Saturday, March 26, 2005


The OTHER 50 Tracks: Episode 8

Wondering what all this is about? Before you begin, you might want to read days one, two, three, four, five, six and seven. The List so Far: Round 1: Hockey: Jane Siberry (Mike) Helpless: Neil Young (FC: Keith) I Go Blind: 54-40 (Peter) Nothing at All: Maestro Fresh Wes (Aaron) Tired of Waking Up Tired: The Diodes (Carol) A Case of You: Joni Mitchell (Carl) Round 2: Have Not Been The Same: Slow (Mike) Hallelujah (Live): Leonard Cohen (Keith) Wheat Kings: The Tragically Hip (Pete) Vetoed By Carol Subdivisions: Rush (Carol) Vetoed By Keith Rags and Bones: Nomeansno (Carl) Round 3: One Great City!: The Weakerthans (Mike) Westray: Weeping Tile (Keith) Vetoed By Pete Deeper Than Beauty: Sloan (Pete) Having an Average Weekend: Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet (Aaron) I've Been Everywhere: Hank Snow (Carol) Today: Psyche rock from Hamilton, outsider music from Langley, mope folk from Toronto and brief visits from Wilde and Duchamp . . . Carl: (Listen to Illegal Bodies) The argument was made for Slow that they were so rock'n'roll that they just made put out one great record and were gone. Hamilton, Ont.'s Simply Saucer can do Slow one better: They were gone before their great record ever came out. The band formed in 1973 and that record was made on the roof of the Jackson Square shopping mall in 1975, in front of three people, under the influence of the Velvet Underground, Can, the Stooges and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd (not to mention, if I know Hamilton, and I do, a few non-musical mood enhancers). You might as well have said you were under the influence of Satan. Everybody hated them. They never could afford to press an album. And so it remained until Hamilton rock historian-enthusiast Bruce Mowat finally rediscovered that live recording - along with some studio recordings made with Bob and Daniel Lanois (I believe one of their first productions, if not *the* first) - and released it in 1989 as Cyborgs Revisited. As the webzine Perfect Sound Forever put it a few years ago, when Sonic Unyon re-reissued Cyborgs on CD: "Canada's Simply Saucer ... may be reckoned to be the single greatest 1970s band to have influenced absolutely no one." I want to honour Simply Saucer not for what might have been, but for what was. They could have made catchy music - listen to a relatively straightford song such as Bullet-Proof Nothing - but they chose to make their mind-bending racket in complete obscurity. In stupid motivational speeches, when they say "dance as if no one is watching"? Early Saucer certainly did. They were doing the same thing, in synchronicity and sometimes in conspiracy, that gangs of kids with similar influences in Cleveland and Akron were doing when they formed Rocket from the Tombs (another band that was long lost), then Pere Ubu and Devo, or that kids in New York City were doing when they formed Television and the New York Dolls. But they were doing the very same thing, in synchronicity. Saucer was similar but even less fashionably so, given that they were from Hamilton. As Julian Cope has written, "You wish [SS lead singer] Edgar Breau woulda hadda made it big. He's the kind of songwriter who woulda got better with success - it woulda bred a confidence and, by now, we'd all be accepting of him as the Cannuck third punk (after Neil Young and Burton Cummings). Dammit" The Canadian music industry at the time wasn't just indifferent - it actively feared and loathed Simply Saucer. There are stories of people hiding in closed rooms when the band's manager came by label offices to play demos. There was one single in 1978 with a different lineup, pandering half-heartedly to the new punk scene with a song called "She's A Dog." Though they began playing some Toronto gigs by this point, but even this watered-down incarnation broke up in 1979, some members struggling with heroin, others just with fatigue. The album's just been issued in Europe for the first time on CD, and three weeks ago the Sunday Times called it "an album nobody could reasonably be expected to have heard of that will soon become a touchstone for out-there musicians..... Fans of Sonic Youth, the Flaming Lips or the Dead C will hear their favourites foreshadowed here." Listen to Illegal Bodies: The string-snapping Planet of the Apes guitar chords and embryonic Moog technology underlying similar B-movie poetry and premature millennial panic. "In the future," Breau tells the crowd, "unless you have a metal body, they're not gonna allow you to walk the streets. No kidding." And then it flies out of control the way Sonic Youth later would, in shuddering sheets of "metalloid" sound. Anyone who grew up near the shores of the Great Lakes, where the filthy factories already looked like relics but the info-age commerce to replace them was yet undreamt, would recognize the miasmic stink of despair and dispossession and, its impulsive opposite, the nervous rush of groundless optimism. ("We're gonna dance the mutation!" Breau proclaims in another song, in his best Lou Reed-as-hoser drawl.) Strangely enough, the story even has kind of a happy ending - with Saucer's gradually building recognition in the international underground, Edgar Breau (father of 5 and