This Temporary Life

Love and rock are fickle things

REVIEW: Czarface – Czarface February 23, 2013

The Wu-Tang Clan will always be the best hip-hop collective that has ever been, but the problem with having a crew as big as the Wu is that the talent becomes a tiered system. You can tell a lot about a person by who their favorite Wu-Tang affiliate is: most people are going to choose RZA if they’re into the beats, or Ghostface Killah if they want their hip-hop to be gritty, but a little over-the-top. Ol’ Dirty Bastard fans are always fun at parties, unless they’re the kinds of people who wear shirts with Kurt Cobain or Bob Marley on them (read: people who obsess over dead musicians, without bothering to listen to them). Fans of GZA are the kinds of people who understand being disappointed after getting their hands on one great thing (read: every GZA record that isn’t Liquid Swords). Fans of Raekwon are patient, and can wait for what they’ve been promised. We all know what it says about a fan of Method Man. It should be stated that there isn’t anything wrong with being a fan of anybody in the Wu, at all. But what does it say about someone who’s really into Inspectah Deck?

For better or worse, Inspectah Deck is the most commonly forgotten lower-tier member of the Wu. It’s not that he isn’t talented, by any means: I attended a show featuring Inspectah, U-God, and Masta Killa last year, and he was the only person who wasn’t drunk to the point of being unforgivably bad. Were he with another crew, he would have definite star power, but being that he has seemed content with being in the background, and stepping in to deliver a few really great verses. My allegiance has always been with RZA, Ghostface, and Raekwon (but only because Only Built 4 Cuban Linx I and II are hip-hop classics), so my knowledge of Deck’s back catalog is incredibly lacking, so I feel like his newest record, Czarface (which is the name of Deck’s collaboration with 7L & Esoteric), is as good of a time as any to get with the program. Admittedly, I’m only a little more familiar with his solo output than I am with the work of 7L & Esoteric, but their work on this album is mindblowing at times. One of the thing I notice immediately is the fact that I’m drawn in by the fact that the supervillain-centric artwork and sampling remind me a lot of that of MF DOOM’s comic book obsessions. That’s a common hip-hop trope, but here, it works perfectly, especially considering the fact that its use isn’t overbearing. However, the best sample comes near the very end of the record on “World War 4,” when the late George Carlin’s stand-up shows up – twice (first a sample of You Are All Diseased, and the other of his landmark “Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television” bit). But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The next thing I notice is that the production on the album hearkens back to a time before rap was a commodity, and was more of something that nobody was sure how to monetize. 7L manages to make the album sound like it may as well have come out around the same time that Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… came out, but instead it was born during a truly depressing drought, and it fits in perfectly. The biggest issue here is that, just like in Wu-Tang, everyone around Deck steals the show and pushes things just a little far. These things happen, but when he takes the ball back, he truly shines. Take “Savagely Attack,” for example: he takes it from the top, and delivers a verse that’s good enough to make Ghostface Killah’s appearance look clumsy by comparison. It’s hard not to feel like he’s been holding back a little bit. And while “Marvel Team-Up” has a concept that’s a little clumsy, the slow-flow by everyone feels like they’re trying to purposefully hold back. It feels lethargic, but this is intentional: the following track, “It’s Raw,” proves to be a potential classic – and it doesn’t help that the guest appearance by Action Bronson slays so very, very much, and he gets the best one-liner here (“I’m like the Bobby Flay of rap the way I flavor shit”).

Czarface is a minor release, to be very sure. It was released with little to no fanfare, and it’s hard to not wonder why this hasn’t gotten any real promotion leading up to the release. In the end, we only get half an hour of music, which means that there’s almost no filler whatsoever. It’s not a perfect album, but considering how long we’ve been waiting for a new Wu album  – and how much longer we’re going to be waiting – it’s hard to not get excited by something new from the main camp.

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REVIEW: Tegan & Sara – Heartthrob

I’m not going to lie to you, dear reader: Tegan & Sara aren’t a band that I can really click with. It has been pointed out to me that this makes little sense: considering the music that I have sewn into the fabric of my life, it comes as a surprise to a lot of people that I never quite made the Alberta natives a bigger part of my life. It could have been something that could have happened once upon a time, but the sad fact is, they were unceremoniously ruined for me by a friend who decided that they were one of the only bands worth talking about, and she would talk about them ceaselessly. This isn’t my fault, and it isn’t theirs.

