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Priest Picks #29: Our Favorite Songs of Q1 2021 Mixtape

Wow. The first three months of 2021 are already over. That means it's time for another Pickled Priest quarterly mixtape with our favorite new songs of the last 90 days. Lucky you! We're too lazy to make a Spotify playlist, but we trust that you'll know how to find the songs on your own. You're big kids now. Here it is.


1 VALERIE JUNE FT. CARLA THOMAS | “African Proverb / Call Me a Fool”

"Only a fool tests the depth of the water with both feet."

Carla at her coronation

At Pickled Priest headquarters, any recording featuring the immortal Queen of Stax Records, Carla Thomas, gets top billing. It doesn't matter if she's the star (my dream of a triumphant comeback record still unfulfilled) or playing a supporting role as she does on Valerie June's zen-like new record, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, she's rightfully earned her lofty status. Here, Thomas adds a short, spoken word proverb and then adds some mostly unidentifiable backing vocals to the sublime "Call Me a Fool," a song about the risks of diving into love with confidence despite the emotional risks involved. So much for old African proverbs, I guess! Valerie apparently created her new record as meditative accompaniment for just about any internal struggle and she even tells you the spiritual intent of each song in the lyric booklet. In other words, you're not going to get the full effect just streaming this one. The concept of "Call Me a Fool" has been done a million times, from Elvis's "Can't Help Falling in Love" to Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper's "Shallow" from A Star is Born. Foolish lovers have been bloodying the waters of shallow pools for centuries now and there will always be new takes on the aged concept as long as human love is still a thing (and don't assume it's a given). And you should hear Valerie's take on this familiar territory. Her unique voice—a mix of Southern country-soul and front-porch folk— has an organic quality. It soothes holistically by following the homeopathic laws of similars. To fully understand love, you sometimes have to introduce some pain into the system first and let it work its way out slowly, leaving what's left wiser in the end. It doesn't always work out that way, to the delight of songwriters everywhere.

2 JOANNA CONNOR | “Bad News”

I'm from Chicago, and if you've spent time in any of our local blues clubs, you already know the name Joanna Connor. She was a regular at my preferred hangout, Kingston Mines (on Chicago's north side), and for good reason—she could absolutely tear up the stage with her ferocious guitar playing and her ripping set of pipes. At Kingston Mines, she was often too much for their small stages, a true force to be reckoned with. She never really got her due on record, however. Possibly because live intensity doesn't often translate well to a studio environment. That's been especially true in recent decades, with many modern blues records failing to capture that "live in the club, 2:00 a.m." electricity; instead, suffering from a clean, pristinely recorded approach that sounds good, but misses that nasty intangible bite so essential to real blues. But every once in a while, a record finds the perfect balance between sound quality and genuine performance. Connor's 4801 South Indiana Avenue is one such record, and it's been a long time coming, too. Named after the address of the legendary Theresa's Lounge* on Chicago's south side (thee place to find real blues in Chicago), the record captures the true essence of Connor thanks to masterful production from Joe Bonamassa. Here we find Connor in all her wicked, impassioned, grimy, gritty glory. To say this record is "hot" is an understatement. It's nothing short of an epiphany—easily one of the best blues records I've heard in a long time. Bonamassa astutely picked songs (with cohort Josh Smith) that would best capitalize on Joanna's no-prisoners-taken musical approach. The results are often explosive. Thankfully, he also made sure she was surrounded by some amazing instrumental talent as well. There are so many highlights that picking a single song is almost impossible, so I imagined myself back in my Kingston Mines days (I no longer stay out til its 5:00 a.m. closing time like I used to) and asked myself which of the songs would absolutely crush your soul in the wee hours of the morning; that time when the blues can really set in hard and deep. My answer was "Bad News," a Luther Allison song, selected as a tribute to the legendary bluesman who died prematurely at 57. Ushered in and out by bells tolling—a nice touch by Bonamassa—what happens between the bells is truly something special. It's both mournful and uplifting, and embodies everything the blues are all about.

