Song, by Toad

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SWF – Let it Be Told

swf SWF are not exactly a band – the name is basically just the guy’s initials – but they sound like one.

This album, is blissful and gorgeous, and just rolls along with the kind of utterly effortless hummability and confidence that it sounds like a classic.

Between that and the mixture of throwback sounds, you’d genuinely never realise this was a contemporary album. The laid back pop in which it revels seems to evoke nostalgia, even though I never heard this record before this year, and even though a lot of the older music it evokes was long-finished before I started really, properly listening to music.

A bit like Joanna Gruesome, however, it’s the blending of relatively disparate aspects of nostaligia into one seamless whole which both gives the game away about its contemporary nature and also makes this album such a deftly judged piece of work.

The album drifts from the splendidly infectious psyche-pop of Turtle Brain, reminiscent of the brilliant Left Banke, to the fuzz-pop of Automobile Blues which, whilst it’s a very different-sounding song, still feels effectively knitted into the same entity, without any sense of a sudden gear-change.

I suppose I might say that the immediacy and variation of the songs tend to diminish a little as the album goes on, with reverby fuzz-pop becoming more and more the default setting as the record progresses. Broken Glass is nice and slow, however, and as the penultimate song gives the album a nice sense of come-down as things wind toward the end.

The album as a whole may slow down a little too quickly to be considered a nailed-on classic, but the good stuff here really is very, very good indeed. Buy one on vinyl or digital here.

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Water of Life

wateroflife The Water of Life project by Tommy Perman (once of FOUND) and Rob St. John (still of Rob St. John) is now available for pre-order, and I recommend you snap one up while you can, as these things have a habit of disappearing rather quickly.

In one sense, it’s basically just a 7″ single of two (largely) instrumental pop songs with elements of experimentalism and psychedelia, both with a good running rhythms and eminently hummable, but nevertheless containing some rather odd noises. It doesn’t sound anything like Jonnie Common, but it does have that element of sounding like pretty straightforwardly digestible pop music, and yet at the same time, when you break it down and listen to the actual noises being made, you realise that the music is actually pretty odd.

I guess it’s a little like staring at a billboard. From over the road it’s a nice coherent image, but from up close it’s a fairly baffling collection of disorientating dots. The reason for this is what makes this more than just a 7″ pop single, and is the reason for the name Water of Life.

Large elements of this music are composed from field recordings and found sounds accumulated by Rob and Tommy along various parts of the waterways of Edinburgh, from the picturesque bits of the Water of Leith to the drinking water system and even the sewers.

The percussion, for example, depends heavily on hydrophone recordings of stones colliding underwater, and where they’ve embellished this with artificial beats, they’ve actually modelled the underwater reverb generated by the field recording and applied it to the drum machine and iPad beats they’ve used, to draw the artificial sounds into the more organic world they were exploring.

There is synth as well, and I am not sure at what point they drew the line between artificial sounds, found sounds and the use of musical instruments, but you can find that out if you buy the 7″. It’s being released on the 9th December as a package of music, prints made by Tommy, photos, and essays about the themes and discoveries made during the project.

I like this way of working. Other art forms are encouraged to explore project based stuff, to heavily theme things when they want to as a way of exploring new ideas, but when you do it in pop music people tend to instinctively withdraw a little, and the dreaded ‘concept album’ term can be heard muttered under people’s breath. But honestly, I would far rather people pushed themselves like this when they had the chance, because there is surely only so much a songwriter can churn out about their feelings and life experiences before they themselves get bored, never mind us.

So yes, a bit more depth (BOOM – depth, get it? Get it?) than your average pop single. Sorry for the pun, too. No really I am, there was no need for that at all.

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Jackson C. Frank – Forest of Eden

jcf Another day, another 10″ vinyl reviewed here at Song, by Toad. It’s an odd format, honestly. Given they cost almost exactly as much to manufacture as a 12″, I would tend to be tempted to go for the bigger artwork and cut the music at 45rpm, personally, but then I suppose I now have an odd collection of really disparate 10″ releases which seem strangely bound together, even if for no better reason than the stubborn adherence to a weird format.