I have a lot more friends who adore them now, so it has become necessary to at least put on a smile when listening to people talk about them. It’s not that they aren’t a good band, they just never weren’t for me. But, I am a professional, and seeing as how they had a new album out, I figured it was about time to set aside those prejudices and give them a fair cop. And, dear reader, I’ll admit that I really do enjoy the album. Heartthrob is album number seven for the duo, and as such, there’s no real need for an introduction, is there? So let’s just talk about the thing: for one, there’s a definite love of the 80s here, and it’s clear that the sisters Quin just couldn’t shake that. Admittedly, I skipped Sainthood, so I don’t know if the synth-beats and the dancefloor-ready bangers are part of the norm these days, but to me, it actually suits them incredibly well. As of this moment in writing about the record, I’m about halfway through listening through again, and thus far, my left leg has not managed to stop bouncing. This is definitely a good sign. But does that mean it’s a good record? It certainly helps.

Heart-on-sleeve dance music is, as you may know if you’ve read my reviews, like catnip for me. Tegan & Sara have made the heart-on-sleeve part their bread and butter over the last two decades, so adding in the rest of it just adds fuel to my fire. The minute I really got into their particular brand of it was on the ridiculously good “How Come You Don’t Want Me,” a song that is exactly two minutes too short: “I can’t say that I’m sorry, for loving you and hating myself.” It’s a line that hits close to home for damn near everyone listening to this song, myself definitely included. This is a song that comes from a place of shame influenced by an external force, and the tightrope act involved in making a song that catchy out of hurt that deep is an incredible song. But here’s the thing: that happens all over the place here. Anyone who has been listening since they first heard So Jealous in middle school is likely scoffing at that thought, but for me, this is all new stuff. Even the songs that come from a place of unbridled love are undercut by a tinge of regret, and a desire to cover up old wounds: “I won’t treat you like you’re oh-so-typical,” they sing in the chorus of “Closer,” which opens the record. It’s a line that comes off as a sweet nothing if you aren’t paying attention, but from the right mindset, it’s hard to not want to be the person hearing someone telling them that. And that’s just two songs on this record. That’s not even bothering to talk about “I Was A Fool” and its soaring chorus and its twinkling piano line, or the vaguely claustrophobic “Now That I’m Messed Up, which steals a trick or two from the Bright Eyes handbook, which flows into the pounding synths that cool down over the course of the album’s lonely closer, “Shock To Your System,” with its truly heartbreaking refrain: “What you are is lonely.” Time will tell if this album is a classic, but a lot of the time, it feels like it has a fair few of the markers of being one.

It’s a hard thing to pull off a record like this. To make pop music, you have to cover up the worst parts of life, but Tegan & Sara make it seem incredibly simple on Heartthrob, just like my personal heroes of therapy rock. This is an album that makes you want to put on spandex short shorts and dance with someone who probably gave you a fake name, and is definitely wearing some kind of body glitter. It’s an album that is influenced by a desire to escape real life. And, just like real life, even the most resplendent moments let sadness in through the cracks.

It’s an awesome record. Now get off my back already.

 

REVIEW: Johnny Marr – The Messenger

Filed under: Album Reviews — TemporaryLife @ 1:10 am
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Close the door and have a seat. I need to get something off my chest. Can you keep a secret?

I never got into The Smiths as much as I should have. I’ve listened to all of their music, and while I think that Morrissey is a dirtbag a lot of the time, I think he’s one of the most talented musicians we’ve ever had. I think that the combination of Morrissey and Marr is completely unbeatable combination, but I never found the same love for their seminal band that everyone else did. Don’t hate me, okay? I’ve never really tried too hard to hide it, but I never really came out and said it, you know?

Still, whenever either Morrissey or Marr do anything, my ears perk up. While Morrissey immediately started working for himself after the dissolving of The Smiths, Marr became a chameleon, working with everyone from The Cribs to Modest Mouse to Paul McCartney, he’s made no small name for himself working in the background, save for the one thing he ever truly stamped his name on, Johnny Marr + The Healers. But, true to his nature, he decided it was about time to make a solo record, and just not make a very big fuss about it at all. There’s something to be said about those actions, considering Marr borders on a household name, but I, personally, wouldn’t have it any other way.

