoo soup. Indeed, the only gripe about the bonus DVDs is their brevity; I could easily listen to Kramer and Chandler tell war stories for hours on end without getting bored, and I’m certain I’m not alone.

There is also an air of adventure and daring that augments the sometimes disorienting edge of the debut. Hendrix is clearly pushing himself, each day coming up with new ideas and electrified with the air of possibility. That vision is convincingly and definitively realized, and we can only lament the comparatively primitive technology that prevented alternate takes from surviving the sessions. Imagine, for instance, where “Little Wing” continued to go after the tapes fade out. If there is one particular moment on any of these tracks that best illuminates Hendrix’s insatiable creativity and unerring instincts, it comes toward the end of the incendiary “If 6 Was 9.” After declaring, in one of the all-time great rock and roll F-offs (“I’m gonna’ wave my freak flag high!”), a sort of whinnying, high-pitched noise slips into the maelstrom. Kramer explains that there happened to be a recorder lying around the studio, and Hendrix simply picked it up and started wailing. Kramer then applied the appropriate effects and echo, and the rest is history. In the final analysis, there is no way to improve upon practically any part of Axis: Bold as Love: this is as good as music is capable of being.

By 1968 Hendrix has relocated from London to New York City and it was during the open-ended and generally unrestrained Electric Ladyland sessions that Chandler, ever the taskmaster, famously fled the scene. “Gypsy Eyes” alone allegedly required forty different takes before Hendrix was satisfied, an intensity surpassing obsession that literally drove Chandler out of the studio. This circumstance was inevitable, and frankly necessary. Hendrix absolutely needed and benefited from Chandler’s mentoring, but now he had more than come into his own and nobody could keep up with him (he could scarcely keep up with himself). The results scream for themselves and to say that Electric Ladyland is yet another major advancement (how do you improve upon perfection?) is of course a pallid understatement.

Just as little from Are You Experienced hinted at the next installment, Axis: Bold as Love seems almost pedestrian and conservative compared to the staggering triumph of style and sound that is Electric Ladyland.

This is Hendrix’s masterpiece, and it is on this double album that practically every trick in his oversized bag is employed to its fullest extent. The storytelling skills are displayed on tracks like “Crosstown Traffic,” “Long Hot Summer Night” and “House Burning Down.” The compositional prowess is evident in every note, most especially on the song suite that covers side three and spills over to side four. What Hendrix was able to achieve, despite the contemporary limitations of old-fashioned recording equipment is, on a song like “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)”, heroic. It also offers the best evidence we have of what he saw and heard inside his always-teeming imagination.

What remains vital, and compelling, all these years later is the way Hendrix appropriates blues music, creating a template that copycats are still trying, in vain, to emulate. “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and the live-in-the-studio riot of “Voodoo Chile” are rock music touchstones, and nothing anyone has attempted has come particularly close to them. Hendrix himself puts it best when he boasts “Well I stand up next to a mountain/And chop it down with the edge of my hand.” That is exactly what he did, and he remains king of the mountain he scaled, and then razed.

From “Purple Haze” to “Rainy Day, Dream Away” in less than two years still seems inconceivable, even impossible. But it happened. And, of course, Hendrix continued to broaden his scope and incorporate more styles and sonic experiments (check out the full, funky brass accompaniment on the title track from South Saturn Delta), pushing past the boundaries he had already blown away. The material collected on First Rays of the New Rising Sun represent many of the songs Hendrix was assembling for another double album in the summer over 1970, just before his death. Noel Redding is gone and Billy Cox, having already worked with Mitchell and Hendrix during the Valleys of Neptune sessions, is a liberating presence that allows the band to spread out and chase the guitarist as he soars above, around and beneath them. With all due respect to Noel Redding—and nevermind the rumors that Hendrix simply played all the bass parts himself—one of the tantalizing prospects remains what avenues would have continued to open with Cox freeing Mitchell to incorporate his jazz stylings into the mix.