This release could somewhat uncharitably be described as scraping the very bottom of the barrel, when it comes to Jackson C. Frank recordings. Not that they’re bad, and not that I didn’t really enjoy listening to this odd little release.

Instead, I meant it in the sense that there is just so very little material out there, and Frank himself cut such an enigmatic, tragic figure that there is interest even in this: a single song intended for his second album (which never materialised), a Christmas tune and a couple of self-recorded demos.

Debut album aside, I think this might be about all we have of Frank and for those of us who know him by legend alone, it is the very ‘last demo on earth’ barrel-scraping which makes this release so compelling. The story behind the man is so intertwined with the music he made that hearing him chat in between takes on side two in particular feels like listening to a voice from the grave.

I know that’s the same every time we listen to music by a dead musician, but in this particular case the tragic (and in the Greek sense the word ‘tragic’ is more specific than normal) nature of his fall makes it feel all the more poignant.

So in one sense this is pretty thin: one lost song and some scratchy demos from another acoustic singer-songwriter from the sixties with a penchant for a rather dark turn of phrase. But in another it brings a precious, if morbidly fascinating glimmer of reality to a man who due to having such limited output exists almost as much as a legend as he does as a musician.

Buy it here.

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Shilpa Ray – It’s All Self-Fellatio

shilpa You’d have to have been reading this blog for a long time to be able to follow the reasons why I’m excited to see the release of this EP. Well over five years in fact.

I first wrote about Shilpa Ray’s previous band, Beat the Devil, back in early 2008, and then when she dissolved that band and released her debut album with the Happy Hookers I covered that too, about a year and a half later.

I have to confess I thought she was basically done, given I’d not heard mention of her since 2010, but it’s nice to see people sticking it out when so many give up and fade away.

As much as I loved the Beat the Devil stuff, however, I had my reservations about the new material. Shilpa Ray is a little like Angel Olsen in the sense that she has a phenomenal, striking and old-fashioned voice.

A little like Angel Olsen too, she seems to be forever on the brink of over-doing it, and some of the early Happy Hookers stuff seemed to suffer from that. The vocals were a bit too strained, and it all felt a bit contrived, of forced somehow. I kept wishing she’d take it a bit easier.

Her voice is clearly striking enough, there is absolutely no need to push it, and actually here she doesn’t, which is what makes the EP so good. The earthy, bluesy sound is still there, but without that strain her voice just sounds menacing, an effect emphasised by the rather ominous harmonium which has been a feature of her music from the very start.

It’s a dark, unhurried EP which deals in waves rather than hooks, with Ray’s voice rising and falling in duet with the harmonium, part lament and part threat.

She’s touring with Nick Cave at the moment actually, which perhaps explains why physical copies of this only seem to be available from his web shop, and also means that I will get to see her live in a couple of weeks when that particular tour comes to the Usher Hall. I get the impression that will tell me much more about where Shilpa Ray stands now as these four tracks. And that voice in a live setting could be amaaazing!

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Vikesh Kapoor – The Ballad of Willy Robbins

vikesh Mama Bird Recording Co. in Portland seem to have a knack for trawling the vast, vast ocean of folky, solo acoustic guitar singer-songwriters and from all the millions of average plodders, plucking the rare gems who somehow manage to stand out in what is such a very, very crowded field.

That’s not all they release, of course, but of their two releases which have grabbed me the most, first Barna Howard and now this excellent, excellent album are incredibly minimal affairs. And yet still, striking records towards which I gravitated pretty much from the first listen. Never mind standing out from the field when it comes to solo acoustic singer-songwriters, but being instantly and obviously compelling is even more unusual.

The Ballad of Willy Robbins is apparently a bit of a concept album, in that sense that it was apparently inspired by a New York Times article about modern blue-collar workers. In other ways this record is a genuine throwback, as you can possibly tell from the cover art, to the line of acoustic protest music which winds from old traditional working ballads to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger through Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan and even Bruce Springsteen. There are a bunch of lofty comparisons in that one line, and I don’t want to get the impression I am over-praising, because obviously Kapoor is not there yet – nothing like – but this album manages to capture something of the compassion and hope, and the bleakness and anger of that old-style songwriting.

