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"Emotion is a virtue - for you it is the one fatal flaw"

Class D

Main Category: Pop Rock
Also applicable: --------
Starting Period: The Divided Eighties
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day




Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a Bangles fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Bangles fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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The Rise And Fall of the Bangles - what a great name for a book and what a fantastically true name at that. Once upon a time, these four people had everything: nice looks, charisma, vocal talent, songwriting abilities and a sense of good taste. There were two drawbacks, though. One was that the "time" was the Eighties, a decade where 'mainstream success' and 'artistic prostitution' went hand in hand ever so often, much more often than in any other decade. And the "people" were girls.

They "graduated" from the LA underground, a place that was fairly rich with talent and idealistic aspirations in the late Seventies/early Eighties, and, naturally, imbibed not a few garage/punk influences, modeling themselves after the Runaways rather than Blondie (in fact, Michael Steele, a relative latecomer to the band, was one of the Runaways). That said, their main object of adoration was, and has always been, classic power-pop in the Beatles/Big Star tradition, and punkier elements in their early music were really only necessary inasmuch as they permitted the girls to evade the softer, easy-on-the-ears tendencies of contemporary schmaltz. But they loved their guitars, the clean, resplendent, if already a bit archaic jangle, as opposed to both the "gimmicky" styles of New Wave playing and the unbeatable synthesizer attacks from all sides. And they loved writing songs - classic power-pop anthems about classic power-pop matters. And they wanted success. Who doesn't?

Some people actually say that the very best Bangles material can be found on their first, self-titled EP, the one that came out on the minor IRS label before Columbia spotted them and offered them a contract. I've never heard it, but I can very easily believe it. Because the story of the Bangles and their evolution is very much akin to a story of taking a particularly nice person and gradually leading him or her to the very brink of degradation - in other words, a creative tragedy. It's not even so much a matter of "sellout", because you can never rightly pinpoint the exact moment at which the Bangles "sold out" and became manipulated puppets. It was a slow, meticulous extermination, and easily one of the most disgusting "talent slaughters" of the Eighties.

Already on their first - and still excellent - full-time LP, All Over The Place, most of their garage flavour was forcefully taken away and replaced by a glossy production sheen. Thankfully, it didn't hurt the music: the Bangles' brand of power-pop could always use more colourful guitars and clean production. The record buying public wasn't too moved by the result - after all, if Badfinger and Big Star had failed to re-ignite the flame in the early Seventies, how could the Bangles expect to do it in the early Eighties? The solution was simple: bring in corporate songwriting and more "up-to-date" production. Thus, their second album already sounded little like their first - with Prince covers and novelty Cyndi Lauper-like bossanovas and synthesizers and crap.

Even that failed to kill off the talent, though. Commercial success did. Seeing that this kind of 'upgrading' really worked wonders with the sales, the record company made everything possible to ensure the cash cow status of the girls, and at long last, succeeded in destroying their integrity on the third album, where the Bangles were already sporting patented "Motley Crue groupie" haircuts, singing dreadful power ballads, and displaying less than one dozenth of the talent that they once fed their engines upon. The transformation also clearly spelt out the difference between the completely zombiefied lead singer Susanna Hoffs and the still-trying-to-make-a-stand Vicki Peterson and Michael Steele. Fortunately, with the release of Everything, this difference became so huge that the girls found enough strength to break up the band and go their own ways - with Hoffs pretty much continuing to work on the "rote-Bangles" style in her solo career and the rest of the band fading away.

Not that there's anybody in particular to accept the blame, of course. After all, if you wanted commercial success in mid-Eighties America, you'd either have to be Bruce Springsteen (and you really can't be Bruce Springsteen if you're a girl) or a hair metal band (and "female metal", in my mind at least, is usually associated with the likes of Lita Ford). And if you were a girl band, you had to be prepared to be saddled with outside songwriters and a "now, lassie, what's a pretty girl like you doing around these guitars and microphones? you just stand there and coo with your lovely little voice, and we'll have some real men to take care about the rest" kind of attitude. Because, well, just because.

