Sunday, January 15, 2017

Top 10 Country Albums of 2016

Author's note: all reviews reprinted from issues of the Quarterly Review of Contemporary Country, including the fourth as-yet-unreleased issue. I listened to so much goddamn country this year.

10. Kane Brown by Kane Brown

In the first volume of this mess of a zine, I wrote a review of Kane Brown's EP Chapter 1. The text in full, reads:
Kane Brown's surprising voice doesn't do much to change the fact that his songs are about being a shitty dude, to the exclusion of everything else. Couple that with unexceptional music and Chapter 1 isn't objectionable so much as a total bore.
Now, frankly, I remember nearly nothing about that EP. I know that I came from a real place with that, and I am also fully aware of my own shortcomings around this project. From the ones I state constantly (mostly my own (lack of) history with this genre) to the ones I allude to but don't really talk about (the hilarious toll this has taken on me) to the ones that I don't talk about at all (the racial component), those shortcomings are more or less the definition of QROCC as it is, and as it will forever be preserved. And so I can say, at least, that Kane Brown's Chapter 1 was boring to me, and that there might be a whole lot going on there that I didn't understand or couldn't quite grasp.

I say all of this because Kane Brown's debut record is a much more nuanced, complicated, and interesting thing than, at the very least, I gave credit to his second EP for being. The album opens with two songs that are some of the most anxiety-representative songs I've heard since I first listened to early kode9 dubstep, and they're songs about how Brown puts on for his town and how he might not be a shitty man. It's followed by "Learning," which for whatever reason reminds me a lot of Tupac's "Changes," and then goes off into some weird world. "Cold Spot" is a near-perfect mess of a country single except that it's pretty clearly not a single; "Ain't No Stopping Us Now" has a first half that seems impossibly generic, and a second half that seems impossibly specific.

The thing about Kane Brown's self-titled is that the singles don't quite work, and the songs that aren't quite singles are kind of fucking incredible. There's "Cold Spot," but then there's also "Rockstars," a song about early aughts pop rock hits that is wrapped vaguely in a love story and would be an awful single, but is impossibly fun to listen to as a just-not-quite single.

That Brown's self-titled navigates race -- from an explicit reference in "Learning" to the offhand mention of forty acres on "Better Place" -- in a way that is neither coy nor self deprecating is certainly a bonus. Which is tied into the specificity of the songs; "Cold Spot," in particular, is one of those "where I grew up" songs that takes place in a convenience store of sorts, that manages to thread together the "life lessons learned" genre with the "small town undercut by capitalism" genre. Which is partially why the song is a miss as a potential single, I think; there's a genuine specificity there, rather than a finely-crafted sense of it developed specifically to appeal to a cod-universal sentiment.

Kane Brown's self-titled isn't quite the exemplary pop country of a Granger Smith, full of swagger and ambivalence and hooks, but it's not in competition either. Kane Brown has all these things, but they're configured differently. And I think that he's managed to put something together that's worth celebrating.

9. A Sailor's Guide to Earth by Sturgill Simpson

You don't really need to know the particulars of the concept behind Sturgill Simpson's to appreciate it, and it is a bit hard to say whether knowing actually enhances the album. The concept is more important as a structuring mechanism, unless you're very inclined to get misty about a dad singing to his newborn son. I am, uh, not. That structure allows Simpson to explore country in a way sort of similar to Shooter Jennings'; by setting the focus of the ideas outside of the genre, both artists can take things to places that they wouldn't otherwise be allowed.

Some of that experimentation involves nearly quoting David Bowie to open his album, as Simpson takes the Major Tom approach to welcoming his son to the world. The histories that Simpson draws on are interesting; Bowie to open, some Elvis throughout, a Nirvana cover and plenty of alt-country. It gives the record something of a sense of timelessness—albeit very much rooted in whiteness—that works well with the subject matter. And Simpson kind of kills the cover of "In Bloom," which absolutely shouldn't work.

One of the ways that Sturgill mutates the lineage he is engaging with is to mutate a lot of the social aspects into something more personal or delicate. This is, generally, something I'd despise, except that he doesn't simply erase them. Simpson's focus as far as the social goes is refracted through the personal; he uses his time in the Navy to talk about the shittiness of war and of armies in a way that is seriously bolstered by his relative lack of other soap boxing. It is pretty nice to hear a record that's just like, goofy dad tells his son how the world works, and that includes how garbage war is, from experience, and in very non-sensational ways.

