Hardcore for Nerds

"Why sneer at the intellectuals?"*
punk music, left politics, and cultural history - previously found here.
contact: gabbaweeks[at]gmail.com (sorry, no promos/submissions, thanks) or ask
Dublin, Ireland. 27, history, politics & law graduate
HFN | Best New Punk | HFN 2012 2011 2010 2009 | HRO 2k9 | Hoover Genealogy Project | @HC4N
*from the title of a review of Arthur Koestler's Arrival and Departure by Michael Foot, Evening Standard, Nov. 26, 1943.
Dec 26

A House - ‘I Am The Greatest’ from I Am The Greatest (1991)

[HFN 2010: 0]

I was going to do a third instalment in epilogues to my year-end list for pre-2010 music, not so much new ‘discoveries’ as stuff that I knew existed but hadn’t physically or digitally yet acquired, or even simply not gotten into previously (basically, Whipping Boy - Whipping Boy, V/A - Flex Your Head LP, and assorted Boris albums, plus a few others I may mention again). Even this doesn’t quite count as a ‘discovery’ because I’d known for a while that it was something I should really check out: The Irish Times named it joint third in their list of the Top 40 Irish Albums Of All Time, along with one of my favourites, the Radiators’ Ghostown, and just ahead of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and behind Loveless and Achtung Baby. Plus, whether I recalled it or not, the single 'Endless Art' from this record is always on the radio; a name-checking of great artists along with their dates, it’s as powerful as it is ponderous. And pretentious, which is a lot of the appeal for this band. In this current age of Kanye West and, to a lesser degree, ‘swag’, it’s an idea which has a lot of literal currency; but as an intellectual statement? 

They’ve got the punk attitude in spades, too: opening track on the album, 'I Don't Care', is a updating of the Ramones’ ‘I’m Against It’, with a quasi-Joycean verbosity and a video that’s more than a little reminiscent of that scene from Network that I was also re-introduced to this year, yet which retains the same wry apoliticism. Because this was the start of the 90s in Ireland, when the Celtic Tiger was barely a cub, various socially repressive legislation was still in place, and from what I’ve seen on Reeling in the Years fashions still tended towards 1980s colours. The cosmopolitan illusion of more recent years had not yet disguised the smallness of Ireland, its multifarious social, economic and moral bankruptcies. Culture was not yet wholly a vehicle for cash, but still it faced certain, what seem like endless, constrictions, a cold climate for romanticism.

'I Am The Greatest' opens with a beat that now sounds out of place in a shallow vision of 90s guitar rock, when in fact things were always that bit more interesting. Over the more typical guitar chords, there's that oddly startling line “Whatever happened to good music, you know in the days when you could feel it, it was almost sexual”. There follows a lament that for all its easy condemnations is hard to refute as applying equally today; as the lyrics - spoken in varieties of mundane Dublin accents that it's great to hear in a context like this - say:

Let’s hope the future holds something better than the present and let’s leave the past alone. The music business is incapable of bringing music to the future, as it sits just waiting to pounce on any third rate trend, milking it to death, once again putting money where the music is not. I only wish I was born before all the great ideas were used.

The same relevance goes for the guy “thinking how to fiddle ten more pounds on his expenses” despite the datedness of the hairstyle joke. In contrast, “I am the greatest” is the outrageous proclamation of selfhood, artistic potential and a radical redefinition of hype. In a year when Lady Gaga tells her fans they are all stars, “I am the greatest” carries with it the edge in mathematical possibility, while there’s a clear dig at “big mouthed rock stars with opinions on everything and answers to nothing”. Above all, it’s honest in its pretentiousness, undercut with simple irony by that understated guitar line so typical of this style of Irish indie; which is gradually eclipsed by the shouted refrain until it disintegrates into a echo-y loop, and then nothingness. End.

100 plays
a house irish rock 90s indie 2010 HFN 2010
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Dec 23

epilogue II: 2010 in albums I would need to educate myself more in their genres before commenting on, and should probably listen to more, but that I still think are totally/mostly cool

Das Racist, Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man - ‘mixtapes’, whatever they are, but funny stuff. barely an exaggeration to say this is the first rap I’ve really enjoyed listening to at length, but even then I can only take so many tracks before I need to go back to rock.