Back to the genius thing and how to wrap our minds around the extent of Hendrix’s gifts: Eddie Kramer analyzes “Dolly Dagger” and uses the console to demonstrate the fastidious attention Hendrix devoted to every second of every song, down to his ability to multi-track his own vocals, knowing in advance exactly where each note and inflection was meant to go. When Kramer isolates the guitar tracks on “Night Bird Flying,” it’s not just a matter of how great each one sounds and the ways they complement each other; it’s more the uncanny way each one could easily and convincingly stand alone as a fully formed statement. Many of the songs, like “Izzabella,” “Stepping Stone,” “My Friend,” “Straight Ahead” and “Astro Man” are loose and as light as Hendrix had been since some of the tracks on Axis: Bold as Love. Then there are irrepressible gems like “Ezy Ryder,” “Dolly Dagger” and “Belly Button Window” that bring the band directly into a new decade. Most of the material has a fresh and unfettered sound: much less overdubbing and Hendrix’s infatuation with “phasing”—which he took to its logical limits on Electric Ladyland (think “Moon, Turn the Tides…Gently Gently Away”)—is now discarded in favor of a more straightforward assault. This direction is nicely encapsulated in the instrumental “Beginnings” where there are no frills or tricks, only a scorching workout that showcases Hendrix’s ability to create fire with any smoke.

Of course, there are also a handful of tracks that elevate themselves above the rest and go to that other place. “Freedom,” the perfect album opener, is just a clinic of where rock and roll had gone, and where it might have continued to go; “Room Full of Mirrors” is a tour de force of multi-tracked guitar bliss (including cowbell!) and “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)” is, or will have to be, as suitable a farewell statement (“May I come along?”) as we could hope for. And finally, the one-two punch of “Drifting” and “Angel,” that, not that it’s necessary to quantify, might represent the most beautiful work Hendrix ever recorded. Inevitably, some measure of outright hyperbole is unavoidable: if there is such a thing as beyond perfection, it is achieved on “Angel” and “Drifting.”

And then he was gone. The magnitude of his loss remains unfathomable. There is no question, absolutely no doubt whatsoever, that he had years and years of untapped magic to explore and nourish. On the other hand, perhaps Hendrix did live and record for four decades; he just crammed it into four years. Hendrix and the gift of his music are subjects that can never be exhausted: the songs hold up, they should be studied and dissected, and above all they should be savored. They are, like the man who made them, incapable of ever being forgotten.

Sean Murphy

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President Obama’s Weekly Address (March 27, 2010)

March 29, 2010 at 11:27 pm (Life & Politics)

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The Rulers – “Wrong Emboyo” (1967)

March 29, 2010 at 3:18 pm (Jamaican Music, Music, Rocksteady)

The original rocksteady song by the all-white Rulers, that The Clash covered (in a much quicker arrangement, and written as “Wrong ‘Em Boyo”) on their 1979 classic London Calling album, and which is based on the classic murder tale “Stagger Lee”…

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Greg Kot – “Who Is Jon Brion? (And Is There Anything He Can’t Do?)” (2003)

March 27, 2010 at 6:07 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles)

A Feb. 12, 2003 Chicago Tribune article on singer/songwriter/composer/multi-instrumentalist/producer extraordinaire Jon Brion, who has put out some of the most fascinating and brilliant soundtrack albums in the past 15 years. I fell in love with his work while watching Punch-Drunk Love (the music created for the film is very evocative and unusual). I highly recommend checking out his work…


Just who is Jon Brion and why have people been lining up outside a West Hollywood club each of the last 300 weekends to see him indulge his every musical whim on a stage packed with exotic instruments?

Brion is one of the most in-demand, behind-the-scenes musical talents in Los Angeles. He’s not People-magazine famous despite his production work with more renowned artists such as Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Rufus Wainwright and Macy Gray, and his soundtracks for the movies of Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight, Magnolia, Punch- Drunk Love). But in a city in which celebrity and profit often overshadow talent and vision, Brion is a self-contained success story, a quintuple-threat songwriter, arranger, producer, multi- instrumentalist and singer.

Celebrated jazz pianist Brad Mehldau calls Brion his favorite pianist. Master session drummer Jim Keltner says he can’t get enough of Brion’s drumming. Mann says, “Jon’s secret is out. . . . Everyone knows how good he is.” He not only produces albums for the likes of Robyn Hitchcock and Grant Lee Buffalo, he plays virtually all the instruments on them too. When Tom Petty needed someone to do string arrangements on his latest album, The Last DJ, and conduct an orchestra at a handful of concerts, he sought out Brion.

“The Paul Thomas Anderson movies got me to check him out, because those are my favorite contemporary movie scores,” Petty says. “We met a few years ago, and I thought he’d be good for achieving the kind of cinematic feel I wanted for this record, and he was.”