former Family Coalition Party candidate for parliament!) has returned to making music, playing acoustic guitar with a heavy John Fahey influence and occasionally in a kind of Saucer tribute band with downtown Hammertowners. So you might get to see him someday. I think I can put it no better in this context than PopMatters' review of the CD reissue did a couple of years ago: "They may have been ignored during their time, but close to 30 years after the fact, their music still sounds as vital as ever, and should be a source of pride for Canadian music fans everywhere. Cyborgs Revisited deserves to be as revered as Rush's 2112, as ubiquitous as Canadian Tire Money and Tim Horton's donuts, and regarded as quintessentially Canadian as Medicare and street hockey." Carol: Good call! I remember playing the LP on graveyard shifts. What an awful yet memorable cover; black and white photo of the band playing. Mike: Carl's pick has left me pretty much speechless. I listened to the track back-to-back three times this morning and I really don't know what to write. It's not something I'd normally listen to, but it certainly has an automatic built-in cool factor that really resonates. Carl: I'd be curious to hear it, Michael. It's of course a fairly common phenomenon in music - as well as in visual art or literature - to see the posthumous or at least delayed embrace of a work that wasn't much appreciated in its time, for there to be a retroactive rediscovery and celebration. One reason I quoted several reviews in my argument for Illegal Bodies was to show that something of the sort is well under way with Simply Saucer - and I think their appearance in a list like T.O.5.T. could be a (quietly) significant part of that process. Peter: The delayed-recognition thing does indeed run through art history. I'm trying to think of examples in rock n roll where something was at first ignored and some time later came to commercial acclaim: though I'm sure there are examples, I can't think of any. Given the transient nature of the pop-music mainstream, it seems unlikely that something old will find a latter-day celebration (ignoring a campus-centered, passing fancy with an old form, a la Tom Jones). The track you've picked remains obscure, but the recent press you've cited hints of a resurrection for Illegal Bodies. Someday, the pop-music mainstream may even hold it as fact that a song released more than an hour ago may still hold appeal. But enough airy dreaming. Carl, a couple of days back you spoke of the thrill you get when this exercise brings up a great track you don't know, or one that's at least unduly obscure. I know the feeling you speak of, and I almost burst with it (forgive that image) while listening to Illegal Bodies. Like Keith, I have no memory of this band, and I've certainly never heard this track. It's a real find, right up my Velvet-Stooges alley. You can almost hear Ron Asheton wailing on that guitar solo. I can't wait to get home tonight and blast this one through the stereo proper. Neighbours be damned! Carl: The delayed-recognition thing does indeed run through art history. I'm trying to think of examples in rock n roll where something was at first ignored and some time later came to commercial acclaim: I wouldn't say "commercial" acclaim, although sales too, yes. But the Velvet Underground itself is one of the best examples, generally ignored or rejected when they were together but the coolest name to drop a decade later, partly thanks to Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," and partly thanks to the glam and punk bands who would always talk about the Velvets. Similarly the Ramones, who only really became "famous" thanks to the 1980s punk musicians they inspired. But I'm thinking more outside of rock, for example in the case of blues and folk musicians who were known only in a confined circuit in their youth but were popularized in old age through the advocacy of revivalists (esp. in the early-sixties folk boom). In the nineties, all the obscure kraut-rock bands like Neu and Faust were popularized among indie rockers by bands like Stereolab. And so on. You're seeing it again on a small scale right now, for instance, with the rediscovery of people like Vashti Bunyan and Karen Perhacs, obscure names who have become cult heroes to kids who are into the Devendra Banhart "psych-folk" scene. Not to say these people were ever huge, but they get retroactively refitted into their place in the canon. Glad to hear people are digging Illegal Bodies! I was a little worried you were all going to look at me like my head had fallen off. Peter: Ahh, the Ramones. I distinctly remember the summer of '77, and dear old dad rather hopefully suggesting that I play Beat on the Brat at a lower volume, a crusade in which he was again, alas, frustrated. Keith: that record was made on the roof of the Jackson Square shopping mall in 1975, in front of three people, under the influence of the Velvet Underground, Can, the Stooges and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd (not to mention, if I know Hamilton, and I do, a few non-musical mood enhancers). Those must have been some AMAZING drugs. I've finally listened to this track and I've found it very entertaining. Would've liked a little more lyric content as