Billy Cobham’s ‘Spectrum’: A Drummer At 74, A Debut Album Nearing 45

Spectrum was an album that I had to grow into. And that growth occurred through a specific kind of context as well. Knowing full well that the album was Billy Cobham’s debut as a leader following his departure from the Mahavishnu Orchestra? I was very psyched up to hear this album upon first learning about it a decade or so ago. At the time? My views on progressive instrumentation was caught between the influence of my own likes and the happiness of others. The precision style of what I call “speed fusion” put me off to some degree at the time because of that ambiguity.

It was growth from both within and without myself that led to appreciating Spectrum  more. “Quadrant 4” is basically a blues based combination of the jazz fusion synthesizer playing of Jan Hammer with Cobham and Tommy Bolin giving the song a shuffling hard rock theatrics about the general atmosphere of the song. “Searching For The Right Door” begins as a grandly percussive drum solo before going into a more funk oriented stomp for the title song. “Anxiety” similarly goes into the uptempo,rhythm guitar based uptempo funk/fusion of “Taurian Matador”.

“Stratus” is a tremendous near 10 minute number that takes the progressive drum solo into a rhythm guitar/electric piano led funk storm- before returning to a full band version of that huge intro sound yet again. “Le Sis” has another mellow electric piano based jazz/funk groove about it with a strong melody and slippery synth solo. “Red Baron” is still my favorite number here-with it’s slow stomping groove keeping itself funky in the James Brown tradition. This concludes the blend of jazz rock soloing and jazz funk grooves that pepper themselves across the album.

One of the things that I’ll bet that suits me more listening to this album today? It’s very much created with musicians in mind. Melody and song structure takes an almost total aside for instrumental ability. As well as extremely complex changes in rhythm. As casual listening? It might not work as well. It is an album you have to invest in,study it a bit. Each song encompasses so many contrasting themes? It’s not even something you can dance to. Yet if your in just the right mood? This is seriously addictive,not to mention extremely well played on,jazz/funk/fusion at it’s finest.

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Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings & Food As It Approaches 40

Physically speaking, More Songs About Buildings And Food was made by the same band that had thrown down Talking Heads: 77. Yet in terms of the music the flavor, style and attitude bare only the slightest resemblance. Of course, this is the beginning of the bands highly fruitful partnership with Brain Eno, a person even David Byrne (unique as he was) could never fully comprehend mentally. Along with Eno’s love of…well the best word would be painting abstract sound art the band themselves were fully indulging themselves in an all out rhythmic assault here.

The entire album is not percussive, but the whole concept is different; whereas the debut found a mildly quirky band really more or less exploring it’s “pop legs” this one is the birth of the Talking Heads classic sound in full form-top heavy, polyrhythmic,funky and as a result very spare underneath the clutter. The first six tunes on the album pretty much don’t let up-you have classics building a melody within the rhythm attack on “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel”, “Warning Sign” and my favorite “Found A Job”.

There are plenty of just out and out jamming on the one happening on “The Girls Want To Be With The Girls”,”With Our Love” and “The Good Thing”. Rick James may not have coined the phrase “punk-funk” yet but the world of…well funky rhythm rock would never be the same after this stuff! Once you get into tunes such as “Artists Only”,”I’m Not In Love” and “Stay Hungry” your in for music finding the Heads trying to make sense,if they truly ever can of all the rhythms around them to come up with some jerky new-wavish tunes-like the rest of it they’re not structured  “pop” per se but are  very singable.

Technically speaking, “Take Me To The River” is the slower tune here..it creeps up on you like a soulful monster but never attacks,just keeps creeping away until the end and it’s a nice little change.”The Big Country”….well if I read it right I can sort of relate; when I moved where we live now I found myself thinking some of the things Byrne speaks about in the lyrics. And even now I often think “you couldn’t pay me to live here”. I LOVE the blunt, freaky humor without any of the cynicism.