But Brion’s true calling is as a singer, writer and arranger of pungent pop songs, the kind of sophisticated three-minute emotional journeys that take their cues from Ray Davies’ “Waterloo Sunset,” Squeeze’s “Tempted” or David Bowie’s “Heroes,” all of which the singer performs in stunning interpretations at his Largo residency.

He has produced one self-released album after a stint with the critically acclaimed cult group the Grays, and he’s so busy with his production work that he doesn’t have time to play out-of-town concerts, much less tour. Which is why his weekly gigs at Largo, a 120-capacity club on Fairfax Avenue just a few blocks south of the Sunset Strip, have become a must-see for out-of-town fans and touring musicians alike.

Every Friday night for the last six years, Brion has been turning the tiny stage of the nightclub into his private playground stocked with stringed instruments, thrift-shop keyboards, a drum kit, children’s music boxes, even a turntable on which he’ll play the odd mood- setting Vincent Price album. One could imagine everyone from Prince to Harpo Marx being right at home here.

Prince and Harpo haven’t come to Largo to hang out with Brion, but friends such as Mann, Apple, Hitchcock, Neil Finn, Ben Folds and the members of Paul McCartney’s touring band have. “We’re all song sluts here,” Brion says. “That’s what brings people to Largo.”

Layered Compositions

The club is home to his pop-song chemistry experiments, where he builds elaborately layered compositions from the ground up: He’ll start with a groove on drums, then shift to keyboards, then bass and guitar, all the while taping and looping each segment until a complete song appears before the audience’s eyes and ears. He’s audacious, turning even dreck like Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” into a lush, layered Les Paul-like guitar instrumental.

“Word got around, and it went from being a fun, casual thing to becoming an event,” says Largo owner Mark Flanagan, a burly Belfast native sipping coffee near the bar as his club begins to fill up for a Brion performance. “First people started turning up to see who would get up on stage with Jon, but after awhile it turned out that they didn’t care who would or wouldn’t get up; they were just into him. Instead of getting tired, the weird thing is that it [Brion’s residency] just keeps building, and I’m wondering, how long can this go on?”

Upstairs in a dressing room lit up with year-round Christmas lights, Brion is wearing a polka-dot tie and warming up his fingers with a mandolin on a beat-up brown leather couch. His ocean-blue eyes, baby face and jet-black tousle of hair make him appear a decade younger than his 39 years.

“Most of my famous friends are pretty jealous that I get to play 50 gigs a year and don’t have to tour,” he says. “And the rest of the time I can produce records, play on other people’s songs, write my own songs, do collaborative projects and live. I actually think it’s miraculous.”

But with opportunity comes responsibility. “There are a lot of audience members who’ve literally seen more than 100 shows,” he says. “To me, that’s cool because I can’t repeat myself. They have to have a few moments every night where I completely jump off a cliff and find something new, even if it’s hideous.”

One of those moments occurs later that night. He closes his set with an original piano ballad so fresh he hasn’t settled on a title for it yet, but it’s jaw-dropping in its carefully calibrated intensity. It chronicles a painful breakup through a one-way conversation with God. “You made the world, you made the sun, you made the girl,” Brion sings. “Could you admit that just this once you made a mistake?”

Normally when Brion plays the song, he builds up a huge layer of insulation by looping numerous instruments to swirl around him while he rips open a vein. But on this night, he does it alone at the piano. “That was a first,” he says backstage, still flush from the performance. “I’m a year out of this relationship and now a fairly happy guy again. But I wasn’t for a good six months. So I play the song now and look at the words, and it’s kind of painful: I feel really bad for the guy who wrote that song. I thought, `God, I’ve come a long way.’ People have been watching me perform for the past year, and now I wonder what the hell have they been seeing? I can only imagine.”

Critical of Own Work

Another intense relationship with a long-ago girlfriend, Mann, was in part forged around their “militant” ideas of what constituted a good song. The pair met in Boston during the ’80s, became lovers, broke up and then came to Los Angeles separately in the early ’90s looking for a fresh start. “We both became, in truth, harsh critics of our own work and others’ work, but we really heightened and informed each other’s sense of why we liked songs,” he says.

He ended up producing and playing on Mann’s acclaimed solo albums Whatever (1993) and I’m With Stupid (1995), as well as parts of Bachelor No. 2 (2000). These albums set in motion a remarkable transformation, in which Mann went from being the spike- haired pop chanteuse in ‘Til Tuesday to the revered songwriter she is today.