*Theresa's opened in the basement of an apartment building back in the late-40s (see photo) and stayed there for over thirty years, eventually being forced out by a greedy landlord (perhaps due to noise complaints from the residents of said building?). I did a search of the old location on Google and one would never know its storied past from its remodeled current appearance. It's hard to believe someone is now residing in that same basement space, perhaps unaware of its legendary musical past. Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, James Cotton, Howlin Wolf, and countless others might've played right where that unsuspecting person is now taking a hot, sloppy dump. If I had my way, Theresa's (and other venues just like it) would be preserved in the historic register, never to be taken away.

3 HEDVIG MOLLESTAD TRIO | “All Flights Cancelled”

I'm not the resident expert on the career of Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen, yet, but this Norwegian guitarist can positively drop jaws when she wants to. She can dish rock, she can go prog, she can play jazz, she can get experimental, and she often does a little of all four inside the same song. The first two tracks on Ding Dong, You're Dead. wouldn't sound out of place on a 70s metal album either. Even when she settle back into a quieter number, she's nothing short of fascinating. Her all-instrumental Trio is a powerhouse and "All Flights Cancelled" is merely an entry point for a flight you won't want to end, let alone be aborted before takeoff.

4 BONES OWENS | “Lightning Strike”

Red flags abound; all are overcome. First, the cover. Who decided on the light blue bubble font/backdrop? You're fired. Then there's the white cowboy hat and bubble-font-blue tuxedo shirt, which immediately pigeonholes Owens as the singer from a country wedding band the morning after the reception (disheveled bridesmaid just off camera). Second, the name "Bones" itself doesn't bode well for the music contained herein. What are the odds someone who calls themselves "Bones" has anything original to say musically? The odds ain't good. So what's the deal then? Well, "Bones" (real name Caleb) is from Missouri, is not a "hat act," and I'm happy to report he has the singing, songwriting, and guitar chops as well. If anyone deserves the nickname "Bones" it's this guy. He's more of a Southern rocker in reality, one that gives zero fucks about his appearance or your expectations. This is a guy, loaded with tattoos and rock and roll attitude, who clearly relishes that moment when it's time to plug his guitar into an amplifier. You know what I mean—the excitement you get when you hear that initial buzz or hum, perhaps a little feedback, as it locks into place. The big question now is what happens next. That single moment of anticipation doesn't always translate to a bona-fide thrill. But here, thank God almighty, it does. And the appropriately titled "Lightning Strike" is what we get in the deal. And it's a blast, no bones about it.

5 THE SONDER BOMBS | “What Are Friends For?”

I wrote about this band just recently, so why would I do so again now? I said all I had to say a few weeks ago. Here's a link.

6 GOAT GIRL | “Sad Cowboy”

Goat Girl's self-titled 2018 record was already pretty advanced for such a young band, but On All Fours proves that record was not only not a fluke, but also just a starting point for this talented London band. This time, the band takes every aspect of their sound and improves and/or expands upon it. "Sad Cowboy" sounds like nothing they've done before and is all the better for it. It has a little rock and roll (evoking a post-modern "Barracuda" early on), adds some synth-pop accents, trots with a countryish gallup at times, and even shimmers off into the sunset at the end like we're about to see the credits for an indie sci-fi movie.

7 ARLO PARKS | “Hurt”

Remember when Starbucks used to sell CDs? Do they still? In a way, I always felt sorry for the bands the java conglomerate would deem "coffeehouse worthy." It seemed to brand them as "safe for pretentious conversation" or, less stereotypically, an easy branding-by-association tool for Big Coffee.* Not that getting a push from a major retailer is a bad thing for a musician's career or wallet. I don't begrudge anyone a paycheck. But there is a negative connotation to the affiliation that I immediately rebelled against and I know many others did the same. We're principled, snotty motherfuckers, the lot of us! I just don't like the idea of music becoming the backdrop for anything, let alone the inane latte-fueled ramblings heard in your typical coffeehouse. Suffice it to say, Starbucks would be selling the shit out of this new Arlo Parks record if people still bought CDs. Arlo makes super cool, relaxed, pseudo-soul music with a sly seductive groove, almost like Lily Allen and Sade blended together in a five-thousand dollar espresso machine. But guess what? It's the perfect way to just let the day's troubles drift away for a little while.

*And it is still happening today. Recently, I heard the bastion of all things cool, State Farm Insurance, tying the "surprisingly great" music genre of "electronic folk" into their new "surprisingly great rates" ad campaign. The pathetic, parasitic adoption of music to sell unrelated products continues unabated! I can wait for Allstatepalooza this summer, too!