More than anything else, what Simpson constructs with is a really phenomenal album. It's the sort of thing that is mostly in execution, and so hard—for me at least—to talk about at length. Other than to say, I suppose, that it is fantastic.

8. Countach (for Giorgio) by Shooter Jennnings

The seventies were the decade of punk and disco, of Pinochet and Thatcher and the Historic Compromise, when AIDS and Reagan loomed. It's when Outlaw Country came into its own, the same way that cyberpunk would later in the decade; by positioning itself explicitly against the work of women in the genre the decades prior.

Which is all a way of saying that as left field as outlaw disco might sound on its face, Shooter Jennings' Countach (For Giorgio) actually makes plenty of sense. And it's reflected in the record itself; for all the juxtaposition it does, opening with a rendition of "Ladies Love Outlaws" that onslaughts into synths, the jarring quickly becomes a synthesis.

There's a third term as well, in this historical artefact-cum-fucked up album. "Chase," the sixth track, features Richard Garriott de Cayeux, the game developer behind Ultima, Ultima Online, and (most recently) Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues, inside of which Countach was debuted in a listening party. Garriott's work in game design began in the mid-70s, positioning him as one of the field's oldest practitioners. And a contemporary of all the aforementioned.

It would be easy to say that this overlapping history has had implications on the reactionary nature of games culture (it does). So, short of that, it is perhaps enough to acknowledge that, and move on.

As for the actual music on Countach (For Giorgio); it's fucking good. Marilyn Manson is kind of embarrassing, and the NeverEnding Story theme is a weird thing to hear. Even that is in a good way, though; Jennings' album is always interesting, and often incredible.

The particular movement it performs, between an emulation of Moroder's disco embedded in his compositions and the country that gives Jennings his celebrity, is most beautifully represented in its chaotic movements. When tracks go from lightly, twangily sung to digital vortices; it's not just aesthetically pleasing, but politically. It's Reagan's delivery devoured by its consequences, the pretty veneer of games answered by its ugly underbelly. And, importantly, the real pleasure always comes from the latter half.

7. The Weight of These Wings by Miranda Lambert

Miranda Lambert is, to some greater or lesser extent, the reason for this project. Her music is what sustained my interest in country music even when I wasn't in a place to actively follow it (which is to say: when I wasn't regularly driving a car for extended periods of time by myself), and what I would show to people who had some interest but not a whole lot. "Gunpowder and Lead" has always been The Song, for me, with "Kerosene" up there, but every time I discovered a new old single of hers I was taken up again. "The House That Built Me" is a sweet song with the strangest narrative structure (at no point does Lambert do anything other than describe why she should be let in) that I love, and there's not a thing that the Pistol Annies have done that I'm not into that I know of. Lambert is the kind of singer who can be as joyous in spite as she is in love, and she reserves that spite for abusive men, mostly.

A more concrete example: I've never cringed at a Miranda Lambert song where she mentions cigarettes. This is, as you may or may not imagine, a kind of unbelievable feat. The easiest way to explain it is to ask any nineteen year old boy in a black shirt and long hair to write you a short story, and pay attention to his use of cigarettes and smoke. There are a million ways to get it wrong, as many as there are ways to think about being a smoker without knowing what it's like to be one. Which isn't to say that it's a problem of youth or inexperience; your contemporary great American novelists are as likely to fall short as that random kid. Cigarettes are one of those things where their translation to a symbol seems to almost require shucking off so much of what makes them real things in the world, leaving them only as a dramatic gesture or an empty gesture at "cool."

Lambert, by comparison, opens The Weight of These Wings with "Runnin' Just in Case," which itself opens with a stuttering loop of a bassline and light drums for three quarters of a minute, followed by the lines:
There's trouble where I'm going but I'm gonna go there anyway.
I hate Sunday mornings cuz they always seem to start this way.
I'm looking for a lighter, I already bought the cigarettes.
Guess I picked me up a habit on my way out of Lafayette.
Turning up "East Bound and Down" on the radio, she drives "north on 59, but [she] know[s] good and well [she's] headed south / Cuz [her] and Birmingham don't have a history of working out." The story itself could hardly be simpler: Lambert sings as a person driving because she is out of place everywhere, Louisiana to Alabama, Lubbock, Texas to "all the rest;" she hasn't "unpacked [her] suitcase since the day that [she] turned 21 / it's been a long ten years since then, it's getting kind of cumbersome." The justification that the character makes to herself is equally so: "it ain't love that I'm chasing, but I'm running just in case." It's a song about movement and history, about the American South and a woman who has momentum and inertia and life. There is even a moral, locked into a coda: "I carry them around with me, I don't mind having scars / Happiness ain't prison, but there's freedom in a broken heart."