Brion’s phone started ringing soon after with pitches from artists and managers seeking his services. The Mann albums stood out amid a glut of digitally overproduced California pop albums, Brion framing her songs in eerie, evocative soundscapes, thanks in part to an armada of supposedly outdated instruments he started stockpiling at garage sales and flea markets more than a decade ago: Optigans, Marxophones, Chamberlains.

“Everybody was selling everything they owned because they all bought samplers and sequencers,” he says. “I’d buy their old Wurlitzers for $50, knowing that it not only has the complete range of expression a sampler has, but infinitely more because it’s a real mechanical instrument so you can play with the mechanisms and alter all the tones as much and as often as you like. People like me, Mitchell Froom and Tom Waits who were using this stuff on our records got laughed at a lot. But about five years ago, enough of these records became well enough known that suddenly vintage keyboards were the thing. I couldn’t afford to buy my vintage keyboards now.”

As a result, Brion has his fingerprints all over a bunch of albums that don’t leave any fingerprints — that is, it’s almost impossible to detect the source for many of the odd but alluring sounds he has conjured. “Sometimes I keep broken stuff just because it makes this one great weird sound,” he says. “And I’m not going to get rid of it till I can find a place where that one weird sound is going to have a happy home.”

The key is finding the right home. Otherwise Brion would just be the “weird-instruments guy,” a sound-effects man. His art is in bringing out the atmosphere and intent of the song rather than merely packing it with sonic details. “Most of the stuff I do is a coloring job, and it’s easy,” he says. “The hard part is finding human beings who know what they want to convey in a song. If you’re not into the songs as a producer, it isn’t worth doing the job. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many people who have a real individualistic stance.”

Self-Taught Musician

Brion’s sense of individualism was forged at an early age. His first session gig was as a 17-year-old high school dropout in New Haven, Conn. By then he’d taught himself to play several instruments and studied the rudiments of orchestration. “I was 7 or 8 years when the thought occurred to me: `What if I couldn’t spend my life making music?'” Brion says. “And I remember rationally thinking, with no drama whatever, that I’d just have to commit suicide if it didn’t happen. I’ve never not known what I was going to do from that moment on.”

Brion has become part of a Los Angeles-based gaggle of artists — Mann; her husband, Michael Penn; Apple and her boyfriend, Anderson; Grant Lee Buffalo; Jakob Dylan of the Wallflowers; Mitchell Froom; Beck — who are doing their part to restore the sagging currency of the song in the pop-culture lexicon.

“Why do I love songs? It’s three minutes of condensed storytelling, of trying to collect your thoughts lyrically, musically and emotionally, and when it works there’s nothing on earth like it,” Brion says. “Think about it: Airwaves of sound move the little hairs and bones in your body, enter your brain and make your neurons fire off skyrockets. No matter how much you look at the math of it, it is beautiful, it is mystical beyond words. I only have to think about a song like `Waterloo Sunset,’ and my physiology changes. What’s not to love about that?”

On the Beatles, Other Peeves

Brion on why he hates the Beatles: “The Beatles and Bob Dylan, two of my idols, severely screwed up music for our generation. They set the precedent that we are cool only if we write our own songs. In the past, we didn’t expect Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole to write songs. We expected emotional experience from them, and they delivered it. They delivered songs written by guys who sat in rooms drinking coffee. Now because of the precedent set by Dylan and the Beatles, people who write songs feel the need to perform them. Now we have tons of bands with great singers doing horrible material, and there’s no need. There are enough humans in the world who could probably provide them with the fodder for any emotional experience, but it’s not going to happen. So, the Beatles and Dylan, my idols, I hate their guts.

Brion on why Led Zeppelin’s deficient: “I don’t listen to Led Zeppelin for songs. I listen to them for performance and arrangement, the authority of the drum sounds, the crazy room sounds, and the colors in the guitar, the groove. I listen to them for the same reason I listen to James Brown: The groove is phenomenal. I ask no more of the music than to groove hard as it does and then, on top of it, they give me this nice color change. Pretty cool. But any Led Zeppelin fan who has heard me say, `I don’t think they have songs,’ will cry, `They have 10 albums of them! What kind of freak are you?’ And I’ll answer, `They have 10 albums of great music, not great songs.'”