8 ABBIE OZARD | “True Romance”

I wrote about this one recently as well, so it's no secret that I'm a big fan. That said, this is a best of Q1 2021 list, so she still had to be on it.


Three Little Words is a record that sounds utterly modern while clearly being informed by the past. A nifty little juxtaposition achieved by this Montreal singer. I only found this out in retrospect, but her fine new album is the third in a series of albums where she is exploring the roots of African-American music and converting her findings in often inspiring and profound ways. "While We Wait" is the perfect example of a song that innocently harmonizes like a girl group around a flaming garbage can for its first half, but converts like a Transformer into a stirring call for racial equity in its second half. You'll move from snapping your fingers to thrusting your fist in the air in a matter of minutes. The rest of the album follows suit. She works with a little of everything throughout these ear-pleasing songs, from early jazz to 60s doo-wop to smooth 70s soul and points in between. There's really nothing she can't take on and run with. It's amazing to behold. If you've got some stagnant air in your home, and I guarantee you do, fill those hallways and nook/crannies with the smooth sounds of this subtly thrilling gem of a record.

10 JON BATISTE | “Whatchutalkinbout”

Late night gigs are steady work and nobody can fault artists for taking the regular paycheck associated with shows like The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon (The Roots), Late Night with Conan O'Brien (Max Weinberg), and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (Jon Batiste) to name just three current/past examples. While not in love with the idea of great artists playing primarily during the commercial break, it can be a good way to get your work known to a larger audience all while lining your pockets with a sweet-paying side gig. I'd do the same in a heartbeat if I could. Based on We Are alone, Batiste could be the most musically gifted artist to ever take such a supporting role and that's no slight to the great talent found on other shows. He's simply a brilliant musician and this record is a diverse set that shows the depth of his musical universe by never stopping in one style for too long. It makes complete sense that he hails from Louisiana when you hear the record, which sounds like a musical ride through the neighborhoods of New Orleans. There's so much joy, purpose, and life in the record, there's no way you'll not feel inspired by it. That said, it feels a little unfair to pass on the album's anthemic title track (complete with a guest appearance by the renowned St. Augustine High School Marching Band) as this mixtape's selection, but there's something invigorating about "Whatchutalkinbout" that makes me feel like busting out of my seat each and every time I hear it. (Extra credit given for not jamming in a Gary Coleman sound bite from Diff'rent Strokes as well.) If this record proves anything, it's that Batiste is no side man. He's the star attraction.

11 CELESTE | “Ideal Woman”

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this record based on its album cover, but it wasn't this. Celeste presents as a living Picasso or exotic monochromatic salamander, but deep down she's a slithering, slinky late-night cabaret singer who is both untouchable and unknowable—just outside the grasp of mortal men and/or women. She clearly has no interest in being anything else but herself for herself and "Ideal Woman" makes that very clear in the best way imaginable. "I may not be your ideal woman / The heaven in your head / The one that's gonna save you / From all your discontent." Maybe so, but that smackdown just makes me want her in my life all the more!

12 LES JEUX SONT FUNK | “Spike Lee”

We're not in the golden age of instrumental R&B—that would be the 1960s and early-1970s—but we're definitely seeing a return of some of the touchstones of that bygone era. Hammond B-3 organs, punctuating horns, thick bass lines, swinging drums, and funky-ass guitar riffs abound. If you want to know what my heaven sounds like, there you have it in a nutshell. And the sound isn't contained in the USA anymore. In this case, Italy's Les Jeux Sont Funk's single "Spike Lee" (on Color Red Records, licensed from Italian label Irma) is music to my ears. They named the track after the famed director for a reason—this sounds like a song that would work fabulously on the soundtrack to a Spike Lee flick to be named later. Lots of wah wah, rubberband man bass, and bad mother shut-your-mouth groove to be found here. It sounds like a modern update of a classic 70's funk track, but if I felt a tribute act coming on, I wouldn't tolerate it. LJSF clearly know their stuff. This is a single that could hold its own among its forebears and possibly teach them a few new modern tricks along the way. If there's no funk in your bones, then you need this right now. It was recorded high up in the Italian Alps, no less, so you really should know what funk sounds like that sources from such an exotic location.

