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December 2008 Archives

The worst/most overrated albums of 2008

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Thought I was done with lists, but I was asked to come up with one more by WNYC's "Soundcheck" show: the worst/most overrated albums of the year. (Why, when there are more rock critics per capita in New York than anywhere on earth, this show continually comes to me for this task, I'm not sure--I refute the notion that I am the grinchiest critical voice in the biz, and refer you to my list of the BEST 50 albums of the year elsewhere on this blog.)

In any event, here is my tally of the worst--as much for the fact that they were so relentlessly crammed down our throats as good instead of bad--ranked in no particular order because, let's face it, they are all rank enough already.

Common, "Universal Mind Control"

Britney Spears, "Circus"

The Killers, "Day & Age"

Brian Wilson, "That Lucky Old Sun"

My Morning Jacket, "Evil Urges"

The Breeders, "Mountain Battles"

Vampire Weekend, "Vampire Weekend"

R.E.M., "Accelerate"

The Raconteurs, "Consolers of the Lonely"

Janet Jackson, "Discipline"

"Souncheck" is available via podcast here.

Attacking the Chicago Promoters Ordinance on video

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While it is stalled in committee, the so-called Promoters Ordinance--which would place a difficult, expensive and largely unnecessary new level of bureaucracy on local concert promoters and club bookers--is far from dead; it's just a question of when it will rear its ugly head again, and in what form.

Meanwhile, a number of community activists continue to keep a watchful eye on this legislation, examining the possible ramifications and trying to mobilize the troops. One source for monitoring the situation is the Chicago Music Commission, which tries to take a moderate, level-headed, political lobbyist's approach. A far more radical (and entertaining) view comes from the underground group TheRecordIndustry.com, which has made a video documentary entitled "Chicago's Promoters Ordinance Kills Independent Music."

(Disclosure: I was among those interviewed for this film.)

On Saturday, the Chicago Art Department, 1837 S. Halsted, will present a screening of the new film starting at 7:30 p.m., followed by a Q&A panel discussion featuring Law Professor Henry H. Perritt, Jr., among others. Admission is free, and more info is available here.

If you can't make it out in person, the video also has been posted on the Web.

As a talent buyer for Jam Productions, Andy Cirzan is responsible for organizing hundreds of the best concerts in Chicago each year, but he has another talent, too: For 20 years, he has compiled a mind-blowing Christmas mix tape featuring some of the weirdest and most wonderful holiday songs you've never heard, unearthed via his year-long obsessions of scouring the dustiest, dirtiest, most obscure record bins across the United States.

This year, Cirzan celebrates this milestone anniversary by revisiting some of the best songs for his project's earliest days, when it existed only as a handful of cassettes distributed to friends. (He now presses a CD and makes it available as a free download at soundopinions.org.)

The "Sound Opinions" Christmas Spectacular airs Friday night at 8 and Saturday morning at 11 on Chicago Public Radio, and it's available from the show's Web site as a podcast starting Monday.

Chicago musicians to celebrate the Obama inauguration

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It seems as if President-elect Barack Obama has ignored the suggestions of this column and its readers as far as including any Chicago artists in his actual swearing-in ceremony next month.

The Huffington Post is reporting the line-up, and it includes the United States Marine Band, the San Francisco Boys Chorus, the San Francisco Girls Chorus, Aretha Franklin and a classical interlude conducted by John Williams and featuring violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Still no word on local artists who may be performing at any of the official Presidential inaugural balls -- though sources say Lollapalooza promoters C3 Presents will play a hand in some of them.

The best word for Chicago musicians so far? An enthusiastic group of politically active members of the underground music scene have announced that they'll be holding a celebratory shindig of their own in Washington, D.C. on the eve of Barack Obama taking the oath of office.

The Chicago rock club the Hideout and the local nonpartisan voter registration group Interchange will host "The Big Shoulders Ball: Chicago Celebrates Change" at the D.C. rock club the Black Cat on Monday, Jan. 19, with performers including post-rockers Tortoise, the Waco Brothers, guitar heroes Eleventh Dream Day, sometimes Mekons Jon Langford and Sally Timms, blues great David "Honeyboy" Edwards, avant-garde sax giant Ken Vandermark, Freakwater, Andrew Bird, Icy Demons and Judson Claiborne, plus other guests to be announced.

Tickets go on sale today at 4 p.m. via www.blackcatdc.com or at the Hideout (1354 W. Wabansia), and the price is $50. (A portion of proceeds will go to the Chicago Public Schools marching bands program and the Future of Music Coalition.) As befits the tenor of the event, "Ball-goers are encouraged to wear fun, funky, thrift-store formal attire."