Brion on his favorite productions: “Fiona Apple’s last record [When the Pawn … in 1999], no question. I felt like I’d finally learned how to make records sound like I wanted them to sound, both aggressive and soft and to have full bandwidth and not lack character, to have arrangement and also to have space. . . . The other record I have real emotional affinity for is Aimee Mann’s first record [Whatever in 1993], though it has many faults, most of which are my inexperience. The one thing that is right about that record is that the sense of song is absolutely there. . . . Before then, people weren’t seeing the fearsome qualities in Aimee’s music, so I was on a mission, and I believe if someone finds that record 60 years from now, they’ll hear some really good songs.”

A Hit on Disc and Screen:

Jon Brion, Meaningless (2000/

Brion’s self-released solo album is a bit too precious in spots, but
its high point (“Ruin My Day,” a revelatory reworking of Cheap
Trick’s “Voices”) builds anticipation for the follow-up.

Soundtrack for Punch-Drunk Love (2002/Nonesuch):

Brion’s percussive effects expertly mirror the tortured inner
workings of Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan character in the twisted
romantic comedy by director Paul Thomas Anderson.

Fiona Apple, When the Pawn . . . (1999/Clean Slate/Epic):

Brion brings structure to a prodigious talent by building
arrangements around her voice and piano.

Brad Mehldau, Largo (2002/Warner):

The jazz pianist edges smartly toward avant-pop, reminiscent at times
of the Sea and Cake or Radiohead (whose “Paranoid Android” is
covered), aided by Brion’s daring production.

Macy Gray, On How Life Is (1999/Epic):

Gray’s debut album stands out from standard R&B fare because Brion
puts the emphasis as much on the melodies as the groove.

Greg Kot

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Jim Morrison – “Crystal Ship”

March 25, 2010 at 7:49 pm (Jim Morrison, Poetry & Literature)

Before you slip into unconsciousness
I’d like to have another kiss
Another flashing chance at bliss
Another kiss, another kiss

The days are bright and filled with pain
Enclose me in your gentle rain
The time you ran was too insane
We’ll meet again, we’ll meet again
Oh tell me where your freedom lies
The streets are fields that never die
Deliver me from reasons why
You’d rather cry, I’d rather fly
The crystal ship is being filled
A thousand girls, a thousand thrills
A million ways to spend your time
When we get back, I’ll drop a line.


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Steve Leftridge – “Willie Nelson in the Twilight Glow” (2010)

March 24, 2010 at 11:08 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles)

Recent PopMatters article (Feb. 8) about Willie…

At last year’s Farm Aid concert in St. Louis, Willie Nelson made a guest appearance during Dave Matthews set to sing a duet on Matthews’ “Gravedigger,” after which Matthews remarked, “Whenever we get behind the things he believes in, the better off we’ll all be.” Certainly, when you consider Willie’s remarkable run of longevity in terms of artistic relevance and physical stamina, it’s a hard sentiment to knock. What Willie believes in are singing, playing guitar, living on the road, running, golfing, smoking weed, meditating, supporting family farms, playing cards, using bio-diesel fuel, protecting animals, and being nice to people. It’s a formula that, the older Willie gets (77 in April), the more people gravitate toward the Willie aesthetic as their favorite way-of-life fantasy.

Oh, to be Willie, they say, and when Willie walks into any room or accepts hugs and handshakes outside his bus afters shows, his fans feel like some of that magical Willie grace has rubbed off on them a little. One night, while waiting for Willie to come off of his bus, a friend of mine told his wife that if Willie tried to kiss her that she should “go with it.”

Everybody loves Willie. He’s music’s biggest democratizer, with everyone on the left and right of the political divide claiming him as one of their own. Yes, Willie walks between the raindrops, even when it seems that the s**t is in the vicinity of the fan. While everyone made IRS jokes for ten years after Willie got pinched for $17 million in back taxes, Willie later said, “It was no big deal at all.” 

What, obviously, more than anything has kept Willie going is his herculean commitment to playing and singing country music. Willie once told Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes that when it was his time to go, he wanted to walk over to his grave, play a final guitar flourish, and then fall in.  But the life he loves of making music with his friends shows no signs of even slowing, let alone stopping. He continues to play some 200 shows a year, and his band, the Willie Nelson Family, the same ragtag bunch of hippies he’s been touring with since the ‘70s, are still intact, only now showing signs of attrition with the retirement of guitarist Jody Payne. 

On Willie’s 2009 shows, he couldn’t bear to replace Jody although young son Lukas is starting to slide into the role now and then. Most often, though, Willie is the only guitarist on stage, and he rides that beat-to-hell Martin hard, often trading riffs with harp player Mickey Raphael, who has a sort of Dorian Gray thing going on, more evidence of the Willie grace factor. 

