It’s been a plan for roughly six years now, but I’ve never quite got round to compiling a list of my favourite albums from the previous twelve months. That, and this year more than most reminded me of just how much I am confounded by shows like The X Factor. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I prefer my music to sound like it grew up in underground cafés and the grimy backstreets of suburbia, rather than national television.
It’s also been a big year for music. We’ve lost a few stars – 2011 was only a few days old when we learnt of the sad death of Paisley’s Gerry Rafferty. Blues guitarist Gary Moore passed away in February, and towards the end of the year was the tragic yet avoidable death of Amy Winehouse.
On that note, my favourite song from the late Rafferty. Simple, but timelessly wonderful.
So, onto my list of standout albums from the past year, in no particular order. I’m loathe to call it my ‘best’ albums of 2011, for the simple reason that it’s just my opinion – and I would love to hear feedback on what you think (but do please keep insults to a minimum).
1. We Were Promised Jetpacks – In the Pit of the Stomach
We Were Promised Jetpacks owe a lot to Frightened Rabbit. Not only did the Selkirk five-piece invite them on tour with them a few years back, but the band also recommended Jetpacks to their label. The rest, as they say, is history, with Jetpacks having had a couple of high-profile support slots in America, and general widespread acclaim as one of the saviours of Scottish indie rock, (Hey, anyone remember Travis?).
It might be controversial, but I reckon In the Pit of the Stomach is a far better record than These Four Walls, the band’s debut album. Hurdling that ‘difficult second album’ tag with ease, the sound is a lot ballsier, and almost unsettlingly sinister in places. The songs still sound melancholy and dark, even if the subject matter isn’t, but there’s an overall confidence and something of a swagger to tunes like Human Error and the album’s first single Medicine.
(courtesy of FatCat records)
Rockier than Frightened Rabbit, and less bonkers than the excellent Sons and Daughters, Jetpacks might just be the heirs to Idlewild’s noisy indie crown. Excellent stuff.
2. Austra – Feel It Break
It was a bit of a struggle knowing where to start with Austra, a Canadian electronica band. I first became aware of them thanks to the video for their first single, Lose It, taken off their debut album Feel It Break. Having never taken LSD, I can’t accurately describe the effects but I can’t imagine they’d be vastly different to the trippy, ethereal video accompanying Lose It. In terms of what they sound like, think Depeche Mode fronted by Florence Welch, of Florence and the Machine. Or listen to their single Lose It:
(courtesy of Domino Records)
Not much else to say about this really, and it’s worth pointing out that it was only after a lot of deliberation that this album made it into my top ten. It was a very close-run thing. Lovely stuff though, if you’re a fan of squelchy electronica.
3. Bwani Junction – Fully Cocked
I owe a big thanks to the guys at radar.scotsman.com, for bringing Bwani Junction to my attention. You might have come across the Edinburgh band’s song Two Bridges, the video for which sees the band repainting the Forth Rail Bridge blue, much to the chagrin of their boss. There are recognisable global influences in the bands’ playing, with offbeat rhythms aplenty and Caribbean-esque beats, something the band is quite proud of – and it does make them stand out. But, I can’t imagine doing anything with this album – quintessentially Scottish in so many ways – than sticking it on loud, and having a few beers and a few friends over, and dancing like there’s no tomorrow. However, I’ll let you make your minds up. Here’s the incredible, uplifting Two Bridges, from the second Scottish band in my list (and we’re only on number three!)
(courtesy of Bwani Junction’s YouTube)
4. Tycho – Dive
This album, courtesy of San Franciscan-based producer Scott Hansen (a.k.a. Tycho) is the perfect companion to a comedown; the soft soundtrack to sobriety. Fans of the wonderful Télépopmusik might like this album, as there are a few similarities between Tycho and the French electro trio. Full of echoey soundscapes, Dive provides a subtle background to, well, just about anything. It might be a strange choice for one of my standout albums of the past twelve months, but to me, it is perfect. Light and airy, and somewhat refreshing. Here is my personal favourite from the album (although picking just one was hard enough):
5. The Jezabels – Prisoner
I came across this band by way of Danny McAskill’s ‘Way Back Home’ video, which showed him on a journey from Edinburgh back to his hometown of Dunvegan on the isle of Skye, as their song A Little Piece was used as part of the soundtrack. The lovely thing about this album is that it manages to combine familiarity with originality – the Sydney four-piece grab you with a blend of indie, rock and disco pop that you swear you’ve heard before. The standout track is without a doubt the fantastic Trycolour (see what they did there?), a Pretenders-esque, hazy four minutes of dark and brooding indie pop, showcasing the heavenly vocals of Hayley Mary. A wonderful album that I’d urge you to investigate.