It's a story where cigarettes fit unbelievably well; the loss of place and the open road, the way that habit or addiction are culminations of history and its oblivion. And it's important that Lambert doesn't lean on them, doesn't even smoke one; they are as real in life as the desire to smoke as they are in the act itself. It's a small thing, and I'm usually averse to these sorts of arguments -- I can easily see myself rolling my eyes at this analysis had I not written it -- but it's one thing among many that makes Lambert so special to me personally.

The joy of The Weight of These Wings, Lambert's new double album, is as much that it is Lambert on form as anything else. But beyond "Runnin' Just in Case" is a full hour and a half of songs that range from incredible to really very good. "We Should Be Friends" is about finding solidarity in your messes, "Pink Sunglasses" a goofy song (that would be incredibly annoying in less capable hands) about the way that changing your literal vision changes your metaphorical outlook; "Vice" as good a single as she's ever produced, from its vinyl-crackle opening that drops into a beautifully full drums and guitars and stabby, smoky synth swell. "Smoking Jacket" is basically a Dolly Parton song that Lambert does perfectly good credit to, which itself is a high bar to reach.

If there's a thing to criticize about The Weight of These Wings, it's that it has significantly more strength on the first disc than the second; the second disc's opening track, "Tin Man," about how the Ozian tin man is lucky to not have a heart, is not nearly as strong as "Runnin' Just in Case." With songs like "Things That Break" and "For the Birds," both goofy little things with some weight, it's still incredibly solid, and incredibly welcome for someone who his inclined towards Lambert's music already, but it doesn't quite measure up, track by track, to the incredible first disc. Track by track is one thing, though; as a full album that runs from beginning to end, the second disc is as valuable as the first in adjusting and elaborating on the tone of the whole, in making it a world unto itself, alive and beautiful.

6. Another Black Hole by Malcolm Holcombe

If the best albums use their opening seconds to indicate what's in store, then Another Black Hole opens with deception. Based on "Sweet Georgia," you might be lead to believe that you're in for a pleasant little twang with a bit of a dark side. It's fitting, in its way; this is an album about dying, and spitting, and not minding how much you hate it.

The spit's literal, and it's remarkable. By "To Get By," Holcombe's already talking respiration: "Too young to buy cigarettes, so I stole them for a friend of mine. / He don't breathe too good these days, but he ain't given up trying." Once "Don't Play Around" hits, Another Black Hole's revealed its true colors; the wet rage with which he pronounces the sibilant fricative in the line "keep my mouth shut" is supplemented by his own belabored breaths throughout. It takes until "Leavin' Anna" for Holcombe to lay it out straight; "Florida sunshine baked my bones, all my life I've been cold. / Bronchitis, Winston cigarettes, I layed in bed alone." It's not some affectation, but it sure is an affect. Hearing a man barely able to breathe is upsetting. Especially when he's using that barely to sing for you.

What takes Another Black Hole to another level is just how that wet rage is used. On "Papermill Man" it's fairly straightforward: "Do you live to eat, do you eat to live for a dollar a day on the river / Damn Vanderbilts hold all the keys to the city." Holcombe's cynical, and all you need to do is listen to his voice to understand how that might be legitimate; but he's also down to take aim at the folks that deserve it over some rock 'n roll. "Leavin' Anna" is more subtle, and also has one of the single best lines I've ever heard in music. "A working man is a working man, makes a delicate flower grow" is such an expansive understanding of labor, and such a beautiful sentiment.

If there's a single criticism of Another Black Hole, it's that I really wanted Holcombe to stretch a little more in the direction of PSF Records-era Mikami Kan. But then even by being reminiscent of Kan, Holcombe's done enough; Another Black Hole is a treasure.