Salem, King Night - contradicting any positive impressions the above may have given of me, I also like this, although in many ways it is considerably dumber. but not necessarily in an artistic sense, because this is an album with an interesting aesthetic (though it’s no Tim Hecker, amirite?) and it’s not OFWGKTA.

Robyn, Body Talk - am I snob for not liking ordinary dance pop? probably yes if you define ‘ordinary’ as non-indie approved, but not if you mean ‘stuff that isn’t as interesting to the non-pop listener’, which just shifts the definition back as to whether this stuff is particularly good in itself. besides, there’s plenty of indie-approved pop and indie in general that I don’t like, and I’ve only listened to parts 1 & 2 of this so far.

Jah Wobble & the Nippon Dub Ensemble, Japanese Dub - well okay, this isn’t really in a genre. or two. as it happened, it was more entertaining as theatre than as dancehall when I saw it live. nevertheless, the music is still powerful, and if the blending of styles has its rough edges it doesn’t obscure the quality of the musicianship or the cultures behind them.

Christian Scott, Yesterday You Said Tomorrow - I haven’t listened to this since much earlier in the year, but I’m sure it’s still a quite excellent album of politically-tinged jazz-rock fusion by a virtuoso trumpeter. Anthem really opened up my ears to those possibilities, and anything preventing further exploration is solely down to laziness on my part. Second track on this is a superb cover of Thom Yorke’s ‘Eraser’ (but that’s not why I like it, honest!).

christian scott das racist dub jazz pop rap robyn salem HFN 2010
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epilogue I: 2010 in other LPs*

(*you know, records)

Foals, Total Life Forever - UK post-punk BBC4 remake of Q and not U (i.e., really quite good)

The Gaslight Anthem, American Slang - not as good as Titus Andronicus, but still better than the Hold Steady

Xiu Xiu, Dear God I Hate Myself - shouty, vulnerable artist utilises Nintendo DS in a unusually accessible album. but you know this already

Hoover, The Lurid Traversal of Route 7 (reissue) - everybody knows this one of the best Dischord albums ever made, right? well you should. the 90s emo version of Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, all intense personal issues and eerie night-time driving

Adebisi Shank, This Is The Second Album of a Band Called Adebisi Shank - should give this away, since it’s not really my thing. even bought it at their launch gig, but live or on record I can’t stick with their banging tunes

Sinaloa, EP - only four tracks but that’s all you need for good quality, melodic not-actually-screamo. and the etching is indescribably/unphotographably beautiful

HFN 2010 foals Xiu Xiu gaslight anthem sinaloa hoover adebisi shank
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Dec 22

HFN 2010 - 1: Vampire Weekend, ‘I Think Ur A Contra’ from Contra

This blog has six pages of posts tagged ‘Vampire Weekend’ just going back to the release of Contra at the start of the year, which gives a clue as to how this album kinda defined my 2010. There was that Jessica Hopper article which (erroneously) focussed in on race and appropriation, and was kind of emblematic of the souring of the critical discourse about Vampire Weekend. The standard response was to try and ‘take it back to the music’, because Vampire Weekend are just a fun pop band, right? Except the debut s/t ran into a lot of the same problems and anti-classist, anti-privilege criticisms, only at a slightly lower level. And it’s not just about the music, if in fact that’s even possible. Contra is loaded with ideas and references in its lyrics, as is described in this excellent post:

"Vampire Weekend can get pretty bitchy when it comes to critics who demand to hear them tell rich people to go fuck themselves, but Contra is obsessed with punk and politics in its own terms. You don’t call an album “Contra” and then pack it up with references to The Clash unless you’re aching for a face-off with Joe Strummer’s angry ghost. And every time the shadow of The Clash shows up to haunt the lyrics (“Taxi Cab,” “Diplomat’s Son,” “I Think Ur a Contra’) Koenig gets dead serious and apologetic, and melancholically tries to explain why he can’t do heroic political anger. Koenig is in love with being in the middle—all “You’re not a victim, but neither am I” and “Never pick sides, never choose between two, but I just wanted you”—and honestly he’s doing a good job there. If you’re going to occupy a middle ground in life, then it’s a great idea to use it for creating nuanced, fragile songs about how politics and love and money interact while also constantly reminding us about The Clash.”