The biggest issue with The Messenger is that Marr has spent more time in the background than he has in the foreground, and it has basically made it an uphill battle to define himself outside of the music he’s made for other people in the past. You hear it immediately, and it’s hard to truly connect with at times, especially because there are a fair few stylistic shifts, the most notable of which being the album’s title track, with its glam rock leanings and it simplistic lyrics: “Your eyes are open and you’re on / I’m here and I’m ready / My time’s for taking if you want Who wants to be a messenger?” Really, if you came for the lyrics in general, you may be a tad disappointed; while the words are good, they’re definitely nothing to write home about. The harsh reality is, if this album had come out at the top of his post-Smiths career, it would have been hailed as a classic, but it may have come a couple decades too late.

But that’s just the bad news. The good news is that the album is loaded with truly great stuff, too. Go listen to “Generate! Generate!” and tell me that you don’t want to dance in your chair and pump your fist in the air along with the song (spoiler alert: it’s not quite possible, and you probably look as silly as I do). Take the aforementioned shiny little title-track, “The Messenger”, for example: for its simplicity, it packs a wollop as a flat-out wonderful song, and likely one of the best ear-worms I’ve heard in months. It’s easy to miss, but you hear a lot of the influences of his old bands all over the record, and it really works well in a lot of places.

The real question is this: is The Messenger a good record? It is, without question. The problem is that it never stops being good, so that it can start being great. There’s a lot to love about it, and for a lot of people, this is going to be on repeat for months and months. It’s going to take some time for Marr to find his own footing as a solo artist, and when that day comes, he’s going to blow everyone else out of the water. I hate to say it, but at this moment in time, he’s missed the mark.

 

REVIEW: Pissed Jeans – Honeys

Making adult music for adult people can be a difficult thing. I, personally, adore two of the best bands doing it, The National and The Walkmen, and yet I completely understand those who don’t like it. Those two bands (The National especially) are bands for middle-class boredom, in which you have sex with people who you don’t love, drink too much wine, pretend to laugh at the jokes of people you hate, and sleep at night by taking one too many sleeping pills. There’s beauty in that. “With my kid on my shoulder I try / not to hurt anybody I like / But I don’t have the drugs to sort it out,” Matt Berninger sang on “Afraid of Everyone,” on the last National album, High Violet. The sentiment is something that is relatable, but it’s hard to really understand for a lot of people.

Where are the working class anthems for the worst parts of adulthood? My favorite of them is “The Jogger,” a tone poem of sorts off Pissed Jeans’ second LP, Hope For Men. “Promenade / The jogger / Piece of cake / Racquetball / Hiking trip / The jogger / Whole Foods / Matching outfit / Ford Explorer / The jogger.” The moment I heard that song, I knew exactly what he was talking about, and I think, when you read it, you do too. It’s a grimy, filthy, human version of Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier,” behind a wall of Melvins-esque noise. Hope For Men was an album for adults like Jason Bateman’s character in Juno, who’s wife used his old Soundgarden shirt as a grungy shirt to paint in, who’s had to sell out and get a real job to make a go at a “real life.” Pissed Jeans are by no means a success story: four albums and 9 years in, frontman Matt Korvette still works as an insurance claims adjuster, trying to hide his other life from his coworkers, he said in a recent interview. One might take an issue with that fact, but the way I see it, they’re a band that thrives due to its connection to banal minutiae.

Four albums in, Pissed Jeans have done little to change their sound. They have, however, honed their craft in a really interesting way. Where Shallow was a bit of a sloppy, cacophonous mess, the band has steadily refined their messiness, to the point where that clutter is nearly collected into easy-to-navigate piles. Listening to Honeys makes you feel like the last 15 years never happened, and that the grunge movement is alive and screaming, even if it has seen its hairline recede a little bit. Korvette is only 30, but it’s clear that he’s got a firm grip on the issues with growing up and being forced into growing up. Through all the fuzz, it’s hard to pick out everything, but key phrases and themes (such as that of Fight Club style fantasy murder) that present themselves for digestion. There’s a line, about halfway through the album on “Cafeteria Food”, that sums a lot of things up: “Hey there project manager / I saw you eating cafeteria food / I know that seems like like a healthy choice / I argue that isn’t true.” The song itself is a lumbering mass of bass fuzz, and it does nothing but enhance the bile in his words: “You think you’ve got it all figured out, except where to send your kids to school.” There’s a Bukowski lite tone to his anger on the song, and the album in general, where each bitter line is a mix of pity and jealousy, even if it can’t ever decide which it wears better.