In terms of writing and melodicism, More Songs About Buildings And Food isn’t quite as strong as the debut. And that really isn’t the point. The songs here are built from the rhythms & beats Eno and the Heads create here. And they add up to a lot when all’s said and done. But again the remaster/re-recording really brings this music a whole new life! This will not be everyone’s favorite Heads album but considering how well they started, the masterpieces to come and the historical place this holds in their career, this is just what the doctor ordered.

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Stevie Wonder’s ‘For Once In My Life’ Turns 50


Stevie Wonder turned 18 in 1968. This was a year when months made a  difference in daily life. And for music too. Wonder was still deeply involved in Motown’s assembly line musical approach. But his albums were starting to reflect more of his creative input and vision by the late 60’s. And on this album, he made major leaps forward musically. The title track  is a strong example-a funky uptown soul stomp that was originally a Broadway show tune from Man Of La Mancha. Wonder kept the melodramatic vibe of the song intact on this title song too. And it was the radio breakout here obviously.

Yet its on the slower tempo, deeply grooving funk of “Shoo Be Doo Be Doo Da Day” and the powerfully composed faster funk of “You Met Your Match” and “I Wanna Make You Love Me”-as well as the slower,brooding “Don’t Know Why” where Wonder hauls forth his Clavinet electric piano. Herein begins his mapping out the basic pattern for what would be his 70’s breakthroughs-still within the fairly traditional Motown context. Some songs showcase that  sound of the time with an emphasis on Wonder’s burgeoning songwriting.

“I’m More Than Happy (I’m Satisfied)” is a superb example on the uptempo end of that. “I’d Be A Fool Right Now” is actually one of my favorites here with its creamy orchestrations and strong song craft-easily could’ve been a Top 5 pop single in that regard. “Ain’t No Lovin'” and the breezy “Do I Love Her” have the same effect. Two covers-in the rather Dusty Springfield style take on “Sunny” and the big band arrangement of “God Bless The Child” round out this album album with it’s strongly funky closer “The House On The Hill”.

For Once In My Life musically spoke more to Stevie Wonder’s future than his past. Eight of its twelve songs were either written or co-written by him. And in many ways, it caps off what my friend Henrique and I call his “childhood career”. Funk had arrived during 1967 with James Brown and Sly Stone. And that was the basis of Wonder’s music here-especially with the Clavinet. Its also an important realizing that the funk genre itself was a process. And in terms of Motown and Stevie Wonder’s own artistry, For Once In My Life marked his ongoing journey into the funk genre of music.

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Taking Heads Naked- The Bands Grand Finale At 30

Talking Heads spent a good deal of the 1980’s concentrating on different aspects of what was basically guitar oriented pop. It was done in a purposefully simplistic manner. By the time the decade approached, it was apparent Talking Heads would soon be no more. David Byrne’s musical fascination had always remained in African type polyrhythms and funk. And in basic terms that is the approach he returned to with this album. On the other hand it was a combination of changes in the pop music world in the late 80’s and the maturity of the band that made the big difference here.

Production was no longer considered the be all and end all of crafting a good pop record. This resulted in a surge of creative energy that lasted the final few years of the decade. And decamping to Paris to bring this sound to life, Talking Heads made much use of this. Boiling it down to basics this album is a loose follow up to Remain in Light. The difference is the sound isn’t so penetrating and aggressive. This album is defined by rather spare and very live musical productionalmost devoid of the electronic sounds of that 1980 release.

“Blind” is a perfect example. It’s a great opener and some of the best funk the band made. But it’s out of the horn based James Brown school- with some great bass/guitar interaction. On “Mr.Jones”, “Totally Nude” and “(Nothing But) Flowers” there is a strong taste of South African pop mixed with the Afro Brazilian sounds Paul Simon dealt with at this time. “Ruby Dear” is a potent reminder how deeply the Bo Diddly’s “hand jive” beat was from old African dances. “The Democratic Circus”, “Mommy Daddy You and I”, “Big Daddy” and “Bill” all add more depth to these musical textures and darker melodies.

“The Facts Of Life” and “Cool Water” are the only songs that use any electronic effects. And it’s uses sparingly and more texturally. Conceptually, Naked is lyrically rather delightful. It finds a livable and reasonable alternative to the faux middle American nightmare presented in that metaphorical way on Remain in Light. In this case,that alternative would seem to be the African based music and their very way of life.