This is the second time I’ve quoted that conclusion, and although I’m a little suspicious of the idea of the middle ground, both Ezra and the author of the piece make a fairly persuasive argument for at least considering it. What I’m more interested in is taking to the forefront the ridiculously obvious Clash references: right from when I heard the name of the new album, and having the slightly perverse (cos, duh, the Contras were the bad guys) Sandinista! connection corroborated by other name-checks in the lyrics, I knew this was the way I would have to be thinking and talking about the record. Not that it came as much of a surprise either: even the first album reminded me a good deal of the Clash (exhibit). Fundamentally, I just think that Vampire Weekend operate in a lot of the same modes and milieus now, in ‘10, as the Clash did at the start of the 80s. Obviously a lot of things have changed since then, and contexts have different meanings, so it’s futile to try and make a straight comparison.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that many of things Vampire Weekend are accused of or are faulted for doing are what made the Clash such an innovative and interesting band; at worst, that makes them an unoriginal band, but enough time has passed for new discoveries to be made and new combinations of the different strands of Western pop to be forged (and that’s what this stuff is, invariably, despite all the bandying about - on both sides of the argument - of ‘African influences’, it’s the transmission of the same directly or indirectly, or reflexively, into a multicultural, multiracial Western consciousness that creates both reggae and Paul Simon). In addition, Vampire Weekend are pretty punk, even if they don’t show it much. I guess you could say I’m fairly disillusioned with the state of contemporary punk and hardcore, although there is some good stuff out there and it’s not all dead, so forgive me if I put an album by an interesting indie band ahead of something with more more obvious distortion. 

'I Think Ur A Contra' clearly has a lot to do with disagreement: personal, political, political-personal, and musical. It also contains criticism of the self and others, leading to the whole idea of 'contra' as a sort of dialectics of doubt. As the lyrics say:

You wanted good schools and friends with pools

You’re not a contra

You wanted rock and roll, complete control

Well, I don’t know

In another of my favourite songs from the album, and one that is somewhat divisive amongst listeners, 'California English (pt. 1)’ Ezra Koenig runs his autotuned syllables together into a barely discernible “Contra Costa, Contra Mundum [i.e., against the world], contradict what I say”. Musically, his voice is what ties Contra all together, again a lot like the Clash (although equally the instrumentation for both are just as, if not far more, interesting - and both rock groups spawned a member’s dance project, Discovery and Big Audio Dynamite). Thankfully, however, Koenig doesn’t sound or even try to sound like Joe Strummer; aping your idols like that kinda went out of fashion in the mid-00s, with the Strokes. But ‘I Think Ur A Contra’ throws up an interesting comparison, applicable to Contra as a whole, with Joe Strummer and the Mescaleroes: a quieter, more reflective and more ‘world’-influenced maturation of his Clash days. Not so much the somewhat overdone if still powerful final record of his life, Streetcore, but the understated little masterpiece of Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, which is as close as you’re going to get to Contra with a ‘Clash’ album. 

89 plays
vampire weekend HFN 2010 the clash punk indie politics
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Dec 21

HFN 2010 - 2: Woods, ‘Blood Dries Darker’ from At Echo Lake

Right, so this is basically Songs of Shame (also #2 last year) redux. There’s no hugely significant difference between the albums, it seems to me at first, other than they came out in different years and have completely different sets of brilliant, varied and heartwarmingly beautiful music. Even the labels in the centre of the records are extremely similar - although I think that may just be a Woodsist thing - with the same black-on-yellow radioactive trefoil: except that on At Echo Lake the lines are a little more cleanly drawn and the incidental designs more florid. In that vein, this is actually a more accomplished, polished and cleaner record - or as Moneyfire says:

"It’s odd that this album didn’t get more love when it came out. Songs of Shame was such a hot little LP when it dropped last year that I thought a superb follow up such as this would blow the doors off the indie hype meter. This is partially due to At Echo Lake’s lack of weirdness. So much of the freak folk genre has teased itself apart and into such unstructured composition that its barely listenable (looking at you Velvet Davenport) and Woods has not. This is not to say that Woods hasn’t done a lot to expand their sound in new directions and finding new ways to layer depth and different modes of spooky oddness. More than anything this album reminds me a lot of Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home. Perhaps this is just the prevalence of electric guitar on both albums but in both instances the artists were pushing themselves into a new space, a bolder space, while still preserving the fundamental “thisness” of their sound. Woods succeed here in turning over a new musical leaf and did it without sacrificing the core of what they are about as a band. Its growth in the best way.”

I do miss the extra weirdness of Songs of Shame - there’s nothing here as aggravating to nicer sensibilities as ‘September With Pete’, although 'Death Rattles' recreates some of that aesthetic in a less uncompromising form; there’s also no left-field (and left-wing) equivalent to that album’s excellent cover version of Graham Nash’s 'Military Madness'. But it’s part of a larger trajectory: the further you go back into the Woods’ catalogue (and that of some of the members’ previous group, Meneguar), the weirder things get. At Echo Lake is to Songs of Shame, as the latter is to At Rear House; since SoS was my introduction to the band, my fondest memories are of it, but this album more than compares. I make a big deal out of the ‘freak’ element of Woods and ‘freak-folk’, yet the ‘folk’ - hardly traditional, but not simply alternative either - is important too, and it’s what shines through on the now-immediate appeal of this record.

The comparison to Bringing It All Back Home is intriguing - not least because Woods are exactly the kind of people I could imagine Pete Seeger taking an axe to, or whatever actually happened, but also appealing to more than just hippies - and it would be great if this was that kind of a watershed album for Woods. Even better, would be if their next record was to be their version of Highway 61 Revisited, although as I say their momentum is really in the other direction, sonically speaking. Sometimes At Echo Lakes seems almost too perfect: as if instead of a solid improvement, wouldn’t we all prefer a somewhat flawed experiment?

90 plays
HFN 2010 woods bob dylan
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HFN 2010 - 3: Ham Sandwich, ‘White Fox’ from White Fox

I’ve said pretty much everything I need to say about this album already here, but to recap: Ham Sandwich make unfailingly good pop music, and while White Fox doesn’t have quite the same all-killer-no-filler quality as their first album (and my second favourite record of 2008, just after the last great punk album of the 00s, Shooting at Unarmed Men’s Triptych), Carry the Meek, it does bring a welcome extra variety to their sound. This title track is probably the closest thing here to that album, in that it goes ultimately for the powerful, layered-guitar attack, yet after easing in gently with their characteristically folky sound that I’d probably find cheesy if it wasn’t by a band called Ham Sandwich. Basically, it’s as pitch-perfect as ever - those opening bars! - with the added touch of a screaming, stratospheric backing - I can’t even tell whether its guitar or tracked vocals - to the chorus, and the sweet dynamics of the final stretch, quiet to loud. After this - and after the stunning opener, ‘The Naturist’ - the albums veers from glockenspiel-y folk ('Ants') to electronic experimentation ('Models') but with plenty of rockers - a good example, 'OH OH' - and more straightforward ballads in between, and indeed finishing on some of the band’s most beautiful and absorbing songs yet (‘Animals’, ‘Floors’). Listen to it!

50 plays
HFN 2010 ham sandwich irish
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Dec 20

HFN 2010 - 4: Male Bonding, ‘Weird Feelings’ + ‘Franklin’ from Nothing Hurts

And the award for best song and best album sequencing goes to…

Okay, so 'Year's Not Long' is probably the band’s strongest song by far and obviously opens the album. And maybe for some people Male Bonding is one of those poppy lo-fi bands with one good song and nine lesser imitators following it on the record, but I don’t think so. The immediate follow-up, ‘All Things This Way’, makes for a pretty effective one-two punch, and ‘Your Contact’ adds an extra, scuzzy punk touch to the proceedings. But its the (rather Mcluskyite) bass drop-in to ‘Weird Feelings’, followed by jagged burst of guitar and heavy drum beat, that is where the album really kicks off for me. The melodic counterpoint to the chorus (with its vaguely Celtic or Thin Lizzy-like refrain), and the upshift in gears ripped straight from the 90s punk-pop playbook but transformed into something relatively fresh-sounding, make this one of the best-written songs that I’ve heard this the year.