But in the end, even if the story of the Bangles is so boringly predictable, that certainly doesn't make it any less disgusting. And what's even more sad is that today they're remembered exclusively as an Eighties curio, or, worse, a typically bad Eighties band. When that's just plain WRONG. No, they weren't musical geniuses, and they weren't original, and they weren't underground heroes, but still, they made some really good music, music that does not sound dated today, unlike that of many of their peers, if only because it follows the best models of the Sixties, despite having been written in the Eighties. Of course, if you're judging them based on Everything and 'Eternal Flame' in particular, I can see where you're coming from; and even if you're judging them based on earlier hits like 'Manic Monday' and 'Walk Like An Egyptian', I can see how they could be casually written off as novelty acts. But the way I see it, nobody has any right to pronounce any kind of overall judgement on the Bangles without taking a good listen to the entirety of All Over The Place. And regardless of whether you like that album or not, if, after that one good listen, you still have that obstinate wish to cling on to the "typically bad Eighties band" tag, you obviously know even less about Eighties music than me.

Just like all the good girls (and boys) do, the Bangles have had a reunion of sorts recently, with a new studio album out and touring and everything. I haven't had a chance to listen to that one yet - word on the street has been rather positive than negative, but nothing overwhelming at that, and that's pretty much what I expected.

Lineup: Susanna Hoffs - guitars, lead vocals; Vicki Peterson - guitars; Debbie Peterson - drums; Annette Zilinskas - bass. Zilinskas left, 1984, replaced by Michael Steele. Vicki Peterson was the primary songwriting force in the band, although many of the tunes were co-written with Hoffs. Later on, Michael Steele managed to inject some of her own distinct, forceful personality into the band, but things were moving forward to the inevitable catastrophe way too quick for her to make any really serious impact.



Year Of Release: 1984

Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 12

An album to be accused of everything and to proudly stand up to all accusations.


Track listing: 1) Hero Takes A Fall; 2) Live; 3) James; 4) All About You; 5) Dover Beach; 6) Tell Me; 7) Restless; 8) Going Down To Liverpool; 9) He's Got A Secret; 10) Silent Treatment; 11) More Than Meets The Eye.

Before people start flooding me with angry messages ["OH MY GOD HE RATED THE BANGLES' DEBUT HIGHER THAN PHYSICAL GRAFFITI DON'T YOU THINK THIS FREEDOM OF SPEECH THING IS GOING TOO FAR"], I'd like to put it this way: taken from a purely sociological perspective, All Over The Place is a friggin' fifteen, no less. So bear with me in that, yeah, I consider this record goddamn worthy of attention.

About ninety-nine percent of Bangles' fans will tell you their debut, though far from their bestselling thingie, is their best, and who am I to disagree with the evident? Now, first and foremost, let us consider the fact that it sounded like nothing else in 1984, at least - nothing else that actually managed to reach the ears of a large slice of the public. In fact, I guess that if the Bangles hadn't gone on to much huger commercial success in the next few years, All Over The Place would be nothing more than a deeply hidden "cult" album enjoyed by about twenty or thirty connoisseurs of the musical depths of the Eighties - although, of course, Bangles' artistic reputation could be much higher today than it was.

And it sounded like nothing else in the Eighties because it sounded like something straight out of the Sixties. Well, to be perfectly correct, it sounded like something straight out of the early Seventies that sounded like something straight out of the Sixties. And to put it even simpler, it sounded like Big Star, who themselves tried to sound like the Beatles. No, well, not quite like this. Let me rephrase that: it tried to sound like Big Star, who wanted to sound like the Beatles, but ended up sounding more like the Beatles than Big Star sounded like the Beatles. Now that you've got it through your thick head, All Over The Place is not an ounce worse than Big Star. If you like Big Star, you'll like All Over The Place. If you like Big Star and don't like All Over The Place, you're either a hopeless sexist or you actually subconsciously care about originality in your music, ho ho ho.

Because one thing the Bangles can't be accused of is originality. All of these songs, be they covers or originals, follow the most basic formula of Sixties' popwriting. Girl-guy themes (of course, since they're women and all, the subject of "guys are shit" is much more frequent - and expectable - than the opposite), catchy verses and choruses, bouncy Merseybeat guitars and rhythm sections, short running lengths, you get the drift. The Beatles and about a million of their imitators used to do that once. In the Eighties, nobody really did that. The Bangles don't offer an "updated" sound: this is shameless retro that forgoes all the achievements of bands like Blondie and goes twenty years back. Directly.