The record itself is about the current woes of the American working and lower-middle classes and the destruction wrought by the evaporation of work and oppression of joblessness and financial hardship. Apart from the old-fashioned sound of the music, this way of addressing wider principles by simultaneously railing against political issues and exploring the domestic damage they cause is probably what I would say links this most strongly to older social and political protest music.

For all the minimalism there are moments of slide guitar and violin accompaniment which lend The Ballad of Willy Robbins some texture, and the last couple of tunes are rather plush full band affairs.  And for all it sounds like folk song at times, there are slightly more country-tinged moments in there, and one of the standout tracks, Carry Me, Home, sounds somewhat like the brilliant Elvis Perkins and this keeps the album from getting monotonous or suffering from a kind of single-paced drift which can plague this kind of record.

I’ve not really been listening to this all that long, of course, so there are still songs which pass me by a little, but when the vinyl is released (early next year apparently) I will most certainly be buying it and playing it rather a lot. Folk music, eh. Who’d have thought that as the Lumineers have made it so utterly reviled I’d be gravitating back to this kind of minimal, lovely, folk-influenced recording. Folk is dead – long live folk! It reminds me of when the NME and the Guardian were sounding the death-knell of guitar music by lamenting the artistic paucity of bands like Viva Brother, as if they were entirely unaware the the next batch of rough, lo-fi tunesmiths were already bubbling under and about to give the genre some much-needed refreshment.

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Califone – Stitches

doc080mockup30.11183 I’ve made the point a few times now, but it feels a bit like I am writing Song, by Toad 2006 at times these days. Musical fashion is supposed to move in twenty-year cycles, not seven-year ones, what the fuck is going on? Whatever it is, here’s another album of gorgeous, if slightly twisted Americana I am absolutely loving at the moment.

Califone are fifteen years and twelve albums into their career, and Stitches (buy a copy here) is the first one I’ve truly fallen for. That’s not out of dislike, though. It’s more that I kinda tried to get into one of their records several years back, it didn’t quite click and for all I’ve been aware of their existence ever since, I’ve never given them another serious go until now.

What made the difference? I don’t know. I was sent the title track by a trusted PR source, which always makes a wee bit of a difference. And… I don’t know, maybe I gave it longer, maybe just concentrating on the one song helped, and maybe I was just in a more receptive mood. It was still far from immediate, though.

This album has been lurking around my ‘Incoming’ playlist for weeks, and honestly I tended to drift off halfway through for the first few weeks. In some ways listening to music at your desk is nice, of course, but it can make you a bit inattentive. This record is more of a ‘glass of wine, evening in’ kind of a record and it wasn’t until realised this that I really got it.

Recent ‘Americana’* releases I have fawned over on these pages include the lush and beautiful John Murry record and the stunning new album from the Willard Grant Conspiracy. This sits somewhere inbetween. It has neither the fascinated/horrified grip of the Willard Grant Conspiracy, nor the lush, produced loveliness of John Murry, It does have some of the elements of Murry’s album, such as the lush choral backing vocals here and there, but whilst the WGC album takes a scalpel to that kind of loveliness, this just seems to mug it with chloroform.

Consequently you have an album which doesn’t so much interrupt its more beautiful moments with more distorted, disorientating noise, as it does smother them. A bit like the glorious Timber Timbre, this album has a subtle knack of leaving you forever undecided about how nice it is. It uses minimal electronic beats at times, drones and noise in some of the production, and a drifting, uncertain sense of pace to maintain a sense of mood which can forever go either way.

I suppose if you wanted to go back a while it also shares kinship with the awesome Confluence by Howe Gelb – a combination of dusty beauty, experimental discomfort and ramshackle stumbling - another album released in that weird dead zone ten years in the past, when music is supposed to be at its most unfashionable and embarrassing.

Anyhow, I can’t tell you much more than that. I think this record is fucking gorgeous, but given I admitted at the beginning to it being by first real connection with a back catalogue twelve albums deep I am in no position to comment on the band themselves really, or where this sits with respect to the rest of their canon. I can tell you that it’s ace though, and encourage you to make time to listen to it from start to finish, and with attention, because if you take the time to do so you will be rewarded. I, on the other hand, am off to buy the album they released before this one and see how I get on.