It’s a formula that ‘Franklin’ largely repeats, but to good effect, with a slower, hazier tempo, ending on the second dreamlike repetition of “all this won’t last forever” - which it doesn’t, of course, but by the standards of their other songs, they do drag it out for a while, slowly stripping away elements of the melody. At the beginning of ‘Crooked Scene’ it really does sound as if they’re going to play the same song a third time, uptempo this time, but it’s a fake-out and it rapidly decays into demented noise that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of the Ramones’ albums where they attempted gamely to keep pace with hardcore, interspersed with the bas-relief of more melodic passages. The closer to side one, ‘T.U.F.F.’ mostly does away with these niceties, keeping the pressure on in a final burst of post-punk punk; while ‘Nothing Remains’ opens with brightness and light again.

It’s partly a function of the efficacious track ordering, but I’m in the part of my end-of-year list - draw up rather simply from a longlist of twenty-five records, and ranked with a minimum of second-guessing - where the very cadence of songs bring an intangible but inescapable nostalgia for the lived experience of the past year, the albums most spun and most enjoyably absorbed making up the soundtrack to the arbitrary calendrical designation ‘2010’. Sometimes, for all their individual qualities, the songs here also blend together like the months, in a smeared-over but not homogenous succession of hook, line and syncopation (I don’t know whether or not there’s any of that on this record, it just fits the phrase). In the end, in spite of or because of its poppiness, this is probably the best punk record of the year. [Or… well, there’s another, but you’re not going to like it.]

90 plays
HFN 2010 male bonding lo-fi punk UK
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Dec 19

HFN 2010- 5: So Cow - ‘Start Over’ from Meaningless Friendly 

The perfect opening to So Cow’s second LP, which didn’t get a Pitchfork review like the first, but is an all-new collection of songs (except ‘Girl Racer’ which overlaps with an earlier, equally sublime version on Tuam: The Album) and not just a compilation of previously self-released CDs. There’s the extended-narrative ‘International Waters’ which I was going to upload elsewhere primarily to talk about how the breakdown in the middle reminds me of listening to the Dead Kennedys; the inevitable local-sports-team-and-childhood-nostalgia-song ‘The Tony Keady Affair’; the hella depressing 'Dunno' and ‘(I’ve Got A) Horrible Feeling’; and the superlatively entertaining 'It Ain't No Fun' on the bonus 7”. Tracks like ‘Random Girls’ and b-side to the 7” (all included in the digital package) ‘Hiding in the Bathroom’ are pop-punk worthy of the Undertones and early Green Day, as ever, while So Cow’s songsmithery continues to make a mockery of the standard conception of lo-fi. There’s plenty of sweat involved in the shed and on the stage, yet so much of the album still sounds like effortlessly melodic, thrash-y pop. ‘Start Over’ kicks off with a strong beat almost as a statement of intent: I’ll start as I mean to go on - brief (mostly), poignant, fun and clever.

60 plays
HFN 2010 so cow irish lo-fi indie pop punk
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Dec 18

HFN 2010 - 6: Fight Like Apes, ‘Ice Cream Apple Fuck’ from The Body of Christ and the Legs of Tina Turner

This is the FLApes equivalent of 'Battle of Hampton Roads'; drinking, smoking, misanthropy in a slow-burning, if overall much shorter, finale. The title reminds me of Husker Du’s Candy Apple Grey and ‘Eiffel Tower High’ (“and I scream, ice scream, I scream”): musically, it’s also power-pop with a punk edge and bitter emotional undertones. Barthel has just written something about another of the songs on the album, saying

"… it sounds vaguely drunk, but in a good-natured way.  They are your favorite drinking buddies, soused and willing to talk shit about anyone but happy to hear about your problems, too."