In the studio, Willie continues to turn out records at a dizzying pace. Keeping up with Willie Nelson albums has always been a chore, but up until about 1993, Willie was “only” churning out an album or two a year, besides truck-stop mix-tapes, and you pretty much knew which albums you were supposed to own (Phases and Stages) and which were for completists only (hello there, Island in the Sea).  Across the Borderline, the excellent Don Was-produced mostly-covers project, launched the Willie Renaissance, a full-scale rediscovery/re-appreciation bandwagon that has lasted to this day, with every producer, artist, and songwriter alive wanting a piece of those good Willie vibes.

Willie has never been one to turn people away. As a result, there has, for the last 15 years, been a new record with every change of season—big-budget blowouts, acoustic affairs, genre exercises, collaborations—plus a couple dozen of those duet/tribute specials. Willie with Keith Richards! Willie with Steven Tyler! Willie with Ghostface Killah!  Hey, is that Charo!? 

The Aughts saw a decade-long frenzy of Willie studio output.  It’s well established that he works extremely fast in the studio, usually happy and ready to move on after the first take, and with studio output at this pace, quality control is an issue. While most of the decade’s records, the majority on the Lost Highway label, are hit-and-miss, each contains some real keepers, which Lost Highway, a single-disc collection released toward the end of last year tried to make sense of. Whether the label picked the right tunes for that mix is, of course, subject for debate, but at 17 tracks spanning nine albums, it’s a useful compendium of where the icon has been.

And he’s been all over the place, staring with 2002’s The Great Divide, a star-studded semi-disaster that had too much of everything—too much goopy, string-laden production, with Rob Thomas and others trying to shoehorn Willie into songs designed for the Adult Contemporary charts. Songbird, the Ryan Adams-produced album from 2006, sounds great in comparison, with Adams’ backing band, the Cardinals, playing live in the studio and Adams dreaming up cool covers for Willie to sing. Lots of keepers on that album, especially the title track, the Christine McVie classic from Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours

Then there’s the forever-in-the-making reggae album, 2005’s Countryman, Willie’s most disappointing record in years, mostly because he’d been hyping it in his shows for so long with super-groovy versions of “The Harder They Come” and “Sitting in Limbo.” It sounded like a perfect match of Willie and hemp-y music produced by Don Was, but when it came out, it was mostly just a bunch of really old Willie originals from the Atlantic years, like “One in a Row,” backed by lackluster reggae arrangements that never quite fit. 

Moment of Forever (2008) is worth owning if not entirely successful.  It’s another attempt at the big time, this one produced by Kenny Chesney, who knows a thing or two about making hit records, and Moment of Forever did crack the country Top Ten. The album is all over the place, including the aforementioned “Gravedigger” and songs by Guy Clark, Randy Newman, and others, plus Willie’s own “Over You Again,” the record’s peak moment, complete with one of those familiar snarly guitar solos.

You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker from 2006 is Willie’s best record of the decade, if only because Willie sounds the most inspired and comfortable, exclusively singing country music with breezy, jazzy arrangements played by an ace band. This one will remain timeless long after the novelty of the heavily-produced records from this period has worn off, given the timeless take of “You Don’t Know Me” and a swingy “Bubbles in My Beer.”

One of the decade’s most overlooked is 2004’s It Always Will Be. That chilled-out folk-country album is one of the decade’s best, despite some clunkers like the silly “Big Booty” and a badly out-of-place rock version of “Midnight Rider.” Check out “Overtime,” a Lucinda Williams original, on which the two of them sound great enough singing together to make you root for a whole album together. All you have to do is ask, remember!

The ‘00s also saw some strange odds and ends, including a #1 smash, “Beer for My Horses,” the goofy Toby Kieth duet, a song popular enough to make its way into Willie’s nightly setlists. Another live staple lately is “Superman,” written while Willie was under doctor’s orders to take it easy a couple years back (“Too many pain pills and too much pot,” it begins). How about that homemade video for “Shoeshine Man,” perhaps Willie’s most revealing clip ever, demonstrating the results of endless idle time on the bus and copious amounts of marijuana?