I've never been one for six minute guitar solos, but there's something about how this one works with the (super-tight, hard driving) bass and drums. Great mix of hard rock and psychedelia. Great answer to the - frequently asked - musical question: What if Iggy Pop grew up in Ancaster? Great pick. Mike? Over to you. Mike: I'd like to think one of the themes running through all of our selections, even the vetoed picks, is authenticity. The songs we've been talking about aren't confected nor do they owe their life-spans to Can-Con regulations. To that end, I can't think of any songs that are more authentic than those captured on the Langley Schools Music Project "Innocence and Despair" - my pick for round 4. (Listen to Help Me Rhonda) Recorded straight to two-track in a school gymnasium in 1976-77, rediscovered and re-released in 2001, these songs are powered, and there's no other word for it, by the sheer exuberance of so many youthful voices. Punctuated by cymbals crashing-in just off-beat, kids singing out of tune and bells (all those great jingly bells that scream Christmas concert in the gym) these elements combine to define what music should really be about - joy, wonder, jangling nerves, raw emotions*And you can tell the kids don't just love the music, they also love being part of the music - it's as if these recordings have captured the sound of childhood. They could even make "A Case of You" sound good. In this age of Pro Tools, Auto Tune and a near endless supply of American Idol cyphers, these recordings - with little more than bare bones Orff instrumentation, a one-string bass, guitar and a little piano - offer the perfect respite. It's difficult for me to pick just one track. The mournful version of Desperado, sung by a nine year old girl to a slightly out of tune piano, packs more emotion into its three and a half minutes than the Eagles have generated in the entirety of their careers. Hearing sixty kids oooh-oohing through Neil Diamond's Touching Hands is fantastic. David Bowie said of the cover of Space Oddity, "you have a piece of art that I couldn't have conceived of, even with half of Colombia's finest export products in me." But if I have to pick just one song, it's the Beach Boys cover "Help Me Rhonda" From the sheer volume alone you know that not one of these kids is hiding in the back row mouthing the words. Combine that enthusiasm with the absolutely resplendent "Yeah" at the conclusion of the first round of "Help me Rhonda(s)" and the horribly out of time bass drum - this is a joyful noise. I also love this track because of the way these nine year-olds yell for Rhonda's help - it's the same way they'd yell for a friend to help them catch an escaped pet or to get out of doing their homework - heartbreak for these kids still sounds a very long way away. Keith: Stellar pick! I COMPLETELY forgot about this record when I was putting my list together. (The version of Bowie's Space Oddity gives me CHILLS) I once read that "growing up is learning to deceive." The music on this record is so raw, so unpretentious; it could only have been performed by children. I clap. Carl: I feel like Langley raises the stakes even further from Simply Saucer on the legitimacy of "lost" records - it's a fantastic album, but such a "found" kind of artifact, I feel conflicted about whether it would belong on the list... But I'll wait to read the arguments before deciding. Mike: This may be like putting a target on my ass but...I was going to save this pick for the no-veto round and just couldn't do it. I've been listening to the songs every day on my commute and they make going to the office bearable. To see your quote and raise you, there's a fantastic interview with Kazuo Ishiguro in the Guardian in which he says, "To some extent at least you have to shield children from what you know and drip-feed information to them. Sometimes that is kindly meant, and sometimes not. When you become a parent, or a teacher, you turn into a manager of this whole system. You become the person controlling the bubble of innocence around a child, regulating it. All children have to be deceived if they are to grow up without trauma." Keith: This may be like putting a target on my ass but... It might be a little risky, yeah. The recording certainly isn't very musical, and I think we might have an interesting debate as to its "significance" (Canadiana or otherwise) but, as art, there's no doubt in my mind that these covers are something special. Then again, Pete's milage may vary. Mike: I didn't want to proselytize in my post about the Canadian-ness of the "art" of the Langley songs, I just wanted the song(s) to stand on their own. The only analogy I can think of is: if I was trying to talk a friend into going to a club to see a band with me, I wouldn't yak at them about the significance of the music or how it's Canadian or essential or art - I'd tell them what the band sounded like, why I was a fan and why I thought they might like to hear it too. I hope I managed to convey that in my post about this pick... Carl: I'm still wavering. I wish it had been a Canadian rediscovery as well as a Canadian production, but wasn't it discovered and reissued from the U.S.? On a Duchamp-style level, I'd kind of consider it non-Canadian as an artwork