5. Remington by Granger Smith

If QROCC were in the business of giving out awards, Granger Smith's Remington would likely take the first quarter. That's knowing that Lucinda Williams' The Ghosts of Highway 20 is better put together, that Gene Watson's Real. Country. Music. is stronger track by track, that Carrie Rodriguez' Lola is more powerful as a combination of both of those things. But QROCC begins from a place of appreciation for pop country in all its weird bullshit, and Granger Smith sure does do a lot of weird bullshit.

Remington leads with the single, "Backroad Song," which works better here than in the video. It is, honestly, just a good country single, in the sort of way that actually hooks; that there's something off about it, some weird choices that don't quite stick. It's something like how the woo's feel like they were written for a different song and shoved in.

If we're continuing with the claim that Remington's a QROCC award winner, then it's these weirdnesses — these missteps, frankly — that make it. Some are unequivocal fuck ups, like "Echo," which is kind of just a shitty song, and "5 More Minutes," which is a fine little tune that gets overloaded with sentimentality in a way that doesn't work. Making up for that are how bizarre and discomfiting and still completely relatable and enjoyable songs like the title track and "Blue Collar Dollars" are.

This isn't the place to go into a big thing about expectations, but "Blue Collar Dollars" is So Weird. It's a country song about hating your job — which, yeah, of course? — that you had over a summer once. There's tropes to this. Summers are for beach songs or margaritas or first kisses, not blue collar labor. It's the bourgiest fucking country song, and it's on the same album where Smith takes on a dip-chewing alter ego named Earl Dibbles Jr. who claims that "Merica" are "back to back undefeated world war champs" who "sent a man to the moon, and before we're done / we'll probably send one to the sun." And he does all this without ever coming off as condescending to his audience, at least as I read it.

If country as a genre is a working-through of the terms of white working class solidarity, then Remington is either some false-consciousness PSYOP or it's a real exploration of just how internally complicated that can get without even beginning to fracture on its face. The title track itself is horrifying and incredible, in a way that approaches unparalleled. "Remington" starts out as a bizarrely self-aware love song, with a lyrical 'I' that is clearly gendered male that actively desires tenderness. And not only that, but that is expressing its own willingness to be malleable and accommodating to the desires of its partner. This is all, of course, in service of a metaphor; the man in the song is a fucking gun. Everything about "Remington" is such a textbook understanding of masculinity as controlled, explosive violence, but performed in a way that drives directly against that.

This is what the desire for interesting stories in country comes down to; these weird fractures, these moments of sublime confusion. I can't recommend Remington enough to anyone who takes country music seriously, and can appreciate its weirdness.

4. Beyond the Bloodhounds by Adia Victoria

I'm about as certain that Adia Victoria's Beyond the Bloodhounds is the album of the third quarter as I am that I can't find words to put to it. What an incredible album.

3. Pure & Simple by Dolly Parton

I suspect that there are any number of reasons to be a little trepidatious about a Dolly Parton album in 2016. For my part, my appreciation of her is not particularly long-lived, and extends little beyond popular hits and random other pieces of albums, and so I am not entirely sure what her work looks like at this point. Couple that with the cover of this album, and the fact that it's called Pure & Simple, and I really didn't know what to expect. I don't doubt that a Parton album of quiet devotional songs would still be good, but it's not exactly what I come to her for, most of the time. I come to her because she's fucking weird and delightful, and, well, let's just say that Simple & Pure is both of those things and so much more.

There are three songs on worth highlighting, one of which I kind of want to go deep into. So lets get to the other two, first: "I'm Sixteen" and "Kiss It - And Make It All Better."

The first thing about "I'm Sixteen" is that it is an immediately, overwhelmingly joyous song. From the opening doo doo doos on, "Sixteen" is the kind of song that you ought to be hard pressed not to grin through. And it's very much aware of how goofy it is, down to Parton singing "I'm sixteen, don't I look sixteen? You don't have to say, but I feel sixteen!" But what really makes it stand out is how fucking weird it is that there's some dude singing bass on it. Like, he'd just there? Singing backup in a super deep voice? And not really adding anything? It isn't even really about sonic texture or filling a gap or adding flourish, at least not in a way I can tell. There's no way the song wouldn't feel full without him. But he's there, for all the world presented as though it makes total sense for Parton to be singing a goofy song about feeling young through love while some dude just kinda repeats what she says. It's brilliant.