It offered a type of wisdom and knowledge that could enhance, rather than detract from Western society. This is told here in different type stories which ask questions about everything from materialism to organized religion. And it’s all done up in that distinct ‘Talking Heads’ way. So if this is the way in which the David Byrne led lineup of the band would have to go out,there was nothing to disappoint.

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Keep Your Head To The Sky: A Tribute To Earth, Wind & Fire’s Fourth Album As Philip Bailey Turns 66

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Earth Wind & Fire are one of those groups who have a number of distinct musical periods. They’re all pretty hard to define by name and sometimes pass very quickly but,much as with James Brown and The Beatles before them they always had a way of getting people on board with them. One important thing this album did do was solidify the bands classic lineup more so than the highly transitional Columbia debut Last Days & Time had. At this phase of their career, EWF  hadn’t fully developed the distinction they had on albums such as That’s the Way of the World.

Still the musical flourishes of then newcomers in Maurice and Verdine’s brother Fred-along with main drummer Ralph Johnson, Johnny Graham and Al McKay really give a lot of body to this music.  This album was also the step off point from where Earth, Wind & Fire went from being a more raw dog soul/funk band into one that had a certain type of lushness in the production. The one important thing to note here is that Charles Stepney hadn’t yet become involved in the production of the band yet so we find Maurice and company having to find there own way around production slickness.

One thing to be noted about this album is that there is a very intense Latin-jazz flavor to most of the music on this album;one can here the influences of similarly flavored jazz-funk then being turned out by Roy Ayers, Lonnie Liston Smith during this period on songs such as “Evil”,”Clover”,featuring Phillip Bailey singing in his lowest voice possible and the en longed instrumental version of Sergio Mendes’s tune “Zanzibar. Not only do all of these songs feature a lot of spiritually pastoral lyrical metaphors. The cover art to this album reflects the mood of the music quite well in this particular regard.

But this is also music that likewise seems to grow in terms of chord progressions and musical inventiveness. This is one of the most thoroughly instrumentally based album EWF probably ever made and even Maurice White once pointed out how this music put the band into sync with the best instrumentalists of that era. Of course, heavily reverbed,breezy psychedelic soul type mid tempo ballads such as “Keep Your Head To The Sky”,an early EWF hit and “The World’s A Masquerade” add a good change of pace to the proceedings.

“Build Your Nest” is one of the best early examples of the type of slick yet heavy bottomed funk they band would make their trademark with shortly. The elements in the music that are still being worked out are the fact the band still have a quirkiness that’s actually very random. For example-at the end of the song “Clover” someone is making a very mournful sound which is rather pained. And it provides an eerie contrast to the beautiful grooves that predominate most of this album. Maybe it was a fluke or someone’s reminder of some of the darker elements of the early 70’s

Its that and other such aspects that sets keeps Head To The Sky  apart from what’s to come. And perhaps that is why it’s one of only a few 70’s EWF titles currently out of print domestically-because of it’s sense of floating between being musical creative and commercially viable. Its also the one EWF album of the 70’s where horn charts are not a heavy priority in the production. No matter how you cut it, Head To The Sky remains one of this bands most potently creative albums and for an example of the artistry of Earth Wind & Fire this might be an excellent place to go even as a starting point.

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Is It Still Good To Ya: A Tribute To Both The Late Nick Ashford & To The 40th Anniversary Of This Classic Ashford & Simpson album

 

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Ashford & Simpson’s songs have somehow grown with me through my musical “soul education”. All the way from hearing their “Don’t Cost You Nothing” on public service LP’s (staring James Earl Jones entitled ‘Genius On The Black Side) that my father was given all the way up to finding them credited all over the place as songwriters on my many Motown collections. Within the last decade or so? I’ve been reviewing their own albums online as well. Yet somehow neglected this first CD of theirs I ever had. Something I got as a bonus selection when belonging to the old BMG Music Service.