13 LANA DEL REY | “Let Me Love You Like a Woman”

Smart move on Lana's part: follow up your masterpiece, Norman Fucking Rockwell, with a new, unavoidably lesser follow up, and then announce yet another record for release in mid-2021. Don't give people much time to think and always be on to the next thing, just as the coolest girls always do. When you're just getting into something, she's already off and running in another direction. She's always had a calculated, assured air about her, and Chemtrails is the complete Lana Del Rey experience all in one tidy package. But hold on. Perhaps, I was a bit hasty dismissing her latest as lacking the heft of its predecessor. For every time I listen to it, I move another track to my playlist of Lana favorites. The falsetto busting "White Dress" impresses if only for jamming "Men in Music Business Conference" into such a small lyrical opening. "Wild at Heart" would be her walkup song if she played third base for the Mets (the sexiest and most exotic of all baseball positions). And "Not All Who Wander Are Lost" might be my new theme song going forward. But, in the end, I chose "Let Me Love You Like a Woman" for this mixtape because the idea of her holding me "like a baby" is simply too enticing to pass up. She's going to have her hands full of baby with me, but my guess is she can more than handle the job.


14 BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD | “Instrumental”

While I'm still making sure the vocals won't wear me out long-term (unlikely, but possible, as there are times where I've rolled my eyes a little), I am comfortable saying that sonically this experimental post-rock band from Brixton is right in my conceptual wheelhouse. Which leads me, in the short term, to the opening track on the record which is accurately titled "Instrumental." When I heard the first five minutes of the band's debut record, I was instantly elated, itching to get in the car and drive. So I did just that. (We also needed milk, which helped.) Anyway, there's a sensation I get when I hear something that doesn't sound quite like anything else and this band provides it regularly. This track is pure adrenalin.

15 BLACK MIDI | “John L”

What are you going to do for an encore when your first record blows the doors off people's already lofty expectations? Here's your answer. You push beyond reasonable expectations into areas nobody had thought to expect at all. If this is any indication, the new album is going to fuck with your mind in the best possible way. Totally consensual, of course.

16 SHAME | “6/1”

In case you're wondering, you're three songs into a mini-British invasion set of tunes. Next up, South London's Shame, who are good old-fashioned pub-brawling, gutter-rolling rock band. Chuffed, unsorted, gobby, dodgy and knackered all at once and the results are gloriously madcap. In fact, they're the dog's dinner and possibly breakfast, too, recklessly careening down the street, bouncing off cars, parking meters, and tipping the occasional call box for laughs. It takes confidence to pull off some of these lyrics, and they are certainly not lacking in piss and vinegar or hubris, "I pray to no god / I am god / I am every thought your mind has ever held / I prevent nothing / And nothing prevented me." I haven't heard such arrogance since The National gave us "All the Wine" fifteen years ago. "6/1" goes on like a soused football fan (redundant) for some time, challenging even its own definitive statements like a schizophrenic barfly, "I do not seek man / Nor woman either..." and later "I hate myself / But I love myself." There's few things better than a band that sounds like it gives zero fucks, but really does.

17 SLEAFORD MODS | “Mork n Mindy”

Yet another great British group, this time from Nottingham. They're profoundly and unabashedly British which means it could take Americans a few listens (and possibly some slang conversion) to completely follow what they're on about, but once you get used to the heavy accent, local vernacular, and lyrical flow, you'll find as much, if not more, British cultural insight than you'll find on any Pulp or Kinks album. "Mork n Mindy" is a funny take on what it's like growing up on a cul-de-sac in a suburb of London (also a very American concept). It may boring and predictable, but it's all you know. So you find ways to have fun, especially when you're a little bloke. And if that means forcing your Mork & Mindy dolls to get it on with Action Man and Sindy (the British G.I. Joe and Barbie, respectively, or so I gather) that's your prerogative. Sounds like one out of this world orgy, so why not? To mix things up, the Mods tapped up-and-coming British singer Billy Nomates to add a killer guest vocal, which takes the song from very good to great in an instant. Keep an ear out for her as well.