*Don’t worry, I don’t think that term really means much either.

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Joanna Gruesome – Weird Sister

jogro Having seen so many try and fail, I always wait with slightly bated breath whenever bands known for a handful of thrilling pop songs release a full album.

To get this over with quickly: no such worries here, this is fucking brilliant.

I was introduced to Joanna Gruesome by our pals Jake at Basement Fever, and I would love to refer to them as Toad Session alumni, but theirs remains the only Toad Session we have so far managed to fuck up.

The vocal tracks were just too full of snare and cymbals to get a decent mix out of them, and it’s something I’ve been both a little ashamed of and rather irritated by ever since, as every other aspect of the recordings came out really well and they were so nearly salvageable.  Try as we might we never managed it though, and the files still sit on my hard-drive, taunting me.

In the hands of a more competent engineer, however, the band sound ferocious. They bash through their snarling guitar-pop tunes with some gusto at the best of times, and the UK’s current king of making great recordings of garage bands, whilst still keeping the energy and lo-fi character intact, has done another stellar job with this album.

Obviously, the tunes also have to be great, and these are. Instead of casting off their past, the band have taken the opportunity to re-record some of their existing favourites. Tunes like Sugarcrush, Madison, Candy and Lemonade Grrl have been around for a while now, but with new recordings and with Alanna McArdle taking on a more prominent role they are given fresh life, and sound fantastic.

McArdle – who releases her own rather brilliant stuff as Ides – wasn’t actually in the band when we met them a couple of years ago, but her role is such that Pitchfork described Owen, who was the lead singer two years ago, as ‘occasionally joining her on vocals’.

Her voice works really well for the band, musically. Their style is very retro-inspired, and at various times could be loosely described as indie, slacker, twee or grunge, and her flat, dispassionate delivery flits comfortably across those genres, managing to sound at once like an isolated outsider and occasionally like a more vulnerable soul hiding behind barbs and bile.

Given this album is being released on Slumberland in the US and Fortuna Pop over here, the band have done really well for themselves in the couple of years since we met them last, and I’m really pleased for them. From the miasma of bands you meet with interesting songs, promising singles and so on, it’s always interesting to see who will manage to raise themselves out of the grubby basement venues and make a more lasting impact.

With their combination of energetic and fashionably nasty-sounding stuff, and a shitload of irrepressible pop tunes, who knows, these guys could do rather well. I hope so.

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Willard Grant Conspiracy – Ghost Republic

Wgc_ghost_republic_LARGE First things first: this is an absolutely blindingly brilliant album. You can buy one here, and I strongly recommend that you do.

Compelling, fascinating, beautiful and harsh. It perfectly harnesses some pretty nasty noises, and uses them to twist and distort an otherwise beautiful album of minimal, gorgeous acoustic music.

The mixing is really unusual as well – something you wouldn’t think would be possible with so few instruments. But the viola sounds almost completely untreated, and sits so high in the mix that every last squeak of the fingers on the strings is delivered with perfect clarity.

It’s an odd effect, almost like staring so intently at an advertising hoarding that all you can see is the pixellation, while the image itself drifts out of focus.

The Willard Grant Conspiracy used to be one of those bands I automatically cited when reeling off a list of my favourite bands, but their last record was released in 2008, with another album of re-recorded versions of existing songs following the year after.

Consequently, they sort of fell off my radar, something about which I felt a little guilty given that Robert Fisher granted me my first ever interview for Song, by Toad, and rather graciously encouraged me along through a conversation which I can only assume he found more than a little amateurish.

I suppose I also haven’t listened to all that much of the band’s output recently because of my vinyl fixation – apart from this new record, none of their stuff seems to exist on vinyl at all.

Wrapped up with all that, it’s difficult to really describe my first reaction when I settled down to listen to their first album in about five years, but there was certainly a lot of apprehension. I was a bit nervous of  not liking it, and a bit nervous that they might have lapsed into that smooth but unremarkable incarnation of themselves which seems to plague so many bands when they reach a certain point in their development. Middle-aged flaccidity, I suppose you could call it – Around the Sun by REM being a prime example.