After all this time and listening’s? Long overdue for me to go into the album here. “It Seems To Hang On” opens with a creamily beautiful example of disco friendly uptempo soul-full of liquid rhythm guitar and Valerie’s extremely sensuous vocals in particular. The title song is a richly orchestrated ballad filled with climactic harmony vocal choruses. “The Debt Is Settled” is a thick,stripped down piano/bass oriented groove that comes to life via it’s light percussion accents. “Ain’t It A Shame” is a breezy, mid tempo Brazilian style soul/pop number

“Get Up And Do Something” is, on the other hand, a thick funk number with a full scaling bass line, choppy keyboards and rhythmically jazzy refrains. “You Always Could” is a horn packed, soulful shuffle while “Flashback is a fine example of Latin flavored disco. The album ends with the instrumentally gospel infused mid tempo ballad “As Long As It Holds You”. What amazes me about this album is that this married duo could continually turn out high quality hit soul/funk/pop music on themselves as well as Chaka Khan and at the time preparing for a Diana Ross session.

It was likely the momentum of their oiled approach to their music over the years that kept Ashford & Simpson rolling right along- in terms of the level of their musical output. This emerges as another fine release in a strong of fine Ashford & Simpson albums in the mid/late 70’s. They offer up the best in their diverse stylistic arsenal. This album has the lush disco era uptempo material, blues structured funk and their slinky and cinematic balladry. And everything suited very well to the male/female duet format Nick and Val helped build-both together and for other artists as well.

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James Brown-Live At The Apollo, Round Two On Record, At Nearly Half a Century

James Brown’s career had a major turning point during 1967-68. Musically speaking,h is songs were not only taking on a completely different character instrumentally. But in terms of format? He had gone from 3-4 minute doo-wop soul balladry to extended,horn based dance jams that were getting their rhythmic character from Latin boogaloo and African high life music. This, of course was known as funk. With the recent passing of John “Jabo” Starks, who played in tandem with the late Clyde Stubblefield during this period very heavily, it seemed a good time to discuss JB’s own funk process onstage.

The “funk process” was entering it’s peak for James Brown. As was his sociopolitical consciousness and activity. During the summer of love, and the emergence of Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix, many black American’s in the early/mid 30’s even at the time were still very much in love with the suited up, processed haired JB. One who was a dramatic, gospel fueled soul balladeer. While his persona was still in the same place, James Brown’s second live recording at the Apollo would have to serve to illustrate the change in perception of his artistry.

The album begins with an introduction that goes into a faster tempo’d,heavy grooving version of “Think”, where James duets with the sassy Marva Whitney. “I Want To Be Around” and “That’s Life” are both ballad standards making strong use of orchestration and his Famous Flames. “Kansas City” is done at a very fast tempo and in a different key than I usually hear this sometimes over covered song played in. It is through “Let Yourself Go”,”There Was A Time” and “I Feel Alright” are an elongated,bass/guitar driven funky process all it’s on that leads to…”Cold Sweat” of course-his big record at the time.

After an equally furious tempo on “It May Be The Last Time” and a brief intro of “I Got You (I Feel Good)”, JB goes into an elongated version of “Prisoner Of Love”-similar in approach to “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and “Lost Someone” later in the album. “Bring It Up” has another a very fast tempo similar to “Please Please Please”, which concludes the album. “”Try Me” meanwhile is done more traditionally.  I once heard this  album described as erratic it sounding- likely because it emphasized extended soul ballads rather than focusing on JB’s funk innovations of the late 60’s.
On the surface, there actually is some fact in that. Taking this album out of the literary context and back into the more human one? The fact these ballads are done in 7-10 minutes lengths is musically futurist for soul as well-anticipating the approach Barry White and Isaac Hayes would take several years later on conceptually thick studio albums with a similar style format. Likewise, the shorter uptempo numbers (which are often combined together here) anticipated the musical formats of the disco era medley’s that would show up within a decade from this albums release.
Also, this allowed more vocal oriented fans of James Brown to acclimate to the idea of extended runs. Also,when the funk is on fire here? It’s SERIOUSLY on fire-probably because it was performed as it was being innovated. Not to mention how these JB’s musical innovations were generally closely linked with his live performances. Combined with James’ grateful, appreciative and loving interaction with the audience? This is also JB’s key transitional moment as a performer-as he was further emphasizing the instrumental sound of the JB’s more then the vocal centered one of the Famous Flames.