18 VIAGRA BOYS | “Girls & Boys"

Fuck! Even the Swedes are cranking out better rock bands than the U.S. now! I don't know how they're getting away with using this band name without a lawsuit, but this band manages to evoke thoughts of both Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart as well as a host of other caterwauling pre- and post-punk bands, with their boozy, satirical rants and, on this song, singer Sebastian Murphy takes the sentiment of Blur's "Girls & Boys" and finds its dark heart, "This fucked up world keeps spinning 'round / One day I will burn it down." And when things get too deep and despairing, he devolves into Stockholm's answer to Screamin' Jay Hawkins, spitting demon-like gibberish where insights should rightly be. The strange thing is, I get it. Sometimes there are no words. Especially these days. Also take note of the album-ending cover of John Prine's "In Spite of Ourselves," here a duet between Murphy and Amy Taylor from Aussie punk band Amyl and the Sniffers. It has to be heard to be believed and that's a good thing.

19 THE CITY CHAMPS | “Freddie King for Now”

OK, we're back from our five song trip across the pond and back in good old Memphis, Tennessee, to visit with the amazing soul-jazz instrumental band The City Champs and their great new record, Luna '68. It is what it promises to be based on its title and album cover—a killer mind-meld of 1960's Memphis groove and some space-age western mind-fuckery of the highest order. This is what I hear in my head when I'm feeling confident. Heavy-handing it on the Hammond organ, styling behind some blistering riffs, and riding a wave of greasy-fried drum fills. How can you not want to check this band out knowing what you know now?

20 NICK CAVE & WARREN ELLIS | “White Elephant”

This is vintage Nick Cave plying his demented craft over a Warren Ellis sound bed and I cannot wait to hear Nick and the Bad Seeds trot this out in a future live set. I simply have to be close up when he tells us "I'll shoot you in the fucking face if you think about coming around here!" I can't wait. There are few people on the planet who could pull off lyrics like those found on "White Elephant," perhaps nobody else at all. While there is rarely a specific inspiration for any Cave song—they're usually written in some kind of creative fever dream, blurring a vast array of seemingly disconnected imagery into a bizarre unifying whole—this time it seems a touch more overt. I hear a song about the couple in St. Louis who pulled guns on protesters cutting through their neighborhood last year. Could it be partially inspired by real events or am I reading too much into things? And how does a man with "a seahorse on each arm" fit into the storyline? I almost don't want to know. That's what makes his songs so great in the first place.


Pino is one of those guys that every musician knows. He's a bassist-for-hire extraordinaire, playing myriad studio sessions and stepping in when needed for touring bands in need a helping hand—most notably "filling" John Entwistle's spot stage right during the last few Daltrey and Townshend tours as "The Who." But, as it turns out, he has a musical mind all his own as well, and it's anything but conventional. Blake Mills is a sought-after uber-producer and accomplished musician and songwriter who has overseen the sound of some of my favorite records of the last decade, most notably the immaculately-produced Alabama Shakes' album Sound and Color. Here, the two team up for an experimental jazz record, using the term loosely, and the results are predictably unpredictable, thrilling, and sonically adventurous. The recording is pristine, the creativity boundless. "Ekuté" represents the record here mainly because it doesn't sound quite like anything else I've heard recently. And that's one of the qualities in a record I most desire.

22 KILLER KIN | “Narrow Mind”

After clocking in with one of my favorite tracks of 2020 ("Here Come the Killers/Snake Oil"), Connecticut's own Killer Kin check in with a double-A-sided single with the swaggering "Sonic Love" winning a coin flip for Side A and "Narrow Mind" populating the back side. And we all know the back side, lost and forbidden territory for some, can be even more fun. And so it is here. "Narrow Mind" just seems nastier and more violent. Which is fine by me. I especially dig the Ted Nugent/Chrissie Hynde-esque cover art. Must've been recorded around Halloween or something.

