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Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 5 [Blu-ray]
Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 5 [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Patrick Stewart
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5.0 out of 5 stars The Perfect Trek/TV Comfort Food, January 20, 2015
This has always been my favorite TNG season, and one of my favorite single seasons of any show, ever. I've seen a few specific episodes in recent years, but overall it's been probably at least 15 years since I saw most of these episodes last. I was hopeful that most of the season would hold up reasonably well, and I am thrilled to say that my hope was met and exceeded. Of the 26 episodes, I awarded ten 4-star ratings and another six 5-star ratings: "Darmok", "Unification I", "The Outcast", "Cause and Effect", "I Borg", and "The Inner Light".

Conceptually, "Darmok" is the most brilliant of the season, perhaps of the whole franchise, and has always been my favorite episode of TNG. "Cause and Effect" - GROUNDHOG DAY before there was GROUNDHOG DAY - is also clever in concept, and deftly executed.

"Unification I" is both exciting (the mystery of why Spock has gone to Romulus) and moving (Picard's discussion with Sarek); so much so that its conclusion doesn't fully live up to its promise, despite the second half being the part that actually features Leonard Nimoy as Spock. I own the standalone Blu-ray release that presents both halves as a single feature, which I watched and reviewed last year:

"The Outcast" is a controversial episode; it's the LGBT allegory story in which Riker strikes up an unexpected romance with a member of an androgynous race, who is caught, exposed, put on trial, and sentenced to conversion therapy. I will readily concede that, 24 years later, it is both heavy-handed and clumsy in parts. But Melinda Culea played the role of Soren so tenderly that it broke my heart, reminding me of one of my dearest friends and the hardships she has endured. And Soren's trial soliloquy may be as subtle as Foghorn Leghorn's metaphorical bowling ball, but there's not a word in it that I would change, and I silently cheered during its delivery.

"I Borg" is one of the few episodes I had seen in recent memory, and yet despite its relative freshness, I think I was even more riveted this time than ever before for some reason. One of my favorite films has long been 12 ANGRY MEN, and it was only this time through that I realized there's a certain parallel between this episode and that brilliant film/play, with Geordi, Guinan, and ultimately Captain Picard himself being forced to accept the reality of Hugh over their own prejudiced assumptions.

As for "The Inner Light", I confess it's always been one of those episodes that I know is held in high esteem but I didn't fully connect with...until now. Maybe I was just too young and inexperienced before? Whatever the reason, I'm now firmly in the camp of its devotees.

I only designated one episode with a substandard, two-star rating: "Ethics". In this one, Lt. Worf is paralyzed and wants to commit assisted, ritual suicide but winds up with a miraculous experimental artificial replacement spine instead. I realize that endorsing assisted suicide is a troubling position for many to take - I support it, and even I'm uncomfortable with several areas of its application, including patients like me with mental health concerns.

But the subject matter deserves better than "Ethics"'s tidy, sidestepping resolution, which makes the episode little more than a contrivance for lectures from Dr. Crusher and Commander Riker. Demanding that people live in conditions they detest because the idea of them ending their own lives makes you squeamish is at least as selfish as making that choice - which is not an easy one to make. The show may have meant well, but even when it originally aired I found it reductive and preachy, and my experiences since have made me even more incompatible with it.

I do applaud Marina Sirtis's tender performance as Counselor Troi in the episode, though. Michael Dorn does what he can with Worf, but that role is written so one-dimensional that there isn't much for him to do except shout and grumble.

In fact, I would say that it was Sirtis as Troi who stood out most to me throughout the season. I know the general consensus holds that she was a rather superfluous character, but I've come to value compassion a lot more than I did in my impatient youth when the show was new. Just her presence in certain scenes, asking if someone wants to talk may seem like a trivial, even wasteful thing but I can't think of anyone else on TV like her today, and in my estimation we're all poorer for that. Plus, Troi does get to be involved with several stories beyond cautioning Picard that someone is withholding information.