Pissed Jeans are a bitter pill to swallow. Even when you enjoy their music and what they’re saying, like the anti-misogynist screed “Male Gaze,” it’s hard to really connect with the music in a meaningful way. You shouldn’t take this as me detracting from the raw power of the band, and how truly awesome Honeys is. They fill a very specific gap that has been missing in music, and even as a sweatervest wearing dad, I click a lot with the visceral imagery and energy of the band’s drunken, angular wailing. You have to come at the band with the right angle, or else you’re just going to view them as a bunch of meatheads wailing on their instruments for no good reason. If you’re willing to let them into your heart, Pissed Jeans are going to fill the same hole that they fill in mine, and you’re going to find yourself trying to figure out just how to tell people about them. If you don’t understand their music – and I’m sure a lot of you will find yourself in that position – I would suggest listening to Slings + Arrows again, and going back to your desk.

 

REVIEW: Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside – Untamed Beast February 22, 2013

Filed under: Album Reviews — TemporaryLife @ 2:46 am
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“Never have I had a rational mind, and never have I been rational inside.” That’s the very first line that Sallie Ford spits out on “They Told Me,” the first track on Untamed Beast, the brand new record by Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside. If Portland, OR had a sound, it would probably be that of Sallie Ford: persistently laser-focused, obsessed with notions of the past, and preternaturally good at using the given space to collect an unseen advantage. This is by no means a bad thing: the first time I heard this band, they were opening for Iron & Wine in the middle of the city, and the band’s sound made the place sound like a dive bar, despite the fact that they were playing their songs in the middle of the city, in a ridiculously mismatched venue (i.e. a massive one), at around 4 in the afternoon. Since then, the band hasn’t changed their sound so much as distilled it, carving away the unnecessary bits in favor of raw, pulsing nerves.

This is a band that plays in an alternate universe where Jack White and his White Stripes never existed, and though I have become slightly jaded about straight-up rock music, it’s hard to not be inspired by this band. Untamed Beast is the kind of stomper that reinvigorates your adoration for a particular style of music, or even for an instrument. It’s a record that may as well have been made in 1959, and indeed, if I were presented with it as an album that were that old, my only question would be about why nobody had told me about it sooner. There are a hundred little things to fall in love with here, be it startlingly reserved and intimate production present on the album’s closer “Roll Around,” or the way Ford punches up the word “Paris” in the chorus of the song of the same name: “You’re like a parasite.” And that’s just two examples off the top of my head. Each song reveals a series of hidden touches after several listens, and it’s hard to not be wrapped up by it. The best moment, however, is the sexy-as-hell bass solo near the end of “Rockability,” which is interrupted by Ford’s crazed barking – believe me, that’s better than it sounds.

Lyrically is where the album takes things to a different level, however. Simplicity is the name of the game here, and it works impressively for Ford: the metaphor in “Addicted” is one of the most effective on the album, which takes the easy route of comparing love to an addiction, but throws us a curveball by solving the problem by throwing you out “like a cigarette butt.” She toes the line between being thoroughly adept at writing love songs, and writing songs about drinking and screwing, all of which are done far too well to be allowed. On “Bad Boys,” when she exclaims all of the things she can do as well as any man, it comes off as raw and truly powerful, rather than clumsy, like it would with most other musicians: “I can fuck, I can drink, I don’t care what you think.” A line like that needs conviction to back it up, or else it’s just going to sound foolish, but I can’t help but find myself smitten in the span of that singular song – and I am not a bad boy. Even the silliest song on the album, “Do Me Right,” works better than it should considering its extended food/sex metaphor. And none of these songs last nearly long enough.