23 TOO MUCH JOY | “Uncle Watson Wants to Think”

I didn't spend too much time listening to Too Much Joy back in their prime (roughly 1987-1992), but I did appreciate their sense of humor (album titles included Green Eggs and Crack, Son of Sam I Am, and Cereal Killers). It's been over twenty years since they've put out a record and that, to be honest, was fine with me. I didn't miss them, really. But then I sampled a few tracks from their well-titled "comeback" record, Mistakes Were Made, and I soon realized I might've overlooked the wrong band during the college rock/alternative explosion of the late 80s and early 90s. They write peculiar little rock songs that positively radiate a love for making music. And they haven't lost a step, either. Once you have it, there's a decent chance, after years spend dormant, that you may still have it. Isn't it worth the effort to find out? It turns out, time hasn't diminished their songwriting skills. In fact, it may have broadened their scope considerably. Their lyrics are still clever (to too-clever), but are now informed by years of living ordinary lives doing ordinary things. A lot of observations have built up in their demented brains since we last heard from them. In the process, they've written a finalist for my new theme song, titled "More of the Stuff I Like." Basically, it's about a worn-down old guy like me who longs to have more of the stuff he likes in his life and less of the stuff he doesn't. You don't have to be old to appreciate the sentiment—it's universal (especially during the last year). But, even with that favorite track a sure ringer for this mixtape, I'm still drawn to two others even more. One is "Oliver Plunkett's Head" about, I believe, the legacy and fate of the titular Oliver Plunkett's severed head, preserved in a glass jar for eternity. This song has not been written before, I assure you. The other is "Uncle Watson Wants to Think," a disturbing tale told in a humorous way, about divorce, mom's new beau, and his toxic personality, which basically taints the existence all he comes into contact with. Somehow, they've made a great rock song out of this difficult concept. And so goes the rest of the record, a random assortment of amusing curios from the still fertile minds of Too Much Joy. Welcome back!

24 ALABAMA SLIM | “Rob Me Without a Gun”

Alabama Slim's debut album, The Parlor, comes to us just as he celebrates his 82nd birthday. One listen to the record and you'll wonder how such a thing could possibly happen. Why hasn't he been recording for decades?!

It's not like he doesn't stand out from the crowd. He's reportedly seven feet tall when sporting his ever-present fedora (and custom-tailored suits) and he's got a smooth, rich voice that suits his songs perfectly. Imagine John Lee Hooker's foot stopping groove, but with all the rough corners sanded down. That's Alabama Slim. He was schooled on classic Delta blues 78s and clearly knows his stuff, too. "Rob Me Without a Gun" is a killer blues about a girl who steals his heart by breaking into his mind first.


This century's Booker T & the MGs? To even pose the question is significant. While a compliment, it does reduce what DLO3 does to mere tribute, when in fact they have their own distinct style; certainly informed by Booker T—there's no escaping it—but also adding a soul-jazz sensibility akin to the great Jimmy Smith, clearly another major influence. Last year, the album's first single, "Fo Sho," made our year-end mix tapes and now the band is back with a grooving full-length LP loaded up with meat and potatoes just like a simmering Memphis soul stew. Delvon, to put it mildly, gets busy at his B-3 and his Steve Cropper-esque guitarist Jimmy James, follows suit. On drums is Dan Weiss, who, while no Al Jackson Jr. (impossible to emulate, no use trying), he propels these songs with just the right amount of swing. "Aces" is one of many great moments on the record (also check out the cover of Wham's "Careless Whisper"!). I love that it sounds like a lost Stax single that just surfaced through a crack in the McLemore Avenue sidewalk that runs in front of the famed Stax studios. And a warning for listeners: this is a record that must be heard on vinyl on a good stereo system. AirBuds not allowed.

26 SHARON VAN ETTEN | “On Your Way Now”

This track was actually part of a documentary released a few years ago (didn't see it, but want to) about Boise, Idaho, the surrogacy capital of the U.S. It follows several mothers having baby boysies and girlsies for others, some from around the world, in certain cases. Anyway, Sharon contributed this sweet little ditty to the film, and as expected, there's more to it than initially comes through on the surface. While the lyrics suggest the women providing this valuable service understand their roles clearly, it also shows that the process is far more than a business transaction to those involved. Van Etten's a natural poet, so it's not surprising that she says so much with so little. It has only now been released in its entirety for the first time, hence its appearance here, but it is worth hearing.

I actually have an EPs worth of tracks that didn't make this mixtape, so maybe I'll drop a follow up "mini-tape" later this week. It's been a good start to the year already.

Until then, be on your way now. We'll meet up sooner than later.


The Priest


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