Then there’s the novelty track “Cowboys are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other,” the most talked-about Willie song in years It’s actually a decades-old Ned Sublette song that Willie decided to record after Brokeback Mountain became a hit. Less welcome was “Ain’t Goin’ Down on Brokeback Mountain,” a moronic answer to the previous song, told from the perspective of a homophobic paranoid with the refrain, “That shit ain’t right.”  It would be nice to believe Willie was playing a character here, except that someone calls him by name at one point. It’s a cool-sounding tune but easily the dumbest Willie track ever put to tape.

That misstep aside, it was a hell of a run, the vast majority of which was recorded after the legend turned 70. These albums felt like much more than a victory lap, but music from an artist who works quickly but is also continually open to pushing himself in new directions while occasionally easing back into familiar styles, and if last year and his start to the new decade are any indication, those old styles will be getting plenty of play during Willie’s golden years. Last year gave us the underrated American Classic, a charming jazz-vocal album, and the excellent Western-swing party, Willie and the Wheel, the #1 album on PopMatters Best Country Music of 2009 list.

A return to jazz standards and classic country stylings brought things back down to the basics of why everyone fell in love with Willie in the first place. His voice on those records, at age 76, is a slightly craggier instrument—he growls more in his lower register these days, and when he pushes for notes at the top, as on “Come Rain or Shine”, it’s brassier than it used to be, but all things considered, Willie’s voice remains remarkably strong and clear. People like to argue superlatives, and George Jones might get the most votes for Greatest Country Singer Ever, but no country vocalist has ever sung as much diverse material better than Willie Nelson, and these new records provide yet more supportive evidence.

An interesting moment came, in fact, at the end of American Classic with an update of “Always on my Mind.” While his 1982 mega-hit needed no improvement, it ended up working. After all, no one ever gets tired of hearing it, and it’s a song that Willie has always sung extraordinarily well; even on ramshackle live performances, he tended to ease up on phrasing liberties, maintaining the song’s indelible melody. Bob Dylan once marveled at how Willie made everyone forget Elvis’s version of “Always on my Mind,” a feat previously thought impossible. On American Classic, Willie turns in a beautiful version, even though it’s a song that, over that last 25 years, he has sung into a live microphone more times than he’s showered, and its inclusion ends up being both a reminder of the passing of time and a celebration of what we still have with us.

We still have Willie Nelson with us, and Rounder Records is currently shrink-wrapping copies of Willie’s first album for that label, appropriately title Country Music, set for an April release. The record is produced by T-Bone Burnett, who brought along many of the musicians from Raising Sand, the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss album that took home last year’s Grammy for Album of the Year. Originally described as Willie’s first bluegrass album, that label doesn’t quite fit, but Country Music is indeed steeped in traditionalism, continuing the run that started with Asleep at the Wheel. The record is full of old-time fiddles and mandolins and ‘60s-style guitars and pedal steels. You know, country music. 

Willie sounds supremely laid-back singing these songs, wrapped as he is in these old-fashioned arrangements. Burnett provides the kind of throwback record that has been part of an epic winning streak that includes Raising Sand and the award-winning soundtracks to O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Crazy Heart. There is nothing on Country Music to suggest that the record couldn’t have sounded identical to this if it were made 40 years ago. The music takes in a range of the hard-hurting, coal-mining, god-fearing country stylings of the ‘40s.

The record traces the paths of country music back to music that influenced Willie himself, covering songs associated with the likes of Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, and Merle Travis. It’s an album full of romantic ballads (“Drinking Champagne,” a particularly gorgeous take), peppy swing (“Pistol Packing Mama”), and tranquil gospel (Hank’s “House of Gold,” getting a lot of love already this year—it opens Patty Griffin’s new record).  Willie’s guitar plays a central role on several tunes, but seamlessly so; there’s nothing ostentatious on a record that keeps things grounded in timelessly great songs, Willie’s mellow but rich singing and playing, and tasteful instrumentation throughout.

Willie’s hair is now down to his tailbone (how many 77-year-old men share that trait?), and you can see his trademark red locks fade to gray about midway up his back—it’s like examining the rings of a tree. It’s a reminder of the march of time, and everyone wants Willie Nelson to live forever, so you got the feeling that the crowds these days are soaking up this otherworldly figure with more urgency than in years past. Still, the Teens are off to a jubilant start, and with the legend on the road again, there’s plenty to relish and celebrate as a giant continues to walk among us, singing country music.