Near the very end of the album, on the aforementioned “Roll Around,” Ford sings something that fits perfectly with the timeless feeling I got when listening to Untamed Beast: “I just wanna live in the fifties / And you could take me on a date.” There’s a yearning for peace and quiet in that song, which is at remarkable odds with the sheer noise produced by the rest of the songs here. It almost feels like, over the course of half an hour, the band sheds every last layer of intensity, and all that’s left is for them to recharge in a place where, perhaps, the music they’ve made fits in a little better. Some bands just weren’t made for these times, and though this might be one of the best bands that fits that description, I can’t help but be incredibly hopeful that they get the admiration they deserve.

 

REVIEW: Atlas Genius – When It Was Now

Filed under: Album Reviews — TemporaryLife @ 12:32 am

July will be the 10th anniversary of the release of the LCD Soundsystem song “Losing My Edge”. This is relevant because there’s a very clear message in that song: as you get older, you’re going to lose sight of how to stay relevant, and how to stay cool. At 22, I barely understand what is cool anymore, just as I barely understand why a lot of celebrities are famous. So, I have a hard time relating to a lot of what the kids listen to these days. In my line of work (i.e. talking about rock bands), this presents a unique problem: how do you talk about bands that you don’t quite understand? The main reason that I bring up “Losing My Edge” is because there’s a strangely prophetic lyric that people love to quote (I know I do whenever I get the chance), because it’s very silly: “I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables / I hear that you and your band have sold your turntables and bought guitars.” Since I became jaded about what is played on the radio, I realized that this was a fundamental problem: nobody can seem to decide which they prefer, so every couple years, the trends shift back and forth. If the not-so-modest success of bands like Passion Pit, and the unstoppable rise of brostep, are any indication, we are currently in a “sold your guitars and bought turntables” period of time.

This is where bands like Atlas Genius come in. Poised firmly in the middle of these two sides, they fill a much needed hole that we call “dance rock.” Where once upon a time it was something like disco, and was terminally uncool, it is now something that sells out medium-to-large sized venues, which are packed with people age 15-25 (plus or minus a few years on each end), who hear these bands and get off on going to those venues, and spending a couple hours getting sweaty and having the time of their lives. The band arrive with a sound that feels more-or-less fully formed, which is a definite plus, even if you end up seeing them like a chess game, where you can already tell exactly what the next 10 moves are going to look like. There’s a joy in Atlas Genius’s debut record, When It Was Now, that you don’t see around much these days, for better or worse. There’s also a sort of heartbreaking sincerity that they exude, even if you can’t tell what they’re being sincere about means anything at all.

One of the main problems with When It Was Now is that, at times, it feels like frontman Keith Jeffrey is singing very sincerely about nothing. This is a common trope in pop music, when you want to sing at the top of your lungs to the music and jump around to the music, but once you start to sink your teeth into the actual content, you find it to be mostly hollow. “On A Day” is a great example of this: the track soars with incredible energy, and comes with a fantastic chorus, but once you start to take it apart, you realize that “It’s a shame to lie in on a day like this” is a head-scratchingly silly refrain for a chorus, because it feels vaguely hollow. Similarly, “Change the locks, change the scene / Change it all but can’t change what we’ve been” sounds like a lyric that you write as a placeholder while you try and work out something a little better, because you realize that people may laugh if you’re a grown adult and write something that one-dimensional.

When It Was Now is a fine record, to be sure. The biggest problem with Atlas Genius has nothing to do with the band themselves, but with the rest of the bands around them: they’re a dime a dozen these days, if you pay attention to what plays on the radio. The prevalence of synthesizers and the use of 80s vibes in modern alt-rock are used ad nauseum, to the point where one might have a problem trying to establish whether or not this band is worth grabbing onto, or if you’re better off just waiting around for the next band that sounds like this one. I enjoy listening to this album, but then again, I enjoyed it the last 10 times I heard an album that sounded like this one.