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‘Raydio’: Ray Parker Jr’s Debut As A Band Leader

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Ray Parker Jr. was no stranger to music when this 1978 debut dropped. All those years that the Detroit native provided guitar accompaniment to Rufus, Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock made clear this multi instrumentalist had an individual enough sound (and personal identity) to survive as an entity on his own. As a matter of fact, aside from actually being in the position of employing a several session musics of his own such as Wah Wah Watson and Sylvester Rivers on piano plus a trumpet and sax player Ray Parker played, wrote,produced and engineered most the music on this album.

Jerry Knight was the only member of Raydio to accompany Parker instrumentally-as the bassist. Knight also brought his vocal ability along with Vincent Bonham and most notably Arnell Carmichael to create the  vocal quartet of Raydio. Although showcasing by and large Ray’s distinctive layered mini-moog based sound hard funk jams such as “Is This A Love Thing”, “You Need This (To Satisfy That) and “Me” are all far more incredibly hard edged than the sort of of sophistifunk Ray/Raydio would become known for-with the horn and rhythmic voices having a more prominent live band flavor.

Adding some Smokey Robinson-like wordplay into the mix “Honey I’m Rich” is a more of Ray’s pop/funk sound. The breakout hit “Jack & Jill”, with its layers of mini Moog (both bass and otherwise) reverbed into some incredible melodic exchanges. It’s basically Ray’s signature musical sound and shows up again on excellent mid tempo funk grooves such as “Betcha Can’t Love Me Just Once” and “Let’s Go All The Way”. Much as Kashif and  Prince would innovate later, Ray was using synthesizers in place of horn parts here. It anticipated the future but also created a musical present for him as well.

The album concludes with “Get Down”,a chunky bass/guitar oriented melodic funk instrumental and one of the best in it’s kind from Ray. In just about every imaginable way a musically impressive and significant set of sophistifunk classics this album provides the missing links between the era of Stevie Wonder and Prince. A link wherein the concept of the sexual revolution (lyrically) and the orchestral use of electronics (musically) would be explored to their fullest in terms of the funk genre. And honestly I am not sure if Ray Parker gets a lot of the credit he deserves for doing that.

 

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Brothers Keeper: Reviewing The Neville’s 1990 Album In Tribute To Charlie Neville (1938-2018)

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The Neville Brothers were a semi regular presence in my musical life to such an extent? They almost worked their way into the aestetic back round of that life. That was until I started exploring their music 5-6 years ago. And found that, in terms of music that came out following the 1980’s, the Brother’s Keeper is quite different from what I could possibly have imagined. Known about this for a long time. Picked it up same day,same format and same price as I did the Neville’s Fiyo on the Bayou. Decided as I often do to listen to the two together.

I expected both albums to be excellent and interesting. And that they both are. But there’s something on this particular album that is somewhat hard to put into words. It’s a sort of flavor you get from that type of 1970’s funk that stretched conceptually out beyond merely the latest dance or whatever. In terms of cultural,moral and spiritual understanding this album makes no apologies in showcasing the Neville’s outlook on all of that both lyrically and musically all at once. It’s nothing like their late 70’s,early 80’s sound at all. They evolved into something quite different.

A  good deal of these songs (in fact)  have a strong blues/country-soul vibe to them from “Steer Me Right”, the Linda Ronstadt duet of “Fearless”, “Fallin’ Rain” and “Witness” actually have more a potent combination that is closer to a country/soul/blues fusion somewhere around the middle since there’s a lot of gospel overtones in their too. “Brother Jake” isn’t exactly a heartwarming tale but at the same time it’s one of my favorites here and showcases them modernizing their funk again. Only it’s very much late 80’s sounding.