(courtesy of TheJezabelsVideos)
6. United Fruit – Faultlines
More Scottish rock, I hear you ask? The Glasgow-based United Fruit have made a big impression this year, being named one of the runners-up in the Scotsman Radar prize and generally turning heads with their raw energy. Euan Robertson described their Scotsman Radar prize entry Go Away, Don’t Leave Me Alone as ‘refreshing, acerbic, visceral and cathartic’ and ‘everything music should be.’ Spot on. A noisy slice of inyerface rock, redolent in parts of Amusement Parks on Fire. They’re playing the Electric Circus in Edinburgh on January 26th next year – I’d highly recommend it. Meanwhile, to convince you, here’s the video for Go Away, Don’t Leave Me Alone, by director Nick Aiton. Points if you spotted the Forth Road Bridge’s second appearance in a music video in this list.
7. Dark Captain – Dead Legs and Alibis
Hailing from East London, the formerly-monikered Dark Captain Light Captain have slimmed down the name but not the tunes. Made up of ten acoustic-led masterpieces incorporating brass and strings, Dead Legs… is a superb exercise in woozy folk-pop. Imagine Elliott Smith, with a backing band. The same fragile vocals and intricate guitars. Summery in parts, cosy-by-the-fire in others, this is just a bloody good folk record. I’ve picked the second track, Submarines, as my standout. A bit Crowded House, a bit sinister, all good.
(courtesy of the band’s SoundCloud)
8. Conquering Animal Sound – Kammerspiel
Conquering Animal Sound might well be Glasgow’s worst-kept secret (and the fourth and final Scottish entry on my list). The duo, made up of Anneke Campman and James Scott create songs that sound like they belong in a musicbox. It’s rare that I describe a record as relaxing or peaceful, but Kammerspiel is exactly that – minimalist fragility, clinging to you like an early morning mist. Bizarre clichés aside, this is one hell of a beautiful record, and here is the lovely plinky-plonk of Flinch.
9. The Cinema – My Blood is Full of Airplanes
Don’t be put off by the name, as this isn’t another ’emo’ band singing about love, blood and death. The Cinema are a duo, who create the sort of music Maroon 5 would make if they weren’t pandering to a largely teenaged female audience. The band comprises Leighton Antelman, formerly of indie rockers Lydia, and Matt Malpass, Lydia’s producer. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact description for The Cinema’s music – certainly a departure from Lydia, but still recognisably indie. My standout track, The Wolf, contains my favourite lyric on the whole album – “You’re speaking all the right words, with all the bright words” – and is an absolute cracker of a tune.
10. Teddy Thompson – Bella
And last, but by no means least, the fourth album from the son of Richard and Linda Thompson. Bella is a bit of a departure from Thompson’s previous records – it’s not as easy, and requires a few listens to get into, but it’s worth it. Listening to the album all the way through, there are traces of Rufus Wainwright’s influence, but the songs are more personal than previous records. The touching Home is a tribute to his mother Linda, whilst his country roots are clearer than ever throughout. In the singer’s own words: ‘I was always attracted to songs that had a brilliant pun or a clever turn of phrase, but came from a dark, bitter place.‘ Thompson’s opening gambit in The One I Can’t Have is a perfect indication of his tongue in cheek, but dark humour: I was born with a love disease/it’s known as chronic hard to please/I want the one I can’t have.
That being said, here’s The One I Can’t Have; a classic Thompson track, and the pick of the bunch for me:
And there we have it; my top albums of the past twelve months. By happy coincidence, four of them are Scottish – and three from upcoming bands who are sure to become household names by this time next year.
But what about the “almosts?” The albums that nearly made it, or didn’t quite cut the mustard…….