Part of the "blame" is to be put on producer David Kahne who, according to the band's own confession, smoothed out their formerly gritty garage sound and pretty much wiped out any traces of their punkish stature that they still had when they were simply the Bangs. But just how bad is that? The actual sound of this record is actually the best part of it. Even if a good half of these songs were deprived of their hooks, it would still be enjoyable just because they get the sound so right. The guitars are pretty and colourful, going for the shine rather than the grit, and, even if neither Susanna Hoffs nor Vickie Peterson are virtuosos, always know exactly what and how to play. Actually, the guitars, while Beatlesque "in origin", do take their cue from Sixties' garage rather than the Fab Four, being normally thicker and more rock'n'rollish than the Lennon/Harrison style, and relying more on power chords where necessary. But this is all relative, of course.

What is totally Beatlesque is the vocal hook power of the songs. Dissect them into little pieces, tiny bits of voice modulation and chord changes, and with a bit of expertise you can probably reduce every song on here to the sum of its influences. Like, this harmony is of 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' caliber, that catchy moment is directly taken from a Big Star song... heck, even the 'Oh-oh James' bit from one of the most notorious songs on here is taken directly from ABBA's 'Ring Ring'. But that's the advantage of clever pop-writing over clever prog-writing: this music has absolutely no kind of ambitions, none whatsoever. When listening to All Over The Place, you are not being forced to accept this music as the pinnacle of creation or something; you're simply offered a nice possibility to look at how cleverly you can dissect the puzzle that constitutes Sixties' pop and put the pieces together in a different, yet hardly any less exciting way.

Because the songs are all good. Every single song on here is good. The one complaint I have is - eleven songs in all? Thirty minutes of music? Now surely they could have thrown on two or three more, to bring it up to the classic fourteen-number standard? Hmph. Then again, what's good is good enough for me. The cover of the Merry-Go-Round's Live actually improves on the original by having a way more fleshed-out guitar sound (more or less reminiscent of the Beatles, really, in their For Sale period); and the cover of Katrina & The Waves' 'Going Down To Liverpool', sort of a funny spoof on 'Hey Joe' with a much more British-sounding message, is a perfect "ethereal" pop-rocker bringing back great memories of that good ol' timey guitar jangle (in the solo passage, mainly).

Everything else was self-written, mainly by Vickie Peterson, and, no matter how many distinct little elements have been copped from their predecessors, these are essentially solid compositions none of which is a total rip-off. There's enough minor stylistic differentiation, too, with fast energetic rockers ('Hero Takes A Fall') alternating with little chunks of post-Buddy Holly bubblegum ('James'), Byrdsey anthemic folk-pop rhythms ('Dover Beach'), darker R'n'B-influenced angry confessions ('Restless'), and occasional "heavier" treats ('He's Got A Secret'); in addition, a couple songs like 'Silent Treatment' still retain traces of punk, with insanely (for this record, of course) fast tempos, power chords-a-plenty and flaring guitar solos, no matter how much Kahne tried to "humanize" them. This ensures that the songs, while still reminiscent of each other, mostly have their own identities.

Melodically, though, I guess the best number comes at the very end, when the rhythm section calms down and they try their hand at a little orchrestrated "pop symphony", all string quartets and relatively unsophisticated (but still pretty) vocal harmonies ('More Than Meets The Eye'). It's part ABBA, part Beach Boys, and an ounce of Beatles, and a rare case of a self-consciously beautiful Eighties song that doesn't have to rely on generic synthesizer sound patterns to achieve its goal; maybe the best part of the album is that final "minimalistic" minute when the vocal-less strings are quietly sweeping around the simple cello-acoustic pattern - something that takes true creativity to, well, create.

All in all, it's not an album that has "Great" written all over it. It's just an album that sets a very modest, but honourable, goal and manages to fulfill it one hundred, if not two hundred, percent - and in a way, that's definitely better than setting an ambitious goal and leaving it unachieved. Above all, it shows that the Bangles not only liked Sixties' pop - they understood it as well. And while people who like Sixties pop are usually met in droves (even if these droves are getting thinner with each year), people who understand it are definitely a rare breed.