Said Hideout co-owner Tim Tuten: "Since the first Interchange Festival on the street in front of the Hideout in 2004, we have dreamed of the day that we could all celebrate a new direction for our country. Of course we never dreamed that the person leading that movement would be a local guy from right here in Chicago. Our city's musicians, artists, writers and volunteers were part of the first wave of this ground-breaking campaign. They are the heart of our club's community.There was no way that we could miss this historic event."

The best concerts of 2008

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As another long year of clubbing and concert-going comes to an end, it's time to look back on the best moments of the 360 days just passed. Here is my tally of the most memorable shows I reviewed in 2008, listed in chronological order.

Club-hopping for the final weeks of '08

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"A pantomime is a traditional British Christmas play... a mix of fairy stories, folk tales and much loved cartoons which encourage audience participation," according to beloved Chicago chanteuse and sometimes theatrical director Sally Timms. For the third year, the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, is presenting a "Christmas Dinosaur Panto," this one entitled "Mutiny on the Beagle: A Darwinian Romp on the Open Seas in Search of the Jurassic Origins of Christmas" and featuring local underground rock scene legends Jon Langford, Tim Tuten and Janet Bean, among others. There are two shows nightly at 7 (kid-friendly) and 10 p.m. (not-so-kid-friendly) this Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The cover is $12 for adults and $5 for kids under 16; for more information, call (773) 227-4433 or visit www.hideoutchicago.com.

The wildly popular underground-metal-themed gourmet burger joint Kuma's Corner is sponsoring a two-day "Kuma's Doom Fest" this weekend to benefit several local charities. The chaos will reign supreme at Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee, as Kongh, Samothrace, Indian, Ol' Scratch, Minsk, Blood of the Tyrant, Beneath Oblivion, Rue, Ganon and Rabid Rabbit take the stage starting at 6:30 p.m. Saturday and Yakuza, Plague Bringer, the Atlas Moth, Lair of the Minotaur, Jungle Rot, Battlefields, Lord Mantis, Across Tundras and Harpoon do the same starting at 6:30 on Sunday. Tickets are $15 in advance or $20 at the door each day; or more information, visit www.myspace.com/kumasdoomfest or www.doubledoor.com or call (773) 489-3160.

While the man himself can be disappointing in live performance these days, his songs remain immortal, and those are what will be celebrated during the fourth annual "Alex Chilton Birthday Bash" at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, starting at 8 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 28. Among the local artists tackling the work of Chilton and Big Star are Alla, Certain Stars, Dolly Varden, the Drysales, Evening Bells, the Injured Parties, the New Fiction and Welcome to Ashley. The cover is $10; for more information, call (773) 276-3600 or visit www.emptybottle.com.

Billed as "Grandma Got Run Over by the DJ II," the local DJ duo Flosstradamus--J2K (Josh Young) and Autobot (Curt Cameruci)--are hosting a sure-to-be-groovy post-Christmas Party starting at 10 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 27, at the Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace, and featuring an array of surprise special guests. Tickets are an extremely reasonable $5 in advance or at the door; for more information, call (773) 478-4408 or visit www.abbeypub.com.

Rock 'n' roll plans for New Year's Eve

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Not that any of us need any more evidence of the severity of this country's economic woes, but a quick scan of this year's musical New Year's Eve celebrations is ample testament to how much all of us are cutting back: I cannot recall a quieter New Year's in Chicago in terms of high-profile rock celebrations ever.

Nevertheless, as on any other night of the year, there is plenty of great music happening--if you know where to look for it. And there are even a few welcome bargains, too.

Here is a rundown of the best musical option as 2008 becomes 2009 (and let's hope the next year is a better one for everyone!).

Neil Young at the Allstate Arena

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The last time Neil Young performed a solo arena show in Chicago, five years ago, many concertgoers seemed to have come expecting the greatest hits.

Instead, the long-running singer and songwriter delivered a piece of musical theater, performing his ambitious rock opera "Greendale" in its entirety before the album had even been released, and disappointing all but the most devoted fans willing to indulge any detour this dedicated contrarian might take.

On Tuesday, the 63-year-old artist returned to the Allstate Arena and performed for a much smaller crowd, with half the venue empty and curtained off. Whether people were deterred by their last Young arena experience, fears of a mellow acoustic evening a la the Jonathan Demme concert film "Heart of Gold" (2006) or a top ticket price of $250 was unclear. But guess what?