Consequently the sheer rawness of this came at first as a shock, and then as a delighted vindication. Then, as I listened to the album again and again and realised just how absolutely fucking brilliant it is, I just became happier and happier – like reuniting with an old friend after years apart and realising that, actually, you get on better than ever.

A minimal acoustic album is, almost 100 percent of the time, a more beautiful, easy to enjoy sort of affair too, but not this one. This may have many beautiful moments, but the core of its character is how those moments are corrupted by harsh intrusions of noise and snarl.

The opening tune, Above the Treeline, is as good an embodiment of this as you’ll get, I suppose. It starts out with a beautiful acoustic guitar and Fisher’s voice, which is always a lush and beautiful thing. The viola nudges you instantly into ‘ah, a lovely acoustic ballad with strings’ assumptions, but slowly but surely it begins to dawn on you that that really isn’t what you’re listening to at all.

Firstly, as I said, the viola is unusually high in the mix, giving it unsettlingly clear definition all the way through – squeaks, squeals and all. What is being played gradually drifts as well, starting out fairly conventional and nice, but getting more and more shrill and uncomfortable as the song progresses.

Throughout most of the album the music is underpinned by fairly gentle acoustic guitar and vocals, leaving the harshness to wash across it like little eddying storms. The record itself was inspired by a poetry project about an abandoned mining town, and there’s a sense of the banal everyday aspects of what is left behind being represented in the normality of some elements of the music, whilst the more unforgiving and heartbreaking reality of what would cause a town to be abandoned makes itself known in waves.

It reminds me, in a sense, of the interplay of normality and horror in the photos of abandoned classrooms in Chernobyl.

There’s something in the hard edge that this record has which makes casual listening seem to be rather missing the point. Fisher has written records in the past which you can derive as much enjoyment from in a casual listen as you do by pouring a strong gin, shutting the curtains and turning it up loud, but I don’t think that works here.

From the title track onwards you can feel there’s just a bit too much intensity here for that. For a lovely record there is so much snarl and needle to this that proper listening feels like the only kind of listening to which it is suited. I’ve heard the damn thing dozens of times now and every single time I’ve had to pretty much stop what I am doing and pay close attention.

It gets nastier and nastier as it progresses, and really is just so very good I’ve not been able to stop listening to it since the first moment the promo was sent through. Now the vinyl has been ordered and the gin is waiting!

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The Pool Whales – The Pool Whales

a1737637386_2 When I say that I am often not all that up to date on this site I assume you generally take this to mean that I might be a couple of weeks or maybe a month or two reviewing a new release. What I am guessing you do not assume is that I might cover a new release over a year and a fucking half after being sent it. That, you might think, would be pretty fucking annoying for the artist in question, and given I work with musicians every day I should know better.

And, honestly, you’d be right. And I’m sorry.

Anyhow, given I got here eventually, what release am I on about? Do you remember Adam Balbo? I’ve written about him a lot on Song, by Toad, albeit it not for a while; a fantastic singer-songwriter who falls in that sort of territory between Eef Barzelay and Bob Dylan. Excuse the lofty comparisons – I’m not declaring Balbo to be a woefully neglected godlike genius (although woefully neglected isn’t too far wrong) just comparing the sound and the tone of the lyrics – somewhere between acerbic, bitter, introspective and occasionally tender, in a way which can quite shock you after what has gone before.

The Pool Whales, as he described it when he emailed to me, is a little more of a twee album made on tape by a three-piece bedroom band and then digitised for the benefit of the internets. Although in the current climate a cassette release wouldn’t be too much to ask would it? I would buy one!

This is a band release, however, and the songwriting is split between Balbo and Dan Weiss, a longtime friend and collaborator. They don’t always sing their own songs however, but the lyrics are of sufficiently similar character that the album still has a sense of unity and is not obviously the work of different writers. What Was Her Name is one of those tunes which is absolutely characteristically Balbo however, and possibly the standout track on the album for me, although it’s a close call.