But, as we now know Nixon said, 

"What you always have to remember with the Irish is they get mean. Virtually every Irish I’ve known gets mean when he drinks. Particularly the real Irish."

Hence, in this song (assuming I’ve heard the words right, as there’s no lyric sheet)

"Let’s retreat to Prague, drink cider from cans

We can rip on your poor mom, with her poxy mouth

And then maybe you’ll talk …”

(I guess you could find a joke there in going all the way to Prague to drink cider, but no, it’s just cheaper there. Irish people drink a lot, and pay a lot for their drink, in Ireland. And ‘poxy’ is just a general Irish term of abuse, it’s not actually saying she has syphilis.) I can only really leave the meaning of the rest of the song up to your imagination, because I’m not sure either. Answers on a postcard?  

There are no really super-catchy songs on this album, like ‘Lend Me Your Face’ (allegedly overheard in a nightclub, “… I’ll bust it up and replace it”), but what the record does do is give them space to expand their emotional palette - it helps that the production is a good deal more nuanced than on their debut LP, allowing for a much more interesting and absorbing sound. Opener 'Lets Talk About Our Feelings' puts the joke out in front only so they can move on from there (best deep cut: ‘Waking Up With Robocop’), ending in a frenzied repetition of “please accept our sincerest apologies to Mom and Dad”, with the briefest sotto voce aside from May Kay “for someone else”; contrast that with ‘Battle of Hampton Roads’, where Patrick Stickles clearly states “I’m sorry Dad, no, I’m not making this up”. Both revel in showing the world at its worst, with the aim of radical self-acceptance: but while The Monitor is tragedy, The Body of Christ (and the Legs of Tina Turner) is comedy.

190 plays
HFN 2010 fight like apes indie irish Titus Andronicus punk
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Dec 17

HFN 2010 - 7: Titus Andronicus, ‘The Battle of Hampton Roads’ from The Monitor

I saw someone complain on Twitter from here in Ireland that Titus Andronicus sounded like “Los Campesinos! and the Dropkick Murphys ‘jamming’ together”. Which is a pretty accurate description, especially if you happen to like either or both of those two bands. There’s a reason The Monitor isn’t higher on my list, which is that the album is rather meandering, self-indulgent if not quite loose; and consequently a bit of work to listen to, as something that musically isn’t all that exciting (though it has its moments). But those qualities also make for a successively rousing, enrapturing and self-affirming record, one that makes the most of its lyrics and delivers them with an undeniable energy and honesty.

Here’s a 14-minute long finale, which is less of an epic song than an epic poem. There are so many good lines, even if they have a tendency to be (ironically?) self-deprecating: “half the time I open my mouth to speak/it’s to repeat something that I’ve heard on TV/I’ve destroyed everything that wouldn’t make me more like Bruce Springsteen”. Which in a way includes subsuming the music into the text, reducing it to a vehicular existence, just like Bruce Springsteen - not that he doesn’t surround himself with and make good use of talented musicians, but in the end it’s about listening to the poetry of dissatisfaction and emotionally downtrodden lives. I used to think, back when I started off mostly listening to Green Day, Rancid, even the Bouncing Souls, that punk was the contrast between cheering, positive music and depressing, angry subject matter. Of course things are a little more complex than that, but even for real literature I get the most pleasure out the combination of beautiful words and pathetic thoughts. Titus Andronicus is the continual embodiment of that conflict in such a deeply-held way that they are essentially the romantic wolf in the sheep’s clothing of what people think punk rock should “really” sound like.

'Battle of Hampton Roads' isn't so much about the human condition as the youthful one, but at the same time they take it upon themselves to carry the weight of the ages - at least back to the 1860s - in a way that is generally seen either as bravado punk style or an excusably over-ambitious 'conceptual' artiness. Previously, in The Airing of Grievances, with its name-checking of Camus and Brueghel in song titles - and this song proclaims that “you’ll always be a tourist”? - led some to criticise them as jejune, school-age intellectuals. But truthfully, fuck all that if it leads to music that hits as hard as this.

319 plays
HFN 2010 Titus Andronicus punk authenticism springsteen
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