in that way. On the other hand it's one of my favourite albums ever, and represents what's to me a very Canadian 70s sound - the one that the Hidden Cameras are drawing upon... Huh. Carol: I can see that. But if the songs were originally recorded in Canada, re-mastering and re-issuing from the US shouldn't matter. I would be like Rhino re-issuing "Four Strong Winds". As for the origin of the songs (mostly foreign), I DID find one fairly DRIPPING with MAPL-syrup: "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (The Recognized Anthem of World Contact.Day)" written and recorded by Klaatu and later covered by the Carpenters. Hmmm. Now there's an idea... Peter: Oh what a mean guy I am, beating up on kids on such a nice spring day. Trouble is, I can't see any reason not to. I've always been skeptical of the Langley kids project, which I've seen as the Gregorian monks of their moment. I had hoped the version of Help Me Rhonda would be the track to show me otherwise, but I simply can't see the merit of anything on that album. Yes, the songs are nice and happy and it's good to see the kids doing such things, even interesting to see them doing such things. But where's the greatness? Where's the importance? What does it all mean? I see the Langley project as a lark, and a fun lark, but nothing more. I hate to fire my second veto so relatively early, but as William Shatner says on his recent CD, I can't get behind that. Veto. Keith: OK, that leaves Pete with one veto. Peter: And wide open to righteous vengence. Keith: Yeah, bummer of a birthmark . . . Pete. Carl: I completely disagree with Pete's reasons for his veto - that he "simply can't see the merit of anything on that album." I do think there's something stunningly beautiful and funny, even transcendent, about the Langley kids. That "Help!" on Help Me Rhonda is an ideal example. However, I do think half the art of the thing is in the reissuing: Bringing this piece of period ephemera back into the light, rescuing what seems like trash-folk-culture and offering it as vital. That's why I made the Duchamp comparison - half the art of the thing is in affixing a signature to it, the signature of the reissue itself, the raising of what was made only as a school project souvenir into another sort of object of contemplation. And on this conceptual-art level, it seems to stand apart from the instinctive territory of this list, on a brute "which of these things is not like the others" instinctive level of judgment. I think Pete pushed the right button here. Pete: Carl, I've used two vetoes, and both times you've disagreed with my reasoning but agreed with my veto. We seem to get to the same place by different routes. I wonder if that means we'd work well together, or not? I see that I was a bit imprecise in my veto post. When I said "can't see the merit of anything" on the Langley project, I was speaking to the context of this list: I do find the music interesting, neat, even cool. But I see no meaning in it, nothing transcendent beyond the joy of hearing the kids sing. (I confess that can't imagine sitting and listening to more than one track, regardless of what track it may be.) And, while I realize this may be pedantic of me, I can't subscribe to the Duchamp comparison. This music is not a thing that was created with utilitarian intent, only to have its genuine art and beauty later revealed by the signature of one with a keen esthetic eye. This music was itself created to be beautiful, to be art, by revising an earlier thing that also was created to be beautiful. From the listener's perspective it was created for no reason other than esthetic pleasure, unlike Duchamp's urinal, or Warhol's Brillo boxes, and therefore fits Wilde's requirement that art, to be art, be "quite useless." (Can a thing satisfy both Wilde and Duchamp?) Whatever the merits of the Langley project, I don't believe it can be held up as found art, as a thing created to be art can't be "found" as such. To do so would be like smelling a flower and finding revelation in the fact it smells like a flower (though at some point we "found" beauty in the scent, which is a thing created for an entirely utilitarian function). But, again, I suspect I'm committing pedantry by arguing this distinction, and there's nothing artistic or enlightened in being pedantic. So I'll stop. Keith: I have little to say about surrealist artists . . . Aaron, you're up. Aaron: (Listen to Secret Heart) Little Ronny Sexsmith. Always looking glum. Canada's Little Boy Blue. Minus the cows. And sheep. And haystack naps. I think I might love the way Sexsmith is written about nearly as much as the music he writes. He's everybody's favourite cause (see Martin, Chris). Everyone wants him to be a Big Star. But what would the charm be then? He's the archetypal lonely troubadour come to life. Should he ever find fame, should he ever start smiling - the whole myth of the man-cherub would crumble. All of which is a long way of getting to the fact that the song of his I've chosen is one I actually discovered through another's performance. I'd feel weird about that, except I'm willing to bet more people have heard his songs this way than otherwise. Anyway. Blah, blah, blah Wherry... get to the choice, right? With my third pick I choose Ron