Year Of Release: 1986

Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 11

Not even Prince, Madonna, synthesizers, and 1986 could spoil this band all at once. But they sure tried.


Track listing: 1) Manic Monday; 2) In A Different Light; 3) Walking Down Your Street; 4) Walk Like An Egyptian; 5) Standing In The Hallway; 6) Return Post; 7) If She Knew What She Wants; 8) Let It Go; 9) September Gurls; 10) Angels Don't Fall In Love; 11) Following; 12) Not Like You.

Don't get me wrong - this is an excellent pop record, in fact, my opinion of it is probably one level higher than that of the average critic. But 'the hero takes a fall' indeed. And in my opinion, the biggest fall the Bangles took was when they agreed to accept a song from Prince. Not that I'm badmouthing 'Manic Monday'. It's a fine fine pop single, with a great vocal hookline, infectious as all really good Prince singles are. But by the very fact of accepting it, the Bangles inconspicuously locked themselves in the "cute girlie band" harness. The only chance of retaining their integrity that a band of nice-looking young girls could have in the Eighties would be to shun outside songwriters. Occasional covers of old classic material ('Live') and an occasional demonstration of support for little-known colleagues ('Going Down To Liverpool') could be acceptable, but in order to earn respect from the selective part of the public, the rest of the songs had to be self-penned and self-performed.

Not so on Different Light, where a set of alien forces overwhelmed them and practically forced them into accepting contributions from both outside songwriters and session players. The result was obvious - commercial success - but that's why this whole record screams "sellout!" at top lungs, and that's ba-a-a-a-d, baby. I like 'Manic Monday' and all, but it's fruity. Hey, for all it's worth, I seriously doubt Prince would ever want to record a song like that himself. I mean, he gave it to these babes, ya know? It ain't manly enough for him. Let these cool chicks sing it, and maybe they'll flash a tit for him in response. After all, who can resist the guy?

The first instrument that greets us is not a guitar, but a synthesizer - a typically generic Eighties synth riff, although certainly not uninteresting as far as music is concerned. The obvious question is - if it wants to imitate the harpsichord so much, why not use a harpsichord? The obvious answer is - cuz it just ain't cool in 1986. Still worse, listen to how Susanna Hoffs' vocals have changed. She never had much grit to her, but at least on All Over The Place she sounded friggin' natural. Here it's something in between early mark Madonna and Cyndi Lauper - the same innocent-but-seducing sexy kitten miauwlings, the style to avoid if you're still pretending to be doing Sixties-influenced guitar pop.

In short, everything bad that could have happened - DID happen. Overwhelming keyboards; outside songwriters who, naturally, rarely give their best material to a girlie band with uncertain future; singing that's much more often erection-oriented than emotion-oriented; and even the lyrics now more often just say 'I love you' than 'I hate you, but I love you'. Needless to say, my first impression was incredibly low, and it took repeated listens for the bad mid-Eighties feel to wear off. Luckily, it did wear off, to a large extent, at least. Two things helped. First, as glossy as the production is, the music still lives. It's still essentially guitar-oriented: it's as if they built this solid wall around the guitar-playing girls, but it eventually turns out that the wall is far from being soundproof, and that it's got cracks and embrasures all over the place. And the guitars are still vivid and colourful rather than playing generic metal or something.

Second, the melodies are good - almost all of them. To look at it from a different angle, sure thing outside songwriters aren't welcome, but if you are gonna welcome outside songwriters, better Prince than Diane Warren, right? And I have nothing against Jules Shear either, whose 'If She Knew What She Wants' is one of the greatest power pop songs of the decade - again, slightly ABBA-ish in its Bangles version, but with vocal hooks you couldn't slap with the biggest baseball bat around: the way the Bangles weave their harmonies around Hoffs' slowly ascending vocal melody is exactly the thing that gives "POP" a good name. And don't forget more Beatles For Sale-style instrumental guitar passages! Awesome.