Sons and Daughters; Mirror Mirror – Don’t get me wrong, this band – and this album – are excellent, but there was something missing with Mirror Mirror. It didn’t have the recklessness that came with This Gift, nor did it have the Glaswegian swagger of The Repulsion Box. But it was so very close, and nearly edged out Austra in my final list.
Bright Eyes; The People’s Key – I’ve heard Conor Oberst is a bit unpleasant as a person, but there’s no denying the fact that he makes some of the best modern folk around, under the guise of Bright Eyes. I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning was without doubt one of the albums of 2005 (has it really been that long?!) but The People’s Key was hugely disappointing. Overstated in some parts, and overtly cynical in others, as if Oberst was trying too hard to be Oberst.
Kassidy; Hope St – I saw Kassidy live on New Year’s Day this year, supporting KT Tunstall in a bitterly cold Princes Street Gardens. Although coming across as nervous (or maybe it was just the weather), it was clear the band had some fantastic tunes. Songs like Stray Cat, Oh My God and The Lost showed that the band knew their way around a tune, and I had high hopes for them. When Hope St was released though, I was a bit underwhelmed. Perhaps because I’d heard a lot of the songs on their EPs, or perhaps because there are a lot of filler tracks on the album, I’m not sure which. I’m hopeful that the band’s follow-up effort will change my mind, but sadly Hope St was a bit of a letdown for me.
The Scottish Youth Parliament is living proof that, contrary to popular belief, not all young Scots are apathetic when it comes to public affairs. Here, its outgoing discusses what gets his political juices going.
What inspired you to get involved in youth politics?
I was involved with school councils and regional youth forums when I was younger, and it’s been a progression from there. I was a supporter of the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill of 2008 because I had worked with people with severe disabilities and knew the kind of difference that scientific developments could make to them.
What would be a typical day for you, as chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament?
It is a voluntary role, so I combine it with my studies. I do a lot of Youth Parliament work during the week, so on a typical day I come into the offices to meet the staff and perhaps discuss a campaign we want to run from our manifesto. I also write articles for newspapers and do keynote speeches at AGMs to raise the profile of the Youth Parliament. It’s useful for other organisations to have a younger perspective on some of the issues they deal with.
You’ve just stepped down as chair. How have you spent your last weeks in office?
Our biggest piece of work has been the manifesto. We consulted more than 42,000 young people – one of the biggest consultations in Scottish history. We’ve been working up to our main campaign, which will be chosen from five options: marriage equality for same sex couples, banning “Mosquito” devices, no nuclear weapons, a national guarantee of work experience and fairer public transport prices. We’ll develop a strategy for that.
What stands out as your greatest achievement, both individually and for the Youth Parliament as a whole?
Individually – meeting the Pope and the Queen. I introduced them to many of the representatives of the other youth groups I’m involved in and briefed them on their work during the Pope’s visit to Scotland. From the Youth Parliament’s perspective, we now sit on more cross-party groups than before, we have more media coverage and a greater impact on Parliament and local politicians.
There’s a lot of apathy among young people in Scotland regarding politics. How have you tried to tackle this?
There’s a disenchantment with politics. It seems self-serving to those who are removed from it. Politics is about local and national issues and what we’ve tried to do in the Youth Parliament is capitalise on the interests that young people already have. We try to make the link between these issues and Parliament; by campaigning on behalf of Scotland’s young people and showing them that we can make a difference.
What can schools do to try and encourage young people to get involved with politics?
They should allow students and young people to have a greater voice in their own education process – something Curriculum for Excellence wants to achieve. They could maybe allow them a greater say in their courses and how they are offered. I know schools are having a hard time making sure they have the same number of courses as before, particularly Advanced Highers. One of our campaigns is to have a pupil representative on every local education authority as an expert observer.
What can the Scottish Government do to help young people?
The biggest issue currently is youth unemployment. One in five young people is unemployed. There needs to be more focus on apprenticeships, guaranteed job places and funded college courses, and on making sure university tuition fees aren’t introduced in Scotland. Traditionally, for young people who didn’t have academic qualifications, there was always the opportunity of apprenticeships or practical college courses, but we’re seeing cuts in further education and in funded employment opportunities.
The Youth Parliament is non-party-political. Does this help increase diversity and make it more accessible to young people?