This time Young and his Electric Band--featuring longtime accompanists guitarist Ben Keith, bassist Rick Rosas, drummer Chad Cromwell and backing vocalists Anthony Crawford and Pegi Young (the star's wife)--essentially delivered a fan's dream set list, veering from some of his most beloved take-no-prisoners barn-burners ("Hey Hey, My My," "Cowgirl in the Sand," "Cinnamon Girl") to some of his most poignant moments of quiet introspection ("The Needle and the Damage Done").

Fall Out Boy, "Folie A Deux" (Island) [3.5 STARS]

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Go ahead and scoff at the entire mall-punk genre if you will ("Punk rock just isn't supposed to sound so glossy and commercial!"), but there can be no denying Fall Out Boy's mastery of the form, just as there was no denying the virtuosity, craftsmanship and ultimate appeal of, say, the best hair-metal acts in the '80s ("Heavy metal just isn't supposed to sound so glossy and commercial!"). In the end, any purists offended by the band's shuck and jive are just missing out on some harmless and irresistible fun.

The fifth album from the suburban Chicago punks-turned-multi-platinum superstars and gossip-column staples, which arrives in stores on Tuesday, veers away from the subtle R&B undercurrents heard on last year's "Infinity on High"--only the grandiose ballad "What A Catch, Donnie" continues in that direction--in favor of the grand arena-rock stomp of, whaddya know, vintage hair metal. Yet this is delivered at tempos just punk enough to stave off undue pomp, even when producer Neil Avron piles on the multi-tracked vocal harmonies, synthesized orchestras, grand pianos, church choirs and generally superfluous guest cameos. (These include Lil Wayne, Pharrell Williams, Debbie Harry and Elvis Costello, though only the latter can really even be heard, briefly, on the aforementioned ballad.)

The Best Albums of 2008

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If there is any up side to these dire, perilous and truly frightening economic times, it is this: History has shown us that music is one of the only things in life that seems to be recession- (and depression-) proof. In fact, it thrives in times of crisis.

Remember, the blues arose in part as a cathartic response to economic hardship. Jazz came into its own during the Great Depression. And some of the greatest sounds in the history of rock 'n' roll were made during bleak economic times, including the recession of the mid-'70s (which gave us punk) and the era of trickle-down economics in the mid-'80s (which gave us hip-hop and the first flourishing of indie rock).

Millions of words have been written in the new millennium about the precarious state of the music industry, and the digitally-induced seismic changes in the ways that music is distributed continued in 2008. A clear model for how the business will adapt still has not emerged. But that's the music business.

Through it all, the musicians themselves continued to create works of incredible depth, poignancy and artistry, just as they always have. And in the end, 2008 was as difficult a year to winnow it all down to a annum-closing Top 10 list as 1958, 1968, 1978 or any other "golden era" you'd care to name.

Here is my look at the 10 best albums of the last 12 months--any or all of which would make a great (and economical, even in these times) holiday present for the pop-music fan on your gift list--followed by the next 40 entries in my 2008 tally of recordings I'd grab if the house was on fire (regardless of whether or not they were still accessible in the Internet "cloud"). And remember that even if things don't get much better in 2009, we'll at least continue to find solace, inspiration or an outlet for our frustrations in music.

Quincy Jones announced as SXSW keynote

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Quincy Jones--the legendary Chicago-born producer, arranger, composer and most Grammy-winning musician of all time--will deliver the keynote address as the 2009 South by Southwest Music Conference, organizers have announced.

Jones recently published a book looking back at his many accomplishments, The Complete Quincy Jones: My Journey and Passions, and he's been working on a feature film documentary Brazil's annual Carnival -- though of course, conference-goers will probably be most eager to hear about his work on "Thriller."

Let's just hope nobody tries to get a group version of "We Are the World" going.

SXSW takes place in Austin from March 18 to 22 and, in addition to Jones' keynote, includes four days of panels, interviews and workshops as well as some 1700 bands from around the world playing showcase performances.

Chicago scores big in Grammy nominations

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In addition to making them sit through Celine Dion slaughtering Janis Ian's "At Seventeen," the biggest disservice that Grammys sponsors the Recording Academy did to local musicians Tuesday night was to deny many of them the thrill of reading about this honor in the morning's papers and blogs.

For the first time in 51 years, the Academy announced a small fraction of the nominations during a live TV special absurdly named "The Grammy Nominations Concert Live!! -- Countdown to Music's Biggest Night." Organizers did not make the full list of nominees--at 110 categories with an average of five nominees each, that's around 500 names (allowing for repeats)--available to the media until midway through the broadcast, which aired from 8 to 9 p.m. in Chicago.

Since newspapers' deadlines followed shortly after the show ended, that meant reporters barely had time to finish their stories based on the big winners and most obvious local nominees, and the Chicago chapter office of the Academy, like other offices across the U.S., did not have time to single out the local honorees in time to trumpet this news in a timely fashion.