The second big hit single, besides 'Manic Monday', here was 'Walk Like An Egyptian', which is... sort of like Middle Eastern muzak meets bossanova, if that's a suitable description. It's certainly a typically mid-Eighties novelty number a la Cyndi Lauper, but luckily, it doesn't aspire to be anything else, and so is still a lot of fun even in our modern age. A strange choice for a single, though - the Beatles never put anything like 'Act Naturally' on their single A-sides, or did they? Hmm... Personally, I much prefer the title track, which is essentially just an innocent easy-going love declaration, but declares that love with grace and style (and lots of energy, with an almost punkish rhythm guitar part masquerading behind the sweet harmonies). As for the single most knock-down hook on the album, it is unquestionably contained into the slightly clumsy, but still dang near immaculate 'Standing In The Hallway' - the 'gotta lose this misery' line, of course. The "clumsiness", in my mind's eye, is caused by the somewhat poorly compatible "rough" guitar-organ interplay and the sweet sweet vocals, but you get used to that.

The girls sure don't lose their loyalties, though: as if to stress that they are still great admirers of classic power pop and faithful followers of Big Star, they have inserted a very authentic rendition of Chilton's 'September Gurls'. Today, there's no big need to listen to it on its own, as it adds little to the original and loses much (most notably, the outstanding guitar tone of Chilton, which they are unable - or unwilling - to reproduce), but in the context of the album it functions as a strong 'rallying point', a culmination moment where any signs of fruitiness or compromise are discarded and we see the "real" Bangles in full flight. Another song where the covers fall is Michael Steele's solo number, the stripped-down acoustic "tortured heart" confession of 'Following'; normally I have little tolerance for this kind of "look at me I'm so full of genuine emotion I don't even give a fuck about the melody" numbers, but, again, it's the overall context that makes the song worthy of your attention. Unfortunately, it's placed almost at the very end, where few people would be ready to notice it.

So, to recapitulate, Different Light (yeah, what an ironic title, eh?) is a disappointment, but mainly only in comparison to the high hopes of its predecessor. For a mainstream pop album in 1986, it's still friggin' amazing - meaning that feelings of loss and sadness are somehow mixed in with pure enjoyment. And there is something to be said for consistency - none of the songs on here really piss me off, even if some make me sigh and mumble stuff like "why the hell couldn't they choose Steve Lillywhite as a producer instead?" or "I wonder what would happen if Vickie Peterson happened to have a romance with Angus Young?" So keep that in mind if this happens to be your Bangles record: remember that if they do sound like generic "sex kittens", it's essentially against their will, not according to it.



Year Of Release: 1988

Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 8

Songwriting certainly was the LAST concern for this $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ of a record.

Best song: BELL JAR

Track listing: 1) In Your Room; 2) Complicated Girl; 3) Bell Jar; 4) Something To Believe In; 5) Eternal Flame; 6) Be With You; 7) Glitter Years; 8) I'll Set You Free; 9) Watching The Sky; 10) Some Dreams Come True; 11) Make A Play For Her Now; 12) Waiting For You; 13) Crash And Burn.

The final era of the Bangles' transformation into a faceless automaton actually began one year before the release of the record, with their formally atrocious cover of Simon & Garfunkel's 'Hazy Shade Of Winter' - which, for some reason, did not make it onto Everything (not that it would spoil an already bad album). Electronically enhanced drums, generic Eighties pop-metal guitar, choral vocals that go nowhere and do nothing, all in all, a perfect way to destroy a perfect song - and of course it was a big hit. Never mind that the Bangles never sounded that obnoxious on either of their two previous albums, never mind that this was a betrayal of everything they once stood for. It sold, and that was that. And a sign that their next album should all be like that.

And it was The End. It was fun while it was fun, but now it's all hair and adult contemporary and cheap sentimentalism for a buck and it's certainly not fun any more. About half of this record is unlistenable, overblown, offensive "soulful" garbage and the other half just sees the girls coasting on former glories. Take a look at the album cover. 'Nuff said.