Exactly. It’s to encourage young people who aren’t interested in the formal process of politics, but care about issues and want to have a say. We also take MSYPs (Member of the Scottish Youth Parliament) from voluntary organisations that provide a voice for them and represent the organisation’s specific needs and aims. The Youth Parliament is more diverse than the Scottish Parliament; there are more women – in fact, it’s near to a 50/50 split, and ethnic minorities are very well represented, as are LGBT young people. They’re statistics we’re very proud of.
Who’s your political hero and why?
I admire people like Jimmy Reid. There was that famous quote when he pointed to a block of council flats and said that in them was a future prime minister, a famous ballet dancer and a footballer, but none of them would ever recognise their potential because of where they came from. That’s the type of politics I’d like to be involved with – realising potential, and helping young people to succeed, regardless of their background.
You were recently crowned Top Politician of the Future in the Scottish Sun’s Scottish Variety Awards. Can you see yourself with a future in politics?
I would like to go into politics to represent people. Eventually I’d like to stand for my home constituency – Livingston – but local politics is something I wouldn’t exclude either. For now, though, I’ll focus on studying towards my degree.
Born: Edinburgh, 1991
Education: Deans Community High, Livingston; second-year law student at Edinburgh University
Career: Outgoing chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament; co-convener of Children and Young People Cross-Party group; board member of YoungScot and YouthLink Scotland.
- This interview originally appeared in the Times Educational Supplement Scotland, on June 17th 2011
Robin Harper spent almost 12 years as an MSP, making history in 1999 as the first Green Party parliamentarian in the UK. After 37 years in politics, he stepped down in May of this year at the recent Scottish election. In January, I went to Holyrood to meet him.
ROBIN HARPER meets me in the entrance hall of the Scottish Parliament, and I’m slightly disappointed to see that he appears to have used the stairs, and not just stepped out of the Tardis in a cloud of smoke. The list MSP for Lothians is easily recognisable, and well-known for his rainbow-coloured scarf and fedora hat, which give him the appearance of a rather benevolent Doctor Who. Harper flirted with politics briefly while at Aberdeen University; he joined and became the secretary of the Liberal Club and “toyed with left-wing politics”. As a teacher, he took his first steps towards political involvement in 1975 by helping to make a short film for the BBC entitled ‘Futureshock,’ which looked at the world’s diminishing energy supplies.
However, it was the 1985 sinking of the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior, which prompted Robin to get more involved in environmental politics. As he told me: “I joined the Scottish Ecology Party, Greenpeace and WWF on the same day.” To this day, Harper is still heavily involved with a number of non-governmental organisations alongside his work with the Green Party, and jokes that he is looking forward to his retirement so he can “cut down from fifty things on the go at once to five”.
But there’s more to Robin Harper than a penchant for multicoloured neckwear and big hats.
As we walk through the controversial, Miralles-designed parliament building, Robin and I chat about his morning. Despite the approaching end of his time in parliament, he is still heavily involved with environmental projects, and has just returned from Heriot-Watt University where he opened two new research centres. The Scottish Institute for Solar Energy Research (SISER) is intended to enhance solar energy research and development and CAESAR – the Centre for Advanced Energy Storage and Recovery – focuses on renewable energy.
Since he first walked through the doors of the parliament as an MSP, events such as the one at Heriot-Watt have been very much the norm for Robin. In his first eighteen months in office, he tells me he visited fifty-one schools or other educational institutions, forty-one environmental groups, forty social enterprises and campaign groups, twenty-two business organisations and eleven other businesses. In addition, he made seventy keynote speeches.
Robin reels this off like a poem he’s memorised, but he’s not exaggerating his achievements. Speaking almost matter-of-factly, he tells me that winning the Lothians seat in 1999 came on the back of “fourteen years of hard work,” which involved travelling the length and breadth of the country raising support for the Green Party. Nowadays of course, he does this less frequently, but the hard work is still evident.
Love of the job
When I ask him if anything from the past decade or so has been particularly memorable or enjoyable, he laughs and fondly recalls a trip to a village south-east of Thurso called Watten, where he opened a sewage treatment plant. Thurso-born himself, Robin appreciates the irony of it being the only structure in Scotland bearing his name, and calls it “something of a high spot”.
