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2008 Gift Guide

Recordings

Alternative/Indie

The holiday season is a time for re flection, for taking stock of the good things in life. So let’s reflect on the bygone days of a little band called Ween. I’m talking about their spastic, hallucinogen-fueled early years, when Dean and Gene traveled the world as a hungry young duo, with just a Yamaha digital tape deck serving as their backing band. These were the hazy, crazy times that brought us such classics as “Cover It With Gas and Set It On Fire,” “You Fucked Up,” and “Pork Roll, Egg and Cheese,” and those songs (and more!) are among the featured tracks on the new CD/DVD set At the Cat’s Cradle, 1992 (MVD Audio/Chocodog). The CD portion is an entire Ween set—21 songs, fast and furious—captured at a December 1992 concert in Chapel Hill, N.C. The bonus DVD culls performances from three separate concerts: in the Netherlands, in Columbus, Ohio, and an in-studio at a Trenton, N.J., radio station. The video isn’t exactly pro-shot—it’s of the hand-held, single-camera variety (read: kinda crappy)—but it’s a bongload of fun to watch.

Ween started out at roughly the same time as Pavement, and based on their extremely lo-fi initial recordings, I’d guess that neither band ever expected to make a career out of music. But by 1997, the Stockton, Calif., band most responsible for the term “slacker rock” had more or less polished their rougher edges; now, with the release of Brighten the Corners: Nicene Creedence Ed. (Matador), we’re given a second look at the last great Pavement record. The original album is remastered here (sounds nice!), but the real hook of the set is the wealth of extras—32 bonus tracks in all, including all of the excellent B-sides of the period, plus dozens of outtakes and radio performances. Highlights include an excellent cover of Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” taped for BBC Radio One, and the epic “And Then (The Hexx),” which, if it had opened the record as originally planned, would have made BTC a completely different album. You also get a 62-page perfect-bound booklet, a poster and a postcard, all inside a deluxe slipcase housing.

Also getting the deluxe-remastered-reissue-bonus-edition treatment this year was the sorta-self-titled 2001 breakthrough record by Mesa, Ariz., emo (in a good way!) pioneers Jimmy Eat World. Bleed American (Deluxe Edition) (Geffen/UME) restores the album’s original title, which was dropped after initial pressings in the wake of 9/11, plus more than 20 additional tracks, including the requisite B-sides, a new recording of the album track “Your House,” and the band’s cover of Wham’s holiday chestnut “Last Christmas.”

There’s really nothing alternative or indie about this, but it’s still pretty cool: In Nov. 1968, a 22-year-old Neil Young played an intimate solo-acoustic concert in Ann Arbor, Mich., a sort of test run for his then-forthcoming solo career. (At the time Buffalo Springfield had just disbanded, and Young wasn’t sure that audiences would take to his music in such a stripped-down setting.) Sugar Mountain—Live at Canterbury House 1968 (Reprise) is the document of that evening, the tapes having sat in storage for four decades. It’s Young at his most vulnerable: He sounds nervous and tentative during the between-song “raps,” fiddling with his guitar and delivering meandering, conversational explanations of the songs. It’s like having Neil Young over for tea.

Among the more unexpected reissues this season are the two albums from early ’70s would-be pop star and gay icon Jobriath. Jobriath and Creatures of the Street (Collectors Choice) originally were issued by Elektra in 1973 and 1974, respectively; the label signed the former Broadway actor (born Bruce Campbell) for an exorbitant sum in an attempt to brand a U.S. version of David Bowie . . . or something like that. Neither album came anywhere near the charts, and Jobriath’s signing is now considered one of the great miscues in the history of popular music. And the music? It’s garish, excessive, sometimes tuneless—and fascinating for all of those reasons. His voice is a cross between Bowie and Mick Jagger (I’ll refrain from making any love child jokes—oops, just did), and the song arrangements are rife with abrupt time changes, gospel choirs, and moody strings. Jobriath was the first openly gay musician to be signed to a major recording deal and, though he passed away in 1982, his music has taken on a level of cult popularity in the gay community, and among music elite—none other than Morrissey spearheaded a renewed interest in the artist by overseeing the first CD reissues of these long-out-of-print albums in the early ’90s. Trust me: The music snob on your list will love you or hate you for dropping a Jobriath disc in their stocking; either way they’ll get a kick out of it.