“River Of Life” and “Mystery Train” are very funk oriented but delve into the blues end of it a bit further,again telling some captivating stories that I won’t spoil for anyone here. “Sons And Daughters” is goes right back to the West Indian style percussive rhythms of Congo Square- with Charlie Neville himself delivering a spoken word lyric to the effect of politics being used as a force to spiritually bankrupt human kind to the point where there’s only “free speech unless you say too much”. “Jah Love” again points to the Afro Caribbean spirituality of the New Orleans culture.

Lyrically and musically the title song is contemplates the idea of brotherhood (both literally and figuratively) over some major chorded Crescent City type funk. The album ends with Aaron’s “Bird On A Wire”,the most sleek and 1990’s style track on this album with it’s (then) fully contemporary album. Even though one might not think of it in precisely these terms,this is a funk album. Not generationally perhaps, or in terms of it’s relation to the funk era of the 70’s. But in terms of how it presents itself stylistically and rhythmically.

This quality is especially significant on the lightly percussive opener “Brother Blood”. It has a very diverse range of  grooves and messages here that somehow all coalesce into itself. Of course when one discuss New Orleans, funk of some sort or another is bound to come into the equation sooner or later. Far as I know? The musical term “funk” itself was born there during the earliest days of jazz. In a nutshell, I suppose that’s the most important thing this particular album reflects. And can add to that importance especially one song in particular here has on the legacy of the late Charlie Neville.

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Warmer Communications At 40: AWB First And Under-Explored Comeback Album

Warmer Communications...And More

Average White Band began work on their sixth studio album during 1977. According to the liner notes for AWB’s 2014 box set All Of The Pieces, the band were creatively exhausted after their first four studio albums-in particular the hugely successful later three of them. Hamish Stuart, Alan Gorie, Roger Ball, Steve Ferrone and company first recorded a duet album with Ben E. King. Seeing that collaboration could rejuvinate their sound, the band brought in guitarist Cornell Dupree (from Stuff) with a number of NYC session musicians for their 1978 release Warmer Communications.

“Your Love Is A Miracle” is a straight up wah wah guitar powered number-with the in the pocket Family Stone inspired horn charts, “duck face” bass popping, Steve Ferrone’s stop/start funky drum and (vocally) low leads and falsetto harmonies. “Same Feeling, Different Song” has the classic AWB horn style based off the JB’s. The rhythm, tempo and lead guitar comes out of the same vibe. But the liquid rhythm guitar of the refrains come out of the later 70’s sound more. “Daddy’s Come Home” benefits from Dupree’s crying bluesy guitar tone and the organ based country/rock style balladry of the song itself.

“Big City Lights” takes a straight up bass/guitar oriented uptempo funk number-focusing heavy on the horn charts that are often combined with a round synth bass tone for an even bigger sound. “She’s A Dream” is a jazzy melange of bass, guitar with melodic and creamy horn charts playing a medium tempo ballad. The title track lays down a groove that combines the grooves of funk with the repetitive chugging of reggae. “The Price Of A Dream” is a melodically strong sophistifunk styled number-again based heavily in the vocal harmonies.

“Sweet & Sour” is sleek yet heavy horn funk instrumental before the album ends with “One Look Over My Shoulder”. This is the song I remember most off this album for some reason. It has one of the most singable, hit oriented choruses. But the percussive mid tempo groove allows the horns to hit in all the right places. And make both the instrumental and vocal focuses of the song stand out equally. Musically speaking,  Warmer Communications covers pretty familiar territory for AWB. And session players like the Brecker Brothers did make for strong writing and musicality as intended.

Where Warmer Communications  might’ve been somewhat problematic had to do with changes in music among funk bands during the late 70’s. Between 1977 and 1979, the larger horn funk bands such as Earth, Wind & Fire, Tower Of Power, Kool & The Gang and the JB’s were beginning to update to the more high tech production style of the disco era. AWB’s  production approach didn’t change in the late 70’s, even as their writing and playing remained strong. They’d rectify this (with controversial results) in the early 80’s. Still, Warmer Communications remains one of the bands strongest late 70’s albums.

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