In terms of his day-to-day work as an MSP, he tells me that, before he lost the discipline, he used to try and write down three things a day that were enjoyable, and usually managed five or six. His enjoyment of the job is almost tangible, especially when he speaks about the Green Party’s election successes; not just the victory in 1999, but also the victories in the last election, in which the Party, though losing five MSPs, made their first gains in local politics. Although he describes the loss of the parliamentarians as “a punch in the stomach,” Robin points out that having eight councillors elected – five in Glasgow and three in Edinburgh – was a major success and filled the “gap in local politics”. In a day and age where most young people regard politics and politicians with suspicion or apathy, Robin provides an approachable, vaguely eccentric and endearing alternative.
Politics and education
And it’s perhaps his time as a teacher that has allowed Robin to bridge the gap between youth and politics. Shortly after his victory in the 1999 election, Robin left his teaching post at Boroughmuir High School in Edinburgh, where he had been teaching since 1972. As he reminds me, he had spent three years in this teaching post before getting involved with environmental politics, and I get the impression that he felt the pupils benefited from his politically neutral stance.
Given the recent introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence model for Scotland’s schools, I ask Robin what his take on it is. With education still clearly close to his heart, and with plans to increase his work with young people through art, music and drama once he has stepped down from his parliamentary position, he tells me that the Curriculum for Excellence more or less covers everything he’d been campaigning for as a teacher for many years, and mentions the importance of children enjoying their school experience.
He informs me that in 2002, research had shown that 25% of school leavers had had a negative experience at school, and that personally, he felt the concentration on exams, drills and working to targets, combined with the system as a whole being set around the demands of university entrance, was largely negative. He believed colleges were being left behind and there was no provision for those leaving school who did not intend going on to higher education. As I expected, he mentions the role that the creative arts play in the Curriculum for Excellence, and his hopes that the two-tier system, separating those going onto university and those who don’t, will be minimised in the coming years.
What lies ahead
Going back to politics, I ask Robin how much of a role he will play within the party after stepping down, and where he sees the Greens going from here. He speaks very highly of Patrick Harvie, the second Green MSP touted as Robin’s replacement as convener of the party, and tells me that he’s already been cajoled into helping to write the manifesto for the upcoming election. Although he mentions no specific goals for the Greens, he believes that they can continue to progress over the next few years.
With my time running out, I can’t resist asking Robin about that iconic scarf and its impact on his time as a politician. He tells me proudly that he bought it in the 1970s and that despite fellow party members asking him pre-election time if he wouldn’t mind minimizing its appearances as they sought to dispel the ‘open-toed sandals and vegetarian’ image of the Green Party, it has become something of a colourful symbol of the Green Party, rather like Robin himself. Although his time in the Scottish parliament is over, I can’t help but feel that this man, who has done so much to advance Green politics in Scotland as a parliamentarian, hasn’t nearly finished yet. Watch his space!
Flicking through the glossy magazines that accompany the Sunday newspapers, I’m struck, not so much by the number of pages devoted to the upcoming season’s fashion offerings from the likes of Vivienne Westwood or Roberto Cavalli, but the almost Utopian sense of perfection emanating from the models. The near-blissful serenity combined with the high cheekbones and the doe eyes have become a regular feature, not only in tabloid newspapers and supplementary magazines, but also in the broadsheets.
In a country where the average woman is wearing a size 14-16, the increasing appearances of Twiggy-esque models is worrying. It’s not uncommon to hear girls as young as fourteen worrying about their weight and watching what they eat. The gradual shift in what is perceived to be a good body shape, and a healthy weight has affected more than just image-conscious celebrities. Countless gossip magazines and women’s periodicals carry at least one weight-related story per issue, and several more image-based articles and it’s not uncommon to open up the centre pages of a newspaper and see a feature on weight-loss.
The paranoia about self-image is especially relevant given the recent introduction of a government-backed register for providers of cosmetic treatments. As more and more celebrities admit to using botox, such as Amanda Holden, more and more ordinary members of the public risk permanent damage by seeking to emulate their idols on the cheap. Some of the more common risks include allergic reactions and infections, along with chances of aesthetic faults such as asymmetry, lumps and nodules.