Sexsmith's Secret Heart, which I discovered through Leslie Feist's Let It Die. (Listen to Secret Heart) Others may have heard it performed by Rod Stewart. Or Jack Johnson. Or Nick Lowe. Or, gulp, Curtis Stigers. As I discovered with the help of some helpful readers last year, there are about a half dozen versions of this song. Feist's is whimsical. Johnson's is kind of sexy. Stewart and Stigers give it varying degrees of schmaltz. (The Lowe cover remains unfound, if seen/heard, please e-mail me.) Sexsmith's original is the saddest - longingest? - of all. But maybe that's just in the delivery - seeing as others seem to translate it more hopefully. It seems to be a prerequisite for the singer/songwriter pantheon that your tunes by covered and adapted, non ironically mind you, by admirers and contemporaries (something you see, I think, with Joni and Cohen). And here, as with many of his songs, Sexsmith gets that all important nod of bestowed credibility (even if it is coming from a Mr. Stigers). While it also feeds into that idea of Sexsmith as everyone's favourite cause - most the artists here are surely taking him on, a) because they like his songs and b) they think they're doing the world a great service by sharing his music. (While I think it's almost too easy a point to be made for it to be all that true, there's also something very "Canadian" about Sexsmith. Humble, under-stated, everyone's favourite quiet, unassuming kid. I generally hate that idea of Canada, but there it is.) One question: Is it always, as a rule, a sign of great craftsmanship than your songs are readily and easily adapted? Carol: Everyone wants him to be a Big Star. But what would the charm be then? Hmmm. I don't say this often, but what a Canadadian statement. Big Star? I think getting his due and success are more akin to what his songsmith peers want for Sexsmith than stints on Letterman. But, if he gets the spotlight for more than 15 mins, that's grand. Good on him. Celebration of his talent won't diminish his charm. Unless he suddenly became a ego-maniacal coke freak. Somehow I don't see that happening. The fact that you discovered him via another artist I think further validates his strength and wonderful testimony to the man's ability! Nick Lowe? Now that's credibility. Who needs friggen Junos!? Apparently Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney count themselves as fans. Peter: I've never quite understood the Sexsmith appeal. I content to listen to him, but that's about it. I suspect it's his voice that leaves me wanting: I find it thin and unsatisfying, a complaint I've heard from others as well. Frankly, I'd rather hear people other than Ron Sexsmith do Ron Sexsmith songs. That said, I recognize the craft in his songs, and I have no grounds to veto. Carl: I've never quite understood the Sexsmith appeal. I'm with Peter here, to a degree - I don't mind the voice as much, though I don't adore it, but I don't love the songs as much as many people do. Does nobody think that they all start to seem a bit too much the same? But I like the way people like Sexsmith - it's an intimate attachment and a real appreciation for old-fashioned craft. (As opposed to, say, the way Tragically Hip fans like the Tragically Hip.) So no veto from this corner either. Mike: When I think of Ron Sexsmith, I think of tofu. I know it's good for me, I know it can be very tasty, lots of my friends rave about it and the media are always filing stories about how great it is, but really - it's just a bland white blob. Don't get me wrong, I eat tofu pretty frequently. Banana Leaf in Roy Square does a really mean tofu and spicy eggplant and their red curried veg always has plenty of tofu in it. Ginger makes killer vegetarian subs that are stuffed with Tofu and other yummy goodness, and I always get the golden curried tofu at Salad King (mmmm, Salad King). But I'd never sit down and eat just tofu. Tofu needs to have the right things around it to make it interesting. Which brings me to Mr. Sexsmith. I saw him open for John Prine a little while ago, he was ok - you know, doughy and kind of bland. But when he came out during the encore and played Paradise with Prine (one of my favourite songs) I suddenly thought - this is pretty good. I like this Sexsmith stuff. But you mix him up with Rod Stewart and it's greasy, indigestible fare. I'm not dropping a v-bomb on this pick, but the song would definitely be better with whatever the musical equivalent of spicy eggplant is... Keith: Awwwwwww, for the love of bean curd, Mike, bring the veto! . . . (is anyone else hungry?) FWIW I like sad Ronny, I think the key issue is one you raised earlier, Aaron. He's obviously a great songwriter, he's got lots of famous fans, but there's GOT to be something lacking somewhere . . . doesn't there? I'm not thinking the lack of fame as much as how a guy could be so influential and still not have a signature tune of his own? Simply Saucer's reissue is available through Sonic Unyon You can get a copy of the Langley Schools Music Project's Innocence and Despair here. Secret Heart is available on Ron Sexsmith's self titled record. EPISODE NINE of The OTHER 50 is just one click away!
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Here comes the Sexsmith brigade (of one)!