I'm thrilled that I was able to buy this season on Blu-ray Disc when Amazon ran it on sale in November, 2014. I own the first four seasons on DVD and simply hadn't gotten around to buying The Complete Fifth Season DVD set when the Blu-ray Disc releases were announced, and I'm glad I held off. For one thing, these episodes look every bit as fantastic as I'd read!

But other than that, I'm a bonus feature enthusiast, and this set ported over all of its DVD counterpart's content, as well as adding four episodic commentary tracks, a gag reel, a 74-minute round table discussion with the series's three key composers, and a two-part, hour long retrospective. Of these, the highlights for me are the "Cause and Effect" commentary with writer Brannon Braga and Seth MacFarlane, whose unadulterated enthusiasm for the show I found surprisingly delightful, and the aforementioned discussion by composers Jay Chattaway, Ron Jones, and Dennis McCarthy, led by Jeff Bond. Composers and music usually get short shrift in DVD/Blu-ray features, making this a rare, fascinating piece.

When I averaged out the episode star ratings I assigned, I wound up with a lowly 3.86 rating for the season, which is proof to me that sometimes things are greater than the sum of their parts. I watched this Blu-ray set throughout a particularly rough week for me that began with one friend hospitalized and ended with the funeral for another's stepfather. I cannot emphasize enough how important the simple "comfort food" aspect of this season's episodes was for me.

The James Bond Theme [Digital Version]
The James Bond Theme [Digital Version]
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3.0 out of 5 stars Too Much Re-Version?, December 29, 2014
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I quite enjoyed the 3:12 "James Bond Theme [Moby's Re-Version]" that concludes the TOMORROW NEVER DIES soundtrack album, but I confess I'm just not the right audience for these four mixes. These versions are less 007 and more Moby. I found myself spacing out on my first listen through, and that's not a reaction I tend to associate with Bond or Bond music. There's nothing I can point to as being particularly bothersome or problematic, other than a certain monotony created by the dominant, repetitious beats.

Man Against Machine (Limited Black Edition)
Man Against Machine (Limited Black Edition)
Price: $11.88
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39 of 47 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Solid Album Buried Under Clumsy, Impatient Engineering, November 10, 2014
I don't know about the regular edition - I bought the Limited Black Edition - but I really dig the paper stock they used for the booklet. It's got a nice, smooth feeling to it. A little thing, sure, but for us optical disc buyers, things like booklets matter in their own way.

My first sense going through it is that I really and truly dislike contemporary engineering aesthetics. It doesn't feel like any of these songs actually breathe. The title song benefits from this sound, but it clumsily steps over the nuances of most of the rest of the album. "Wrong About You" feels too frenetic and heavy for a song as breezy as it's supposed to be. Likewise, "Fish" is too muscular for song of its ilk. "Rodeo and Juliet" fares better, with the prominent fiddle and steel, but the bass is still too heavy. Last year's BLAME IT ALL ON MY ROOTS: FIVE DECADES OF INFLUENCES box set was the first post-Allen Reynolds release from Garth, but because those 44 songs were all covers, it wasn't a particularly useful example of what we can expect from producer Mark Miller. Throughout my first play of the album, I kept finding myself wanting to tell Miller and his engineers that the music should not get in the way of the song. Reynolds understood that, which is one key reason that Garth's periodic bombastic indulgences rarely went too far.

As far as content, this album feels like it was written and recorded for a friend of mine. A lot of these songs could easily have been written from conversations I've had with her throughout this year, particularly the one-two punch of "She's Tired of Boys" and "Cold Like That". "Mom" and "Send 'Em on Down the Road" are certain to make her bawl. Her two sons are still very young so I don't know which of the two will hit her harder - recalling their arrivals or anticipating their maturing.