"Kiss It," on the other hand, is a song that's also goofy but, through word choice and through the way it is framed, hints at something much less so. That latter is something that's harder to articulate: Parton's first verse recalls being young and having parents kiss a bruise or scrape or whatever. Except it's not whatever, because she explicitly sings "Scraped scratched or broken / a kiss was a token / that mended and cured every part." The broken's what sticks out, obviously. To some extent it's just a way to rhyme with token, of course, but goddamn. She doesn't say outright that she wasn't taken to a hospital, but that's kind of the subtext? Which you could read a number of ways that I won't get into here, but feel free to imagine some. The point being, though, that Parton doesn't choose to talk about kissing her own children, or talk abstractly, or embody herself at that age, all of which are easily-considered alternate framings. Because the chorus goes like this:
Kiss it and make it all better
kiss me and heal all this hurt.
Kiss me all over and over, all over,
cuz that's where it hurts the worst.
Which is, like, terrifying? Like, jesus. The "kiss me all over and over" particularly. That's really sad and upsetting and true? I don't really know what to say other than goddamn.

And then there's "Can't Be That Wrong," which is, in my opinion, maybe the best song of this year. It's certainly in the running. And because of that, I'm going to do what I often try not to, and talk about it as a thing that exists outside of the vacuum of this album. Because I didn't know about it, really, before hearing it before, but I ended up falling into the rabbit hole of this particular song and being incredibly enamored of how it came to be, and how explicitly it contradicted the narrative I had in my head of this album before hearing it.

First things first: "Can't Be That Wrong" is about being in a bar, contemplating the godliness of cheating on a lover. It's actually a rewrite of her 1984 semi-hit "God Won't Get You," from the soundtrack to her film Rhinestone. The major lyrical difference comes in the chorus: for "That Can't Be Wrong," it goes (in part):
I guess I should be singing 'Rock of Ages,'
'Amazing Grace,' some of those good songs.
But my cheating heart can tell on me tomorrow.
Cuz anything that feels this right can't be that wrong.
as opposed to the chorus of "God Won't Get You:"
And I guess I should be singing 'Rock of Ages,'
'Amazing Grace,' and some of them good songs,
But my cheating heart will tell on me tomorrow.
If you think that God won't get you, well you're wrong.
Parton also puts a pretty fine point on it after the final chorus, with the line "To Hell with Heaven if it means I'll lose you." It's not quite the quiet, devotional Dolly that I figured might emerge out of that album cover, in other words.

Without getting too far into it, "Can't Be That Wrong" is great not only because "God Won't Get You" is a pretty fantastic song on its own, but because of the specific ways in which it was changed to become the new version. The specific change from the moralistic final line of the chorus to the new, permissive one is less about Parton having become less moral in her age and more about committing to the narrative, in my eyes at least. She no longer feels the need to distance herself from the character; instead she simply sings through her, and presents a much more honest, psychologically complex portrait. Which fits perfectly with the idea that this is a song about being confused and feeling betrayed by yourself and God and, at the same time, remaining determined to be true to how you feel. It's just, I can't really say enough positive things about this song.

But then we can zoom out too, and say that even songs that aren't on the level of the three just mentioned are, if not great overall, inclusive of really great moments on their own. "Head Over High Heels" is the kind of conceit for a song that's been done a million times, but Parton's particular exclamatory voice makes that not particularly matter. A lot of the same goes for "Never Not Love You," which combines a really pleasant little banjo line with Parton's patented whisper to impart intimacy and joy into it. There really isn't a single song on that I wouldn't relisten to just for a moment or two in it.

2. The Ghosts of Highway 20 by Lucinda Williams

The Ghosts of Highway 20 declares its intentions from the beginning, with guitars panned heavy left and right, trading on washy drive and harmonics before the brushed drums come in. The album's about space and spacing, and the delicacy of the hook — "you couldn't cry if you wanted to" — that precedes the elongated chorus, just "even your thoughts are dust" over and over again. And then, somehow, "Dust" bleeds into a solo that's as delicate and high as you could imagine.