Self-image has always been something that has for the most part, affected females more than males. The repeated battles between aghast mothers and shops selling playboy branded accessories targeting younger girls are perhaps a perfect example of how marketing products has a tendency to abandon ethics for the sake of sales. Young girls read about and see photos of public figures such as Paris Hilton and Cheryl Cole toting Playboy branded accessories and instantly want to ape them. And why not? They’ve already got the hair extensions and the imitation handbags, to say nothing of the make-up.
This phenomenon isn’t even a recent, 21st century occurrence. A little over ten years ago, Britney Spears was being criticized for her portrayal of a Catholic schoolgirl, complete with raunchy uniform for the video of her single Baby One More Time. Going even further back in history, other musicians have courted controversy with questionable music videos. Additionally, the natural desire to rebel has been ever-present within the youth culture, and with the emergence of digital media, not only are impressionable youngsters more easily reached by questionable practices such as fad diets and vitamin pills, but the content itself is far easier to access.
So will young girls continue to grow old before their time? Will more women start accepting their body shape and resist copying their favourite celebrities? Will the botox culture be clamped down on? It’s nearly impossible to say; certainly we aren’t living in the Middle Ages, and tweenagers will continue to thrive on what the media encourages and what their parents are shocked by – but if there is an underlying concern here, it must surely be the inevitable risks that more and more young girls and young women will be taking in order to look like their heroes. In a perfect world their heroes could do more to encourage a healthier attitude and approach to self-image as opposed to a life endorsing crash dieting and aesthetic treatments – that, however, would appear to be a task equivalent to nailing jelly to a ceiling.
As something of a tech geek in denial, I tend to be rather furtive about what applications I download for my iPhone and why. Maybe it’s the scathing looks I’ve seen other iPhone users receive in public, or the fact that I feel like a child on Christmas Day when I find an amusing but totally unproductive app. That said, during the recent UK election, I managed to find a number of election-based apps, which was helpful for keeping up to date with what was happening on a more immediate basis, rather than relying on TV or the newspapers.
It’s strange to think that my first mobile phone weighed about the same as a bottle of water and had about as much functionality, and the most exciting thing about it was a game called ‘Snake,’ in which you directed a snake around the screen, making it eat pixels of food which increased the length of the snake and thus the difficulty of manoeuvring the snake round the relatively small screen. Younger readers may struggle with the concept of a ‘phone that didn’t take photos, play music or make ice cream in its spare time. To be honest, it’s a market that I’ve not really paid much attention to. I’ve never needed the latest models and I’ve never been entirely sure what makes a newer model better than my ‘old faithful’ ‘phone.
As such, it took me a bit of time to appreciate the possibilities with my iPhone. I was excited at the prospect of using my ‘phone to check train times, track a relative’s flight and keep up to date with world news. Having had it for a couple of years now, it’s become less of a futuristic toy and more of a necessity. And by necessity I don’t mean I’d be lost without it, but being able to check emails on it, keep in touch with friends and family among a whole host of other functions means that it’s become a rather valuable tool. It’s not all work though; I like to download my fair share of ‘fun’ apps, and games. The other night, I downloaded an app called ‘iHobo.’ A lot of apps are created by attaching Apple’s iconic capital ‘I’ to a recognised word, and as such, they tend to become a blur after a while, but this particular app caught my eye. Billed as something similar to a virtual pet, iHobo was created in part by DePaul UK, the largest youth homeless charity in the UK. The idea of the app is to open the public’s eyes to the plight of many young homeless people living on the streets. In much the same way as I would deal with a virtual pet, for three days I am to ‘take care’ of the virtual homeless person in real time, providing support, warmth, money and food and responding to him when he needs me. Sometimes he’ll tap on the screen, expecting me to tap back so he knows I’m there for him. Other times he’ll want food or some money for a hot drink, or a sleeping bag come nightfall. The longer I take to respond, the likelier it is that his condition will deteriorate, and he’ll be far more likely to turn to drugs.
The name perhaps suggests a light-hearted game of some sort. The reality is that iHobo is intentionally hard-hitting and borderline disturbing. There are over 75,000 young people made homeless in the UK every year, but we’re all guilty of ignoring them, or looking the other way when we walk past, but having to care for one, even in a virtual environment, can educate all of us of their plight.
In a day and age where we are more likely to collect money and aid for third world countries, perhaps iHobo is just what we need to open our eyes to charity cases closer to home as well.
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