Some of the comments/criticisms are somewhat justified - voice, sameness of songs (though of course we could say that for a lot of singer/songwriters including the best like Bob & Lou)

I do take exception (politely) to the signature tune comment. That is through no fault of his. The last thing Sexsmith could be criticized for is radio-ready songs - you could hang coats on some of those songs. No reason why "This Song", "Gold in Them Hills" and "Strawberry Blonde" should be ignored.

I think there are a few issues at play that help explain why Sexsmith "suffers". First, his is a subtle craft and appeal. Just like you could hype what a great songwriter someone like Hiatt or Paul Kelly is and people might no get it by listening to a song or even maybe an album's worth. We're talking a body of work.

I think those of you who listen to several CDs a day as part of your work - if you put him on, it's not going to wow you in a "what's happening now" kind of way.

Myself I thought the debut album (the second one) pleasant and didn't listen to him for a couple years. For reasons I can't remember I revisited and now have seen him several times and own most of his work.

But I also think there's some lazy music journalism at work. I always look at him in relation to Elliott Smith - as they mined similar material, Beatlesque tendencies etc.

Smith was granted indie cache, I will always believe, due to melodramatic wallowing characteristic of the age, and the issues of drug use and depression.

And hey, I understood to a point. Who else is going to champion the underdog or someone suffering from those issues but the left-leaning press? But is Ron less worthy or less of an underdog because he didn't have those issues?

Now, you may argue that Smith's miles better. But that's opinion and just as many (including the aformentioned big-name Sexsmith boosters) would feel the opposite.
And when you see E. Smith's songs being described as "indie ballads" (like, what the fuck makes a ballad "indie", esp. when the production is pretty melodic and radio-ready) there were clearly other issues at play.

So anyways, that's my rant. If you do delve into the canon , you'll be rewarded and see what a running joke the glum "adopt this guy" image is. We're talking about a 40-something guy with a 20 yr old kid and sly sense of humour ("Whenever I try and write an Al Green-type song, it ends up sounding like McCartney"..."I've never done one of these radio contest shows before so I was wondering who I could call for advice...Roch Voisine?")

For those looking for the most "diverse" Ron, I'd point the way to the Earle-produced Blue Boy. For a jaunty Ron that belies the image, Grand Opera Lane or (if you're ever at a gig), his Kelele Brothers side project (him and his band doing covers from Gainsbourg to Mangione to Tull and The Who and Kinks).

"Karen Perhacs," sheesh. I meant Linda Perhacs or else Karen Dalton. But not both in one person.
"Help Me Rhonda" vetoed? That is teh suXX0r. My daughter has been going to sleep to that CD for her entire life (4 years), and that is her favourite song of all time.
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