If there's a three song run on Ghosts, it has to be "Death Came," "Doors of Heaven," and "Louisiana Story," the last of which is probably the album's greatest achievement. Like the album as a whole, "Louisiana Story" is on paper overlong, but in practice absolutely gorgeously paced, exactly as lackadaisical and meandering as it needs to be. With a chorus that could be onomatopoeized as "wuhhhh, wuhhh" and lyrics like "On a good day, mama'd make us sweet coffee milk. / On a bad day she'd cuss when something got spilt," it isn't that the nine minutes fly by, but that they all feel earned. Coming after the blues-rocky demand of "Doors of Heaven" to "open up the doors of heaven and let me in / I think I'm finally tired of living, let me in" and the almost twinkly guitars of "Death Came," "Louisiana Story" somehow exists as both culmination and respite, simultaneously.

Williams' cover of Springsteen's "Factory" is likely the 'a-ha' moment of the album, in uncovering how and what it means. Springsteen's original is intentionally abstracted, especially geographically; the whole point is to tell the story of working men, regardless of place of work. Williams, without changing a lyric, makes it sound like the most situated song ever written. There's a weight to this change; what once was a song that potentially signaled for class solidarity against geography is made to become something less universal. But then, being situated is hardly a disavowal of universality in favor of particularity, as though being in space was for the local and against the global. And much of what allows her cover to feel as it does has to do with her voice.

If there's a critique of country music singing, it's that it can tend toward the impenetrable in a way that isn't apparently aesthetic. The twang never gets to be an expression of anything other than the whole, which is Country, as if it was nothing other than a note struck on the banjo. It's always more than that too, of course, a performative marker of race and class and gender and histories, and of broadly-held beliefs and material relations to all of these things.

Coupled with ideas of how music is appreciated, how good or impressive singers are the ones who stretch words or syllables to the breaking point of unintelligibility — whether in terms of length, alteration, pitch, whatever — without breaking, and the deck's rigged from the jump. Twang doesn't count toward that point; it's always already past it, and already also tangential to it. You can modulate it with smoke or technique all you want, make it mellifluous or distinctively grating, age-worn or infantilized; short of sanding it down, nothing really changes.

The easy thing would be to say that Lucinda Williams just doesn't give a damn. The reality's more complicated, of course. The relative absence of banjos and mandolins and fiddles changes the textures of class and history on Ghosts. And that's how the factory moves from rallying cry to space; in the timbre of Williams' voice, in the quality of the stories she tells, the ghosts aren't the dead. They're the spaces full of living, and absence.

1. Lola by Carrie Rodriguez

Lola opens with one of three songs sung entirely in Spanish — one of four songs that are entirely monolingual — and closes with the same. Rodriguez referred to Lola in interviews as a "TexMex" album, which is true insofar as it is sung throughout in admixed Spanish and English, but that framing is key; listening to Lola, the first and final is the former, not the latter.

Which is part of why songs like "Z" and "The West Side" (the latter the aforementioned English exclusive) hit so hard; when Rodriguez sings in English, it is always fraught with Othering. And that's used with all the ambivalence that lived experience demands; in "Z," for instance, she ventroloquizes her grandmother in the chorus, saying,
Not everybody's gonna spell your name right honey
Might get it wrong on the grand marquee,
But you can just sing 'em a song, hija mia,
Tell country music where to put the 'Z'
"The West Side" is even more blunt: "You are welcome here, but remember dear / that you are different in every way." It's, at least in the first quarter of 2016, not easy to find an honest appraisal of race in country music; on the one hand are the Dickinson's with their anxiety of influence, on the other the Upchurch's with their, well [racism -ed note].

There is a reading of the chorus of "Z" that sees it as vindictive, but something about how it rocks the drums mixed with the way the guitar loves its single slow strum, sustained, that makes the whole thing sound unambiguously like a good time. Which in turn makes the argument a little more nuanced; "Z" is as much a song about how visibility on its own is at best worthless against microaggressions, at best only an exacerbator.

The worst thing I can think to say of Lola is that it might be a bit heavy on ballads for some. It's a milquetoast criticism, given how important the sense of space is to the album; that "TexMex" means country and ranchero rhythms mixed together as much as it does the two languages, and the result is that it has plenty of space to stretch its legs. The slower songs might not be as immediately gratifying as something like "Z," but they contribute to and capitalize on the whole aesthetic.

On the other hand, though: Lola is an incredible, incredible album, that I can't recommend highly enough.

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