Memo to Grammy honcho Neal Portnow and other Academy big wigs: You spend 364 days a year emphasizing that the organization is a vital and important part of all of America's local music scenes. Indeed, the Chicago chapter has played an active role in music education, raising money for musical causes and fighting troublesome attacks on the community of musicians such as the proposed Promoter's Ordinance.

One day a year, the Academy has a big TV show. Now, it's two days a year. Don't forget what the organization's mission really is as you're chasing big ratings and enjoying the opportunity to get your mug on TV next to Taylor Swift. The Academy is supposed to be about the musicians, and the most important thing on its mind when the nominations are announced should be spreading that word in the most efficient, timely and thorough manner possible.

In any event, the Chicago chapter has just released its list of local honorees. "The Midwest has produced some of America's top musical talent over the past years," said Tera Healy, the executive director in Chicago. "We're excited and thrilled that such a diverse number of wonderful musicians and talent from this region are being recognized this year by The Academy and its members."

The full list of Chicago contenders follows the jump.

2008/2009 Grammy nominations announced

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John Mayer is dwarfed by the spectacle as he announces the record of the year nominees at "The Grammy Nominations Concert Live" Wednesday night in Los Angeles. (Chris Pizzello/AP)


For the first time in their 51-year history, Grammy sponsors the Recording Academy announced the nominees for 2008 not at a boring, overblown press conference -- but during a boring, overblown television special that aired live Wednesday night from Los Angeles.

Leading the pack with eight nominations was the filthy-minded dirty South rapper Lil Wayne. Moody rockers Coldplay garnered seven nods, and rap and R&B stars Jay-Z, Ne-Yo and Chicago's Kanye West claimed six each.

Click here for the complete list of Grammy nominations.

West's nods were all for productions for or collaborations with other artists, including Lil Wayne and R&B chanteuse Estelle. Because of the odd way the Grammys define "a year," West's 2008 release "808s & Heartbreak" will not be eligible for consideration until 2009.

Following on his mentor West's heels, South Side rapper Lupe Fiasco was honored with four nods for best rap/sung collaboration and best rap song ("Superstar" with local singer Matthew Santos), best rap album ("The Cool") and best rap solo performance ("Paris, Tokyo").

Fall Out Boy at the Chicago Theatre

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The multi-platinum Chicago mall-punk band Fall Out Boy is like reality TV: frequently denigrated as a mindless distraction representing the nadir of celebrity obsession, crass commercialism and just about everything else that's wrong with Western Culture.

But if you bother to examine the music, there's no denying that the group essentially is goofing on all of the above with incredibly well-crafted, undeniably entertaining and utterly irresistible bursts of poppy punk. Fall Out Boy isn't "The Bachelor" or "Denise Richards: It's Complicated"; more like "Top Chef" or "America's Next Top Model"--the rare excellent exceptions in a justly maligned genre.

Common, "Universal Mind Control" (Geffen) [1.5 STARS]

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Although he's carved out one of the most artistically challenging, emotionally uplifting and longest-lived careers in hip-hop, South Side native Lonnie Rashid Lynn has long been frustrated by two factors: the shortsighted naysayers who stereotype him as a preachy hippie, backpack rapper or what he calls "the socially conscious love artist," and the fact that he's only earned a fraction of the filthy lucre reaped by lesser talents peddling gangsta nihilism. Because his message has been so inspiring, it's been easy to overlook his naked ambition. But it's always been there, staring out at us from the Gap ads and between the lines of the corporate promotions for Microsoft.

Sadly, this is the Common that dominates on his eighth album, which arrives in stores on Dec. 9.

The Fireman, "Electric Arguments" (ATO) [3 STARS]

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While it's hard to imagine any artist in rock history who's won more praise, prizes or financial rewards for his accomplishments, it's long been a thorn in Sir Paul McCartney's side that his old mate John Lennon was the Beatle acknowledged as "the avant-garde one," while of course Macca was merely "the pop guy." In addition to griping about this in many interviews, McCartney's tried to correct this impression throughout his solo career by dabbling in odd underground side projects--among them "Liverpool Sound Collage" with the Super Furry Animals in 2000 and two discs of ambient electronica under the name the Fireman in 1993 and 1998--in between the steady stream of, you know, mere pop albums (the last of which, "Memory Almost Full," was released last year on Starbucks' now-defunct Hear Music label).