Steve Leftridge

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Vampire Weekend: Fresh and Clean

March 22, 2010 at 3:44 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles)

Sometimes when you start to become too jaded and think that you’ve heard every possible band or artist worth a damn, and that there is simply little left worth listening to anymore that’s truly original, along comes a group that reaffirms that this art form we call music is not completely dead just yet. And in fact, with a band like Vampire Weekend around, perhaps there is actually some real hope for the future. They are definitely the best new band since the heyday of The Strokes, and perhaps the most joyous sounding since The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. If only there were more bands out there right now showing the boundless creativity of VW when they are firing on all cylinders, which appears to be on almost every song off both of their albums – 2008’s excellent self-titled debut and their recent chart-topping release Contra, which is definitely a worthy successor, and avoids the dreaded “sophomore slump” of most second albums. It’s definitely the first great album of the 2010s.

In a world of feeble imitators and pretenders, Vampire Weekend is the real deal. A band with excellent songwriting chops – extremely catchy and memorable pop melodies that lodge in your brain and remain there for weeks at a time; infectious, quirky rhythms and syncopated basslines (courtesy of drummer Chris Tomson and bassist Chris Baio, both extremely talented) that make you want to dance along (there is no way you can sit still while listening to them); not to mention a real flair for creativity and originality, which is hard to come by these days. There are at least a half dozen classics in their catalog so far, with surely many more to come. It’s easy to see this band growing and moving in new directions in the years to come. They simply show too much talent to wither up and stagnate.

I’ll admit that I paid VW no attention until recently when, thanks to a close friend, I got turned on to them. I am now quickly making up for lost time. And I already can’t wait to see where they go from here.

The band, which is named after an amateur film by lead singer and guitarist Ezra Koenig, formed in 2006 and quickly jelled into an extremely tight outfit that instantly lived up to all the hype that was thrown their way around the Internet. It’s truly amazing how a band of twenty-something, white, preppy collegiate types (they studied at Columbia) from the Upper West Side of New York City have learned to successfully incorporate African pop styles (among their many influences) into their music without it sounding like some mere gimmick. They have clearly studied, not only Paul Simon’s Graceland, but the sources that influenced that album, namely Ghanaian highlife, Nigerian Afrobeat and South African soweto music (in fact, the band describes their sound as “Upper West Side Soweto,” and “preppy West African guitar pop with equal parts of fresh and clean”). The seminal 1985 compilation The Indestructible Beat of Soweto has also more than likely made it onto their turntables & ipods along the way. Koenig cites Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab as another big influence, and shows an amazing talent for playing highlife-styled guitar. He also has a distinctive voice that sets him apart from the indie rock crowd.

In addition, VW show a deep affinity for Jamaican ska, Congolese soukous and 1980s American synth pop and New Wave, all thrown into the blender, filtered through an indie rock sensibility. Best of all, Vampire Weekend never fall into the bland, sterile “world music” trap that has befallen so many other bands. And they never come across like mere interlopers trying to steal another culture’s music.

Their songs also touch on bits of The Specials, 1970s punk, classical music (reflected on the song “M79“), The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Peter Gabriel (who gets name-checked in the song“Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa),” and several 1980s synth-pop outfits. Lyrically, the hyper-literate kitchen-sink approach of both Elvis Costello and Chris Difford of Squeeze are also a huge influence on Koenig, as cited in many interviews.

They take all these many, diverse strands though, and truly produce something extraordinary and original out of them, and make the whole thing sound perfectly seamless, yet their best songs invoke feelings of familarity, as well. It’s like you’ve heard their songs all your life, and they sound like they could have come out anytime in the past thirty years, which gives them a timeless feel.

They have written many excellent songs so far, such as “Oxford Comma,” “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” “Cousins” and “A-Punk.” One of their most recent efforts, “Run,” just might be their best song yet, spiked with Human League synth flourishes by keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij, and an infectious, rubbery groove that literally defies you to not get up and dance. And if it doesn’t, then you need to check your pulse, Jack, because you just might be dead. They should clearly make this their next single, and release it to dance clubs. It could be a smash. I’m picking it as an early favorite in the “Best Song of 2010” category.

VW recently made their second appearance on Saturday Night Live, as part of a stop on their current North American tour. They reportedly put on an excellent show, though I haven’t had the chance to see them as of yet. But in the meantime, I’m getting up to dance to “Run” one more time, or perhaps any of their other meticulously crafted, highly rhythmic songs. I advise you all to do the same.

Jay Mucci

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President Obama’s Weekly Address (March 20, 2010)

March 22, 2010 at 6:37 am (Life & Politics)

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