You know something's definitely wrong, really, when you're through with your fourth listen and you can't remember a single thing about what you just heard - and what you just heard wasn't a Brian Eno ambient album or a forty-minute long progressive rock suite. It was an album of short pop songs. But once there used to be hooks. I remember. I remember these good old days when you could put on a Bangles record (like, say, less than a week ago for me) and you'd have these wonderful 'I'm going down to Liverpool to do nothing!' slogans directed right atcha. Today, there's nothing. The first track on here, 'In Your Room', it was a hit, right? Like the second single from the album or sumpthin'? (Don't worry, we'll get right down to the first one soon). Doesn't it have this glitzy, but essentially listenable "geek Eighties pop" feel to it? Couldn't they have made it good? Why is the vocal melody so flat? What are these ugly synthesizers doing there? Why is there this power metal crunch in the chorus? Why is Susanna Hoffs still caterwailing in the early Madonna style? Isn't that already uncool?

So many questions and just one answer: nobody gave a damn as long as it managed to sell. And nothing on here sold as well as the first single, 'The Eternal Flame'. Since I like to pick on these funky little coincidences, I can't help mentioning this was the second nauseating power ballad of the year 1988 with the word 'flame' in it (Cheap Trick's 'The Flame' was, of course, the first one). Then again, maybe that was more than just a coincidence. This was the era of the sentimental power ballad, after all, and there's nothing more appropriate than the word "flame" - both romantic and powerful - in the title of a sentimental power ballad. And I am pretty sure that if in 1982 somebody took a similar song and told the band that in six years, they'd be having a hit with this kind of material, they would have preferred to disband right on the spot - but time changes all of us, except for maybe Lemmy.

To be fair, though, 'The Eternal Flame' isn't the worst ballad on here - the one that immediately precedes it, 'Something To Believe In', is even more generic, with all the "Romantic Collection" trademarks ('mystic' whoo-whoos in the background, "noble" acoustic guitars, and the fuckin' obligatory 'can you hear the winds of change' line). I also suppose there was a couple other ballads on here, but, to be honest with you, I don't feel like really remembering how they go. Besides, way too often it's impossible to understand where exactly they stop "rocking" (if that's how you can call it) and start "balladeering" - most of this sludge is so monotonous that it's well nigh impossible to draw any lines.

Meaning that 'The Eternal Flame' is not really representative of this album (or else I'd have to give it a negative number for a rating, I guess). 'In Your Room' is much more typical, and the basic pattern here regularly runs as follows: a mid-tempo (sometimes, moderately fast) song, most of 'em equipped with sickeningly sweet Hoffs vocals, all of them based on similar-sounding guitar/synth pop riffs, all of which jangle and bounce around the corners as best they can, but since they never have any interesting vocal hooks attached to them, they're just wasted. 'Bell Jar', I guess, is the catchiest of these songs, but it's really not much more than a mediocre "retro twist", overproduced in a very crappy way, and it stands somewhat apart from the rest of the songs just because it's a bit more lively and you get to feel at least a little bit of tongue-in-cheekiness in the snappy delivery.

And it's really weird - listen to this and you just start feeling how all the songwriting is flying out the window. Yes, the production is crappy, the inspiration and excitement at the sight of the band's "rawness" are long gone, but the most awful thing that you slowly start to understand is... man, these songs are just no good. These attempts at hooky choruses are lame. What good is restealing the classic 'Bells Of Rhymney/If I Needed Someone' guitar line if you can't use it within the context of a good song? And I really want to like 'Some Dreams Come True'. It's one of the few songs that aren't marred by excessive synth use or crappy metallic guitars. But it's just bland. It just rushes past you and does nothing. The beat is good, but monotonous, the vocals are pretty but unwavering and streamlined, and the chorus is non-existent. And even when they make a conscious effort to try and revisit their garage roots - on the closing number 'Crash And Burn' - the result is purely pathetic. Purely. These vocal melodies could be written by anybody, anywhere, under any conditions.

The only explanation I can offer is that this was all done by outside songwriters - and the girls just put their names there so as not to piss off long-time fans. Or, more probable, that tensions were already flying so high they were all just thinking of it in terms of contractual obligations. Aw what the heck, I mean, what can you expect from an album when they invite Vinnie Vincent to play on it? In case you don't know who Vinnie Vincent is, well, he was the replacement of Ace Frehley in KISS after Ace left. Need I say anything else?



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