After the cheerful nature of the first three tunes, the loveliness of this really hits you hard. Balbo, like all the best people writing this kind of personal stuff, has a genuine talent for picking out a key line or observation which makes a standard reminiscence on a brief flickering of possibilities over a drink that is never followed up. In a few lines he manages to give a really tangible sense of sadness, and of why she in particular is the one he think back to occasionally. It may sound trivial, but for my money that is a rare writing skill, and one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed his songwriting for so long.

The most obvious contrast on this album is probably the fantastic Tooth Dream. This tune is one of Weiss’s and a gloriously chirpy meditation on later-early-life-paralysis (or whatever you’re supposed to call it). It may be a song about knowing there is a nettle to be grasped and a plan to be made, but still managing to avoid doing it for a little while yet, but there is a breezily upbeat pace to the song which suggests anything but inertia.

And with these two as bookends, the rest of the album sits comfortably inbetween. It’s chirpy and playful at times, but mixed with moments of sadness and reflection, and the two strands are blended really nicely together in a way which gives it a really nice sense of variation, and the feeling that however far you delve into one feeling, the other is never far away.

Musically it may not knock your socks off, I suppose. It’s very plain vanilla in a sense – just some people playing with minimal drums and singing songs based around the acoustic guitar and embellished with a bits and pieces here and there. But the melodies are hummable and the it’s just so unpretentiously and deftly executed that in this case the simple approach works perfectly. The only criticism I would have is that maybe this approach downplays the quality of the material a little too much, but then why should you have to tart things up when you have a bunch of great songs and people to play them with. That’s all we’re really supposed to need, isn’t it?

Download the whole thing on Bandcamp.

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John Murry – The Graceless Age

 In 2006 Bob Frank and John Murry recorded a phenomenal album called World Without End. It was an album of real life murder ballads, in that they were all contemporary songs written about historical murders, and it was absolutely stunning. Heartbreaking, slightly disgusting, and one of those albums which genuinely played with your emotions, turning killers from monsters to sympathetic figures and back again.

I have to confess, however, that as much as I loved that record I haven’t really kept track of either man’s career since. Whether or not that was a mistake I don’t know, but when this album was nudged into my awareness I do remember thinking ‘holy fuck, those two guys, what the fuck have they been up to?’ I suppose that’s the drawback of being a blogger and not a real journalist: bands just drift off the radar occasionally, and sometimes no-one reminds you that they have.

I am so glad I was reminded, however, because this album is absolutely brilliant. You may be surprised that I like it so much, given what I have been harping on about since 2006, but I promise you I genuinely love this. Although having written about the Vandaveer record and encouraged that band to be a little meaner and have a little more bite, this record is lush and lovely and I still think it’s ace.

In fact, if you were to think of Song, by Toad circa 2005/6 or so I was hugely into this kind of music – Son Volt, Howe Gelb, Jenny Lewis, Neko Case, The Willard Grant Conspiracy – and there was no real reason I drifted off to other things, it’s simply what happens I suppose. Nevertheless, I never would have expected this particular album to bring me back.

I’m not sure why, but there’s something about the glossy female backing vocals and the occasional clench-fisted emoting which sends me running away in so many other records, and yet in this, once I’d adjusted to the culture shock, sounds great. The end of Penny Nails may not be quite my thing, but that’s the only place on the album where it doesn’t really work. The epic and surprisingly brilliant Little Coloured Balloons is just incredible, despite a vocal delivery which flirts with being over-wrought and an arrangement which gets a bit close to soulful country rock. There’s nowt wrong with those particular things, but you know they aren’t my thing, and nevertheless I think that song is absolutely brilliant.

It, like the rest of the album, flirts with so many things I don’t like, verges on being too over the top for my taste and all the rest of it, but at the end Murry judges how far he pushes these things so perfectly that I find myself delighted to be in love with a kind of music I thought I had left behind and which I might struggle to explain to my friends. Because once I got over the stylistic surprise, this kind of country- and folk-tinged rock which veers between plush and nasty, is really very obviously my thing. Super-quiet occasionally, melodramatic and tragic at times, but ultimately a hugely sincere album which only sometimes forces its emotion upon you, but largely just delivers, and lets you decide for yourself how you wish to take it. Fucking awesome. Listen to this if you don’t believe me.

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