The Jesus Lizard jumps on the reunion express

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Because nobody stays broken up in this era of sweet nostalgia and about-time cash-in comebacks, noise-rockers the Jesus Lizard, one of the most ferocious bands Chicago ever produced, are reuniting with the original lineup of David Yow, Duane Denison, David Wm. Sims and Mac McNeilly for a series of shows in 2009, starting with two All Tomorrow's Parties gigs in the U.K. on May 9 and 10 and wrapping up with a promised appearance in Chicago next November.

The reunion coincides with the Chicago label Touch and Go reissuing four of the band's albums in May: "Head," "Goat," "Liar" and "Down."

No word on whether James Iha or D'arcy Wretzky will be taking part... oh, no, wait a minute. Never mind.

Straight No Chaser wishes you an a cappella Christmas

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For more than two years, Dan Ponce has been a reporter for the WLS-Channel 7 news team, doing countless interviews with men and women in the street and the sort of "Well, Ron, the snow is really coming down here on the Edens" live stand-ups so beloved of newscasts.

Now Ponce is the one answering the questions as the founder and driving force behind the 10-piece a cappella group Straight No Chaser. A decade after breaking up because they were convinced vocal music would never make them stars, the group has released its debut album, "Holiday Spirits" (Atlantic Records), and it has a shot to become one of the most unlikely industry success stories since "American Idol" reject Sanjaya Malakar.

"The tables have turned on me for sure," Ponce says, laughing. "It's been interesting not asking the questions for once, and kind of refreshing at the same time. The thing is, we were not looking for this, but we had no choice but to take advantage of it. I'd be an idiot not to try it. I work for the top television station in the city, so I kind of have the best of both worlds going on, with a great television job and now a promising music opportunity."

Demo2DeRo: Russian Circles

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Following in the footsteps of fellow Chicagoans Pelican with a sound that Alternative Press magazine dubbed "instru-metal" on their 2006 debut "Enter," guitarist Mike Sullivan and drummer Dave Turncrantz (now expanded to a trio with the addition of bassist Brian Cook) broadened their horizons considerably on their second album "Station." Released last May, it finds a dynamic, at times virtuosic and alternately heavy and melodic middle ground where instrumental metal, progressive rock and post-rock a la Tortoise all combine with maximum ambience and an otherworldly vibe.

Formed in Chicago in 2004, though Sullivan and Turncrantz have been playing together since they were still in high school back in Missouri, the group has become one of the local scene's most likely to break out, creating considerable buzz and building a national audience by touring as an opening act for the likes of Coheed and Cambria, Secret Machines and Clutch. The band doesn't have any local dates at the moment--it's on the road through the end of the year--but you can sample its sounds (including the stunning track "Harper Lewis) at www.myspace.com/russiancircles and keep tabs on what it's up to at www.russiancircles.net.

Britney's back (well, sort of)

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Contradicting an earlier date reported by MTV, Britney Spears will bring her circus to town at the end of her American tour, which starts in her old hometown of New Orleans (the star helpfully pointed out on "Good Morning America" this morning that that's "in America") on March 3 and finishes up at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont on April 28.

The Pussycat Dolls open, and tickets go on sale Saturday at 10 a.m. through Ticketmaster at prices ranging from $39.50 to $150 per ticket plus fees -- that is, unless you want to spring for the "In the Zone" package at $349.50 per ticket plus fees, or the "Toxic VIP" package at $549.50 per ticket plus fees.

Taking a Big Top-themed stage on "Good Morning America" to celebrate her 27th birthday and the official release date of her sixth album "Circus," Spears danced and cavorted with a troupe of latex-clad, circus-goes-S&M dancers and lip-synced her way through the pitch-tuned, vocoder-distorted robot vocals of "Womanizer."

As these things go, it was better than her infamous melt-down at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2007. But that ain't saying much, and whether it's worth the nearly $600 Ticketmaster will take from you for that Toxic VIP ticket, well...

Britney Spears, "Circus" (Jive) [2 STARS]

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Faced with the train wreck of a career that is America's doubly cursed dance-pop diva--the two marriages, the two divorces, lost custody of her two children, two trips to the psychiatric ward and a double-wide list of battles with the paparazzi and other public embarrassments--what is the greedy machine behind Britney Spears, Inc. to do?

Since just letting the woman be is not an option when there's a single dime still to be wrung from her sad spectacle, the answer is to pair the troubled performer with the best hired songwriters and hippest streetwise producers money can buy; attempt to craft a slick mainstream simulacrum of urban club music along with a smattering of ballads to please more sentimental fans; defiantly reference her personal anguish and/or play it for laughs, and most of all rely on what has always been her most potent sales tool: S-E-X.

Wait a minute, you might ask: Didn't we just witness all of this a mere 13 months ago with "Blackout," Spears' fifth album and first alleged worldwide comeback?

Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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