 

REVIEW: Parenthetical Girls – Privilege (Abridged) February 21, 2013

Filed under: Album Reviews — TemporaryLife @ 2:23 am
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Take pleasure in the simple things you break along the way…

The only time I really remember how long ago Entanglements came out is when I really stop to think about it. It came out just before the start of autumn in 2008, and the album very quickly became a go-to record for me. My new girlfriend labelled the album as “circus music,” based on the flow of album highlight “A Song for Ellie Greenwich,” and even after hearing that music regularly for the last four years, she’s never adjusted to the sounds that Parenthetical Girls make. Entanglements was my companion for the incredibly nasty winter that we saw in 2008, and somehow, I’ve never been able to disconnect the sound of songs like “Windmills of Your Mind” or “Avenue of Trees” from the sensation of watching snow drift down from the sky in the middle of the afternoon. That album influenced my thinking to the point that I actually quoted “Four Words” at a funeral during this period: “Bless we with breath, lest we forget.” I don’t ever know if that line means what I thought it meant, but hasn’t stopped me from adoring it.

It’s not quite accurate to say that it has taken over four years to get a new record from Parenthetical Girls. In that four years, they undertook the weighty task of releasing Privilege, a series of five EPs, meant to have come out once each quarter starting in ’10. That project finally finished this past September. Having thought that the process would take a little over a year, I abstained from listening to any of the EPs, so that I could listen to it as one cohesive piece once it was completed. So, really, because of my hopefulness, my wait for a new Parenthetical Girls album was almost exactly four years. Was that wait worth it? Absolutely.

One of the things to really take note of is that the songs of Privilege (Abridged) were recorded over the course of four years, and trickled out slowly. I realize that I’ve just discussed this, but it changes the dynamic of a lot of things here, when you realize that the first track, “Evelyn McHale,” was made a year before “Careful Who You Dance With,” which comes just two tracks later, and over two years before “Curtains,” which finishes the record forty minutes later. Parenthetical Girls feel like they’ve undergone a metamorphosis over the course of this record, and when you narrow things down to the timeline, it’s no wonder why. But what is truly a wonder about that timeline is that Zac Pennington’s songwriting abilities never falter, and each song is just as powerful as the last. The complete Privilege is an hour-and-a-half odyssey, in which each track fits in just right, but even when listening to the condensed version you can’t help but feel like this exact album was always the plan.

It’s impossible to ignore Pennington’s flair for the over-the-top. Indeed, this has always been one of the band’s best assets; it’s hard to not to find a lot of charm in lines like “She’s thick as shit, and pregnant with the myth of a noble proletariat” (“Sympathy For Spastics,” far and away the most flat-out beautiful song in the bunch), or “She was always this heartsick autistic kid” (“The Privilege”), and the worlds these lines inhabit are hard to not want to investigate further. That aforementioned flair makes him one of the most adept world-builders in baroque pop music, where people still use phrases like “noble proletariat,” but also have to worry about getting their heads kicked in because they danced with the wrong person. The stories here feel timeless in a lot of ways, where all of the players are, more or less, always doing exactly what they need to do to stay alive – no matter how dubious it might be.

Even after getting acquainted with the bigger picture, it’s hard to not want more from these songs and characters. This is not to say that anything here is lacking in any way; far from it. It’s a mark of the abilities of the players that I wish each song were at least twice as long (or more, in the case of the aforementioned “Sympathy for Spastics,” which clocks in at a criminal two-and-a-half minutes), because I want to hear more about these people. Even the music behind these songs feels like another set of characters entirely: one can’t help but marvel at the stomping drum beats of “The Pornographer,” with drummer/octopus Paul Alcott tightening the tension with every beat, to the point where it can be almost disorienting. The keyboard work of Amber Smith works as the perfect counterpoint to Alcott’s cacophony, sounding persistently behind the times in all the best ways (and it’s always wonderful when she shows up to sing backup – most notably during “The Common Touch” and “Curtains”).

While listening to the complete Privilege, I came across an interview with Zac Pennington, in which he was asked what made him decide to make a series of EPs in the first place. He answered that – and I’m paraphrasing here, because I can’t find the exact interview – he’d heard that the best way to unblock yourself was to do a series of some sort. That series may have taken longer than originally planned, but it can’t be said that we don’t have anything to show for all of the waiting. It’s entirely possible that Parenthetical Girls may never make a statement as grand as the one they made with Privilege, but I really don’t think they need to. This album is perfect – really, all they need to do from this point on is just make records as best as they can.

 

 
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