—John Brodeur

Jazz Gift Guide

It’s the season for gifts and giving, but also of guilty pleasures. For the jazz collector, this can mean pricy indulgence in lavish box sets that satisfy little more than completist urges. Listeners who are just hipping themselves to modal jazz should be pleased as punch with the classic 1959 Miles Davis release Kind of Blue, but for those who long to fully inhabit the best-selling jazz record ever, Kind of Blue: 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition is the ultimate square-toe stocking stuffer. With two CDs, a documentary DVD, the original 12-inch LP, a 60-page book of memorabilia and a fold-out poster, all that $109.98 won’t get the obsessive fan is a sample of Davis’ DNA.

On the topic of box sets that complete collections, provide hours of listening, and double as office furniture, it’s impossible to overlook The Encyclopedia of Jazz (Membran Music). No, really. Billed as “the world’s largest jazz collection,” the set consists of 500 CDs divided into five major epochs: Classic Jazz, Swing Time, Big Bands, Bebop Story, and Modern Jazz. At $780, it’s an investment that should get the most ambitious listener through Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

The assertion that music from legendary artists lives on long after the artist’s death is never truer than on a posthumous release. Last year saw the passing of former Davis collaborator and keyboard wizard Joe Zawinul. On his 75th birthday, two months before his death, Zawinul and the Zawinul Syndicate played a concert in Lugano, Switzerland, that has just been released on the two-disc set 75th (Birdjam). Spanning material from the Davis era, the Weather Report catalog, as well as recent forays into electronic and latin grooves, this one stands as a proper capstone for both Zawinul’s career and the year.

As far as contemporary greats in their prime are concerned, two albums rise to the top of Santa’s sack. The Dave Holland Sextet’s debut recording Pass It On (Dare2) reimagines material familiar to the band-leading bassist’s acclaimed quintet with a sense of power and adventure. Pat Metheny scales it back to a trio for his latest Day Trip (Nonesuch) by inviting the heavyweight rhythm section of Christian McBride and Antonio Sanchez to join him. Spanning samba, soul-jazz, funk and reggae, the group flaunt their versatility without sacrificing classic jazz ballads and swing.

When Esperanza Spalding nearly withdrew from the Berklee College of Music, it was Metheny who urged the young bassist-vocalist to stick with it. She went on to become the school’s youngest professor ever. Now she’s a globetrotting sensation armed with double-threat virtuosity and an energetic young band. Esperanza (Heads Up) is Spalding’s debut. One part jazz and one part soul, Spalding’s music links up with a lineage of bassist-led outfits (Holland, et al), while paying gorgeous homage to the great jazz chanteuses. Bandmate Leo Genovese also has been busy making a name for himself. The Argentine pianist has been a go-to sideman for numerous projects, but it’s in front of his very own trio that his freewheeling chromaticism is best displayed. Unlocked (Ropeadope Digital) is proof. Without fully going off the deep end, Genovese wades in waters abstract enough to make a fine labelmate of Tim Collins.

Fade (Ropeadope Digital) is Collins’ first big break. The young vibraphonist had been hiding in the studio with guys like John Ellis, Sam Barsh and George Porter Jr., when 8-string guitar wiz Charlie Hunter started dropping his name around label execs. After unwrapping this one you can put it up on the shelf next to the other vibe greats like Milt Jackson and Mike Dillon. It grooves at least as hard as the latter. And, hell, might as well make it a twofer by picking up Hunter’s latest Baboon Strength (reapandsow) while your at it. The guy already reinvented the guitar; now he’s busy with the organ trio.

Now that we’ve crash- landed on the outer periphery of the jazz genre, we might as well snorkel over to some stuff that will appeal to both the finger-popping daddy-o and his head-bobbing offspring. Stebmo (Stebmo) is an aught-defining collaborative amalgam. Steve Moore writes jazz tunes as only a keyboardist who’s played with Bill Frisell and Sufjan Stevens can. Moore shares drummer Matt Chamberlain with Marco Benevento, whose trio record Invisible Baby (HYENA) ranks with the year’s best. Dig.

—Josh Potter

Obscure

Let us now praise those rascally musi cians and composers who create works that don’t fit easily into categories, who toil away in obscurity, or who simply like to knock over a few chairs.