I was, I hate to say it, entirely unimpressed by Friday's live solo acoustic performance of "Mom" on "Good Morning America". I heard very little actual melody in that performance and it reminded me of those amateur guitar playing poets who like to show up at coffee shops and perform something they've poured their heart and soul into that bores me. The late Roger Ebert made the point that a film isn't good or bad because of what it's about, but rather how it is about what it's about. That is to say, I was okay with the ideas behind "Mom" but could not wait for that performance to end. The studio version here benefits greatly from the instrumentation - and Garth's vocals are more disciplined here than on Friday morning. I'm still not in love with it the way he and a lot of others are, but there's potential for it to grow on me, I suppose. Between the two, I easily favor "Send 'Em on Down the Road". The high concept of a fetus talking to God don't speak to me, but a parent's wistful reflection on their children's vulnerabilities does. It's got a softer touch than "Mom", and it's one of the strongest songs in this collection.

It's going to take me awhile to get past the engineering and find my way to connecting with these songs, but on my first play through, I don't have an instant favorite and didn't fall in love with anything the way I have with all his other albums. Even Scarecrow, which disappointed me overall, featured "Beer Run (B Double E Double Are You In?)", "Wrapped Up in You", and "Rodeo or Mexico". I love "Beer Run" and really like the other two. "Man Against Machine" and "Send 'Em on Down the Line" are the two that engaged me the most, but I'd be lying if I said that either won me over the way I hoped they would.

What I definitely see throughout MAN AGAINST MACHINE, though, is precisely what I've suspected for awhile now: Garth is now in a sort of Springsteen phase of his career, not even worrying about how receptive radio may be to his singles and instead just focusing on making the album he wants to make. There could be hit singles here, but I don't believe they'll chart well on country radio nearly as much as they would find an audience on an adult contemporary station (if such a thing even still exists).

Despite what I'm sure reads as a negative review, it did feel good to play the album and to know that The Entertainer has returned...and not a moment too soon. Welcome back, Garth.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 18, 2015 3:10 PM PST

Cowboy Rides Away: Live From At&T Stadium
Cowboy Rides Away: Live From At&T Stadium
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33 of 37 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Good, Maybe Even Great Show Butchered by Engineering, September 16, 2014
Timing kept me from being able to buy a ticket to King George's final concert in Louisville earlier this year. I was excited when I learned that this last show in Texas would be getting a live album release. My enthusiasm dampened somewhat when I learned that only 20 of the 38 songs played that night would make it onto the CD (surely someone has told George about double-disc releases?). Likewise, I was disappointed that the abridged concert video would air on CMT but not, apparently, have a standalone DVD or Blu-ray Disc release. Still, I try to appraise things for what they are, rather than what they aren't. Even if every second of the AT&T Stadium show was presented, I'd have a laundry list of songs I'd wish he'd performed, guests I wish had attended, etc.

And that's why I'm afraid I can only say that The Cowboy Rides Away: Live from AT&T Stadium is at best a mixed bag. I've heard complaints about George's vocals being increasingly auto-tuned over the last several studio albums, but for the most part my undiscerning ear was unfazed by it. Here, though, it permeates the entire CD from start to finish.

Worse than auto-tuning Strait's vocals, the entire audio is subject to these wildly erratic fluctuations in sound. Apparently, Strait has a difficult time hitting the low register these days. Hey, there's no shame in that. It happens. But the solution employed here is to "correct" Strait's vocals by bringing *everything* down for the duration of those notes. The best way I can characterize the experience is to liken it to trying to listen to a concert while swimming. It may sound good when your ears are above water, but the moment you dip back under on the next stroke, it distorts the music.

In my estimation, the most mangled track here is Strait's duet with Miranda Lambert on his 2001 #1 hit, "Run". Ran has pipes, but you couldn't tell it from this exhibition because her vocals, like the Ace in the Hole band playing behind them, are bulldozed over by the album's clumsy engineering. Almost as embarrassing is Alan Jackson's appearance on "Murder on Music Row", in which he sounds as though he wasn't even fully prepared to be on stage at that moment. Contrast with their live performance on Live at Texas Stadium (recorded in 2004, released in 2007).

Aside from the auto-tuning debacle, it's almost conspicuous how little crowd noise made it onto the album. This was, after all, the largest audience for an indoor music event in North America. Hard to believe they were that quiet. This creates the effect that, when the engineers allow the crowd's enthusiastic reaction to a moment to be heard, it almost feels artificial, like canned applause tacked onto a studio recording. It's just...bizarre. I can't help but think that if the crowd had been allowed to be heard more, that would have provided a much more organic mask to Strait's diminished vocals than the ham-fisted ProTools editing, too.

2002's For the Last Time: Live from the Astrodome and the aforementioned Live at Texas Stadium albums sound a great deal better, though both of those are similarly truncated (the Texas Stadium show is outright mutilated). Ideally, the original AT&T Stadium show recordings might one day be put in the hands of engineers who won't throw out the baby with the bathwater. Until then, we're left with this mangled live album.

I forgot to mention how surprised I was to discover that the CD booklet does not include songwriter credits! I'm one of the 19 nerds in the world who actually fill in the Composer field in his digital library, and while I already had the songwriters credited for other recordings of these songs elsewhere in my library, it was still somewhat obnoxious. I can understand that information not always being filled in for digital downloads, but for a physical release to not credit songwriters in 2014 was entirely unexpected.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 18, 2014 2:55 PM PDT

Beyond The Blue Neon
Beyond The Blue Neon
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5.0 out of 5 stars Breezy, Under-Appreciated Masterpiece, July 2, 2014
This review is from: Beyond The Blue Neon (MP3 Music)
Back in 1989, I remember my brother and I got to each pick out a cassette. I picked Prince's BATMAN soundtrack, and he picked George Strait's BEYOND THE BLUE NEON. Though I've still got a soft spot for that BATMAN soundtrack, I can easily concede that he had the better taste that day. I'd grown up listening to country music, but by that point I was sick of it (for several reasons). Even still, I got into this album. Maybe because the songs weren't the posturing anthems that were starting to take over, or because the instrumentation here is so well developed.

Just listen to "Oh Me, Oh My Sweet Baby". It's not a terribly complex song lyrically, but with the full band swinging on it - check out that fiddle and piano, especially! - it's irresistibly fun. It reminds me in some ways of "All My Ex's Live in Texas", only with less interesting lyrics. A stronger example is "Ace in the Hole", which is both catchy and well-written. I can never hear it, though, without thinking of the cover version sung by the hound, Jasper, for Chuck E. Cheese! (It's that cover version that plays over the end credits of SWINGERS.)

The slower songs here are just as effective as the ditties. Lead single "Baby's Gotten Good at Goodbye" is a truly perfect recording that has as much power today as it did a quarter century ago. "What's Going On in Your World" is one of the greatest drunk dial songs ever written, though I don't think anyone necessarily thinks about it as being one. The title song, "Beyond the Blue Neon", and penultimate track, "Too Much of Too Little", are just as strong as the singles.

Trivia: "Overnight Success" was the single to break Strait's #1 streak, peaking at #8 on Billboard. Though it was included in the 1991 compilation TEN STRAIT HITS, Strait himself omitted it from 1995's STRAIT OUT OF THE BOX, and it appears dead last on 22 MORE HITS - suggesting that he's never quite forgiven the single for ending his run of #1's.

If You Ain't Lovin', You Ain't Livin'
If You Ain't Lovin', You Ain't Livin'
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4.0 out of 5 stars Solid B-Material, July 2, 2014
I've always felt that IF YOU AIN'T LOVIN', YOU AIN'T LIVIN' should have been released between #7 and OCEAN FRONT PROPERTY, rather than between OFP and BEYOND THE BLUE NEON. What characterized #7 is not so much the lyrics or even overall melody of its songs, so much as its instrumentation and arrangements. That's really the case here, too. I rarely find myself in the mood to revisit this album, and whenever I do, I find myself zoning out and just sort of getting lost in the fiddle, steel, and piano more than the lyrics or even Strait's vocals. When the vocalist interrupting your instrumental album is George Strait, you've done *something* right.

The catchy title track was penned by Tommy Collins and originally a #1 hit for Faron Young in 1954. Collins was befriended by Strait's influence, Merle Haggard (Hag's song "Leonard" is a tribute to Collins). It's not an overt thesis declaration, but upon consideration I've finally come to see that that song became the title track and opening cut because this album is all about the musicianship, starting in the Bakersfield sound, but quickly expanding to Western Swing on the very next cut ("Under These Conditions") and nearly a full-blown Sinatra-esque lounge jazz by the ending "Back to Bein' Me".

Rumor has circulated all these years that "Baby Blue" was selected by Strait as a subtle tribute to his daughter, whom he lost in a car accident. I don't know if it's true, but that recording has felt a lot more poignant and sadder to me ever since I first read that speculation. Regardless of the veracity of that rumor, the recording remains one of the most time-stopping in Strait's entire discography. Sometimes I get lost in that song and find myself playing it over and over again, not even sure why I want to be in that melancholy but unwilling to leave it until I've sung along with it for four or five times in a row.

Strait must have been fond of these songs, though, because the B-sides for the first two singles from this album's successor, BEYOND THE BLUE NEON, were both selected from IF YOU AIN'T LOVIN', YOU AIN'T LIVIN' The B-side for "Baby's Gotten Good at Goodbye" was "Bigger Man Than Me" (these two songs appear back-to-back in this order on Disc 3 of 1995's STRAIT OUT OF THE BOX), and the B-side to "What's Going On in Your World" was "Let's Get Down to It". Later, in 1991, "Baby Blue", itself having already been a #1 hit single, was the B-side to "You Know Me Better Than That".

George Strait's Greatest Hits, Volume Two
George Strait's Greatest Hits, Volume Two
Price: $5.99

5.0 out of 5 stars You Don't Need This Compilation, but You Need What It Compiles, July 2, 2014
Playlists have made compilation albums like GREATEST HITS VOLUME TWO more or less obsolete, but they are still handy as snapshots of a specific era in a discography, or as introductory primers for new fans. The mid-to-late 80's is one of my two personal favorite Strait eras (the other being the late, post-STRAIT OUT OF THE BOX 90's covered on LATEST GREATEST STRAITEST HITS). Presenting these ten songs (his eleventh through twentieth singles) in their released-to-radio chronology means that these songs aren't arranged here to create a specific album feel. That kind of dampens things a bit, but even if the set is only as strong as the sum of its parts, those parts are awfully good.

Though there's a lot of growth and difference between the four albums represented here, these specific songs are homogeneous enough that no section of GREATEST HITS VOLUME TWO feels particularly conspicuous, although the two ballads from #7 ("Nobody in His Right Mind Would've Left Her" and "It Ain't Cool to Be Crazy About You") have always existed in my mind as a one-two tandem and they're followed by the three singles from the OCEAN FRONT PROPERTY album, all of which featured Strait's backing band Ace in the Hole instead of the regular studio session players. That gives what on vinyl and cassette constituted "Side 2" something of a curious change in tone. Side 1's content from DOES FORT WORTH EVER CROSS YOUR MIND and SOMETHING SPECIAL doesn't feel as distinguishable.

It's hard to really recommend a hits compilation in the digital playlist era, and yet it's also impossible to suggest passing on this material. Put it this way: Your library may not need GREATEST HITS VOLUME TWO, but it does need these songs.

Ocean Front Property
Ocean Front Property
Price: $7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars My Heart Won't Wander Very Far from "Ocean Front Property", July 1, 2014
This review is from: Ocean Front Property (MP3 Music)
OCEAN FRONT PROPERTY was the first album on which George Strait used his stage show backing band, Ace in the Hole. They played on all three of the album's singles: the terrific title song, as well as "All My Ex's Live in Texas" and "Am I Blue". There's a subtle, but distinct, looseness to the instrumentation on those three cuts that befits those tracks - particularly "Am I Blue", which could have fallen flat as too straightforward a song, but in the hands of Ace in the Hole becomes a delightful little romp.

The other seven album tracks sound great, too, sustaining the livelier aesthetic established on the Ace in the Hole cuts. This album really breathes, with Strait shifting effortlessly from two-steppers to ballads, and from whimsy to heartbreak. One thing that's interesting, particularly to reflect on all these years later, is the presence of lyrics that reflect a certain upper-middle class socioeconomic position. For instance, "Someone's Walking Around Upstairs" references a home with two levels, because the master bedroom where the narrator's ex now shares with someone new is upstairs. "You Can't Buy Your Way out of the Blues" is all about how all the luxurious self-indulgences in the world won't heal a heartache. "Without You Here" is about a woman who is miserable on her "two week Caribbean cruise" because she misses her husband of twenty years. Even the title track, playful though it is, is built on the fanciful notion of selling ocean front property in Arizona (and throwing in the Golden Gate Bridge free) to a woman who believes the narrator doesn't love her and wouldn't miss her.

On the other end of the spectrum is "My Heart Won't Wander Very Far from You", a song about a narrator reassuring his wife that he appreciates all she's done for him so much that he's not even tempted by the flirtations of a "barroom queen". The laundry list of things his wife has done are classic, working-class country ("teach the young ones how to wrassle, straighten out my fishin' tackle").

It would be going too far to say that any of the album tracks "should" have been singles, but that doesn't mean they're not solid album tracks. OCEAN FRONT PROPERTY has a specific personality that makes it as appealing today as it was in 1987. For my money, it's the most enjoyable album King George released throughout the 1980's, and one of the top 5 of his illustrious career.

Price: $6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Would Have Been a Killer Ray Price Album, June 29, 2014
This review is from: #7 (MP3 Music)
Like its predecessor, SOMETHING SPECIAL, #7 only generated a pair of singles for radio: "Nobody in His Right Mind Would've Left Her" and "It Ain't Cool to Be Crazy About You". Both songs have an odd melody, which would actually have made them perfectly suited for inclusion on the SOMETHING SPECIAL album; here, they almost feel intrusive. Swap either of those two singles for SOMETHING SPECIAL's "Dance Time in Texas" and I think both albums become even stronger. You could swap the other #7 single for SPECIAL's "Lefty's Gone", I suppose, though that's such an interesting sounding song that it really should be where it is.

Merle Haggard's influence is all over George Strait's earlier albums, but despite Hag being the gateway to Bob Wills (see: "Deep Water"), I've come to feel that #7 is more a channeling of Ray Price. These songs, from content to arrangement, evoke Price's easygoing honky tonk crooning and shuffle.

The problem for many listeners with #7 is that these songs aren't particularly deep or clever, or even very interesting. Still, it's a likable enough album that's best enjoyed as a standalone work. Unlike other Strait albums that aim for your mind or your heart, #7 is just trying to get into your ears and take control of your feet. It's not a terribly complex ambition, but on that level, Strait delivered the goods.

One thing's for sure: We're not going to see the likes of #7 from anyone in mainstream country with nearly the kind of stature Strait enjoyed at the time he cut this album.

Something Special
Something Special
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Come for the Singles, but Stay for the Gems, June 29, 2014
This review is from: Something Special (MP3 Music)
SOMETHING SPECIAL was the follow-up to 1984's DOES FORT WORTH EVER CROSS YOUR MIND, an album that won Album of the Year honors from both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association. This album is decidedly *not* DOES FORT WORTH... II. Instead, it seems Strait set out to find the most interesting sounding songs he could find, and if that was indeed his objective, he nailed it.

Just two singles came from this album ("The Chair", one of the most interesting and coolest sounding songs anyone has ever cut, and the title track, "You're Something Special to Me"), so it may be easy for radio listeners to gloss over this one, but what makes SOMETHING SPECIAL stand out is the concentration of songs that have a really unusual melody and sound. Strait himself selected fully half of the album (the two singles, plus "Haven't You Heard", "In Too Deep", and "Lefty's Gone") for inclusion in 1995's STRAIT OUT OF THE BOX.

These songs dominate the album, to the point that it seems the title track, "You're Something Special to Me" had to open the record because otherwise it would have been drowned by its more peculiar-sounding companions. (That's my theory, because otherwise "Dance Time in Texas" seems like the obvious choice to be the first track.) So, yeah, you can find "The Chair" and "You're Something Special" on several compilations, but if you limit yourself to these, you're missing out on some of the more interesting recordings in Strait's entire discography.

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