The Numero Group continue to unearth the efforts of lost, forgotten or never really visible labels. The latest in their Eccentric Soul series is The Young Disciples. Allen Merry started the Young Disciples through the South End Community Center in St. Louis. Having made a name for himself working with Lou Rawls and Ray Charles, Merry put his efforts into teaching music, putting kids in the studio and keeping them off the streets. Through the Gateway and Merry labels he recorded and released everything from vocal groups and solo acts to a massive horn section and troupe of African dancers. Numero’s Titan! It’s All Pop! collects all eight singles released by the Titan imprint between 1978 and 1981. The acts are similar to the meaty pop being released concurrently by Bomp in Los Angeles and Ork in New York, except that the label wasn’t able to make many ripples emanate from their home base of Kansas City.

When the third album by Enrico Rava was released in 1975, the Italian trumpet player was 36 and it was his first for the ECM label. The Pilgrim and the Stars has finally been reissued, and it remains a sterling work, mixing jazz with folkish melodicism and classical chamber intimacy.

Many more people hear the Microscopic Septet than know their name. That’s because they created the theme song for NPR’s Fresh Air. The group disbanded in 1992 after a dozen years together. Then, two years ago, the Cuneiform label released four discs covering their entire output. This spurred Founder and saxophonist Philip Johnston to reform the group. One thing leads to another and—presto!—a new album, Lobster Leaps In. (Yes, they have a sense of humor.) Surrealist swing, Dadaist post-bop hijinks . . . they cover all the bases.

Fifteen years after his death, Frank Zappa’s music continues to entice, dazzle and confound. Lumpy Money is a new three-disc set on the Zappa Records label, containing the entirety of Lumpy Gravy and We’re Only in It for the Money. These 40-year-old works remain a tour de force of cut-and-paste studio wizardry, sprawling orchestral scores, jazz improvisation, 50s-fueled rock and doo-wop. The set also contains a wealth of outtakes, alternate mixes and commentary, adding to the complete picture of two of his best works.

Veda Hille’s This Riot Life is on Andy Partridge’s Ape label. While it’s the first associated with the erstwhile XTC leader, it’s actually her 13th album. Upon hearing her voice, compositions and arrangements, Partridge’s fascination with her becomes clear (and she sounds something like another of his favorites, Judee Sill). The disc is built around a song cycle based on hymns found in a book that had belonged to Hille’s late grandmother.

Of Great and Mortal Men is a three-CD set contained within a 112 page book. It contains 43 songs, one for each of the 43 United States presidents, undertaken by Christian Kiefer, Matthew Gerken and Jefferson Pitcher. The trio welcomed a slew of contributors, including Califone, Mark Kozelek, and Alan Sparhawk. The range of approaches are as varied as the presidencies they convey. While some of the songs offer straightforward narrative, many are more poetically elusive, finding small details from their lives and administrations to build upon. A new song for our recently elected 44th president is going to be offered for download shortly (see standardrecording.com).

While it’s not exactly music, Shout Factory’s five-disc box set, One Hundred Greatest, is so rich with the rhythm of human voices that to call it merely spoken word seems inaccurate. It is divided into five categories (each occupying a disc with 20 tracks, hence the titular total): speeches, news stories, personalities, scandals, and sports. Everything is here from Grover Cleveland to Barack Obama, Malcolm X to Helen Keller, Babe Ruth to Tiger Woods, and Bob Dylan to Albert Einstein.

—David Greenberger

Box Sets

The economy may be a bit damning for us to suggest pooping out 50 bucks for something you can probably find on LimeWire, but if you’re in a buying mood this holiday season, there are some great new box sets on the market for the music lover in your life. And one for fans of hard drugs and gonzo journalism. Seriously.

This week marked the 21st anniversary of Roy Orbison’s death, and there’s a new box on the market celebrating the career of the man who may have had the greatest voice in the history of rock & roll, Freddie Mercury notwithstanding. The Soul of Rock and Roll (Monument/Orbison/Legacy) is being marketed as the “definitive Roy Orbison collection,” and we’re in no position to argue. Indeed, this four-CD comp, in a lovely white-linen-wrapped package (how often do you hear that about a CD set?), devotes a disc each to Orbison’s four decades in music. The first disc includes tracks from Orbison’s first bands (the Wink Westerners and the Teen Kings), plus his earliest hits and a handful of previously unreleased demos; the second collects all the great ’60s hits he made for the Monument label, along with some rare B-sides; the third moves into the 1970s with some great live cuts and rare soundtrack recordings; and the last disc features some of the 1980s recordings that brought Orbison back into the commercial limelight.

If your intended’s classic-rock tastes run more, well, mainstream, the powers that be have found yet another way to repackage the music of Led Zeppelin. This time, the Rhino label has issued a limited-edition 10-disc box set containing mini-LP replica CDs of every one of the band’s albums, from 1969’s Led Zeppelin through 1982’s post-mortem Coda. The original U.K. album artwork has been re-created in full (to scale, naturally), meaning the debut has the original turquoise logo, Led Zeppelin III includes the rotatable disc, Physical Graffiti has the interchangeable cut-out window illustrations, and all six covers of In Through the Out Door are included. Bonuses include additional photography from the Out Door bar scene and the U.S. version of the Led Zeppelin cover (with orange ink). It’s a neat package, with two major drawbacks: The cooler art elements will surely suffer in these tiny editions, and the set retails for around $200.

Merge Records has slowly emerged as the indie label nonpareil, and they’re celebrating their 20th anniversary with a subscription-only box set called Score! Merge Records: The First 20 Years. For $199, indie-rock geeks get a veritable mother lode of music: 14 CDs of Merge music, each disc curated by a different notable personality (folks ranging from David Byrne to Amy Poehler); a disc of remixes and interpretations from the likes of Battles and Caribou; a set of covers of Merge songs done by non-Merge artists like Death Cab for Cutie and the New Pornographers; a gigantic 350-plus-page book featuring the cover art from every single Merge release; a Scharpling and Wurster comedy CD (Scharpling was the drummer for Superchunk, the band upon which the Merge label was founded); and a custom box in which to put all this stuff. The set can be purchased only via the Web site (mergerecords.com/score), and will be issued in periodic installments between now and the end of 2009. It’s the gift that literally keeps on giving.

Fans of the Philadelphia soul sound pioneered by producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff should enjoy Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia (Philadelphia International/Legacy). It’s four discs of songs by such time-tested groups as the O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and the Spinners, plus a deluxe book full of photos and interviews with the guys involved in the making of this great music. The set is kind of an update to a similar-minded 1997 set—both sets begin, fittingly, with the Soul Survivors’ 1967 hit “Expressway (To Your Heart)”—but there’s enough divergence between the two (the new set has more in the way of rare cuts) to recommend it.

White Zombie—remember them?—have a four-CD/one-DVD, career-spanning box out, titled Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (Geffen/Universal). It’s pretty much everything the band ever put their name on, from their self-released mid-’80s recordings through their multi-platinum swan song, 1996’s Astro Creep: 2000. The DVD features nine music videos, 10 live cuts, and a plethora of bonus material, all of which are probably better than House of 1000 Corpses.

And finally, for the acid casualty in your life—particularly those acid casualties who happen to be journalists as well (looking around newsroom)—there’s The Gonzo Tapes: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (Shout! Factory). If you’re into this kind of thing, this set really is the bee’s knees: five discs of tapes recorded by the good doctor himself, either during or after his many famous trips and travels. One disc of Hell’s Angels notes, from the assignment that made him a near-household name; two discs of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; a disc of thoughts and drafts for works that never got published (I’m guessing Thompson had a lot of those); and a final disc chronicling his time in Vietnam just before the fall of Saigon. The set is a companion piece to the recent Thompson documentary film, and it comes with original artwork by Ralph Steadman, plus exhaustive written notes to add context to the recordings.

—John Brodeur

Folk, Blues, Celtic, Bluegrass

Thank God the holidays are here again. Now we can shove all that economic angst onto the back burner and talk about which of this of year’s roots-music CDs you might want to giftwrap for that folkie, blueshound, Celtophile, or bluegrass fan you need to shop for.

For more than five decades, Delmark has been a leading name in blues records and also is the nation’s oldest indie label. The Chicago-based outfit has celebrated its golden-and-change anniversary with 55 Years of Blues (Delmark), a hot two-CD compilation of material from marquee artists such as Junior Wells, Otis Rush, and Magic Sam, as well as lesser known performers like Sleepy John Estes and Jimmy “Fast Fingers” Dawkins. As the new movie Cadillac Records seems likely to rekindle interest in Chicago blues, this would be a timely pick.

Darker in tone is New Orleans piano professor Dr John’s latest release, The City That Care Forgot (429), a blast of fury at the Bush administration’s feckless response to Hurricane Katrina. On these 13 tracks, which contain some Dr. John’s best writing in years, the swampmeister is joined by Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Ani DiFranco, Terence Blanchard, and others.

Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder are longtime mavens of old-school bluegrass. Their latest offering, Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass: Tribute to 1946 and 1947 (Skaggs Family), pays homage to mandolinist Bill Monroe and his original Bluegrass Boys: Earl Scruggs on banjo, Lester Flatt on guitar, Chuddy Wise on fiddle, and Howard Watts on bass. Monroe originally recorded the 12 songs here during those storied years, and Skaggs and company do them justice aplenty with Skagg’ powerful tenor vocals and Kentucky Thunder’s stellar picking.

On the opposite end of the High Lonesome spectrum, former Hot Rize mandolinist and vocalist extraordinaire Tim O’Brien has a solo CD, Chameleon (Proper American), that features hip contemporary songwriting and his extraordinary instrumental work on guitar, banjo, Irish bouzouki, fiddle, and mandola. As O’Brien showed us at his recent WAMC Performing Arts Studio gig, his songs can range from lightheartedness to trenchant political observations, all delivered with incredible playing.

Ireland’s Kevin Burke, Brittany’s Christian LeMaitre, and Quebec’s Andre Brunet are the fiddlers three of the Celtic Fiddle Festival. Backed by guitarist Ged Foley, their most recent CD, Equinoxe (Loftus), offers traditional tunes from the British Isles, Canada’s Cape Breton and the French speaking lands where the fiddle is played. The trio, each a virtuoso player, offer a full buffet of fiddling: reels, jigs, slow airs, pipe tunes and even French gavottes.

The guitar is not a traditional Celtic instrument, but that hasn’t stopped Scottish fingerpicker Tony McManus from recording a new CD of traditional tunes arranged for the six-string. His new release, Maker’s Mark (Greentrax), is a picker’s version of the proverbial kid in the candy store—McManus was left alone in a room housing the $175,000 guitar collection of Dream Guitars founder Paul Heumiller, who let him record each track on a different, priceless ax. The result is a superb CD with sprinklings of jazz and world music over the Celtic subtext. This would be a perfect gift for any guitarist.

With 50 years of performing and around 30 albums to her credit, Joan Baez is the indisputable queen of folk music. Now the Achingly Pure Soprano is back, albeit singing in a lower range than that of her early Vanguard LPs, with Day After Tomorrow (Razor and Tie). On this record, one of her best in a long time, she is supported by Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott, and others, and performs recently minted songs by songsmiths including Steve Earl, Tom Waits, Patti Griffin, and Eliza Gilkyson. Although you’ll find some of the antiwar themes you’d expect from a ’60s counterculture icon, many of the songs are, surprisingly, spiritual in nature. God is good, but Joan Baez is still great.

—Glenn Weiser

Classical

The tech-savvy know that CDs are an endangered species, and classical music probably is the genre closest to extinction. So start your holiday buying with Endangered (Albany), a set of piano works performed by the excellent Marthanne Verbit, and including a gorgeous suite titled “Five Rivers” by Joseph Fennimore, inspired by the Delmar nature center of that name. Also included: works by Steven Heitzeg, John Kennedy, Peter Lieberson and Hilary Tann.

The big CD companies have vaults of vintage classical recordings, much of it hobbled by the inferior sound of early-20th- century media. But some performers and performances warrant a listen no matter what sonic mists you’re forced to listen through. That’s why I can’t overrecommend a set of Paul Robeson recordings: The Complete EMI Sessions 1928-1939, a seven-disc collection that picks up with Robeson’s London success in Showboat and continues through his subsequent decade in England. Three different versions of signature song “Ol’ Man River” offer surprising contrasts, and a number of forgettable pickaninny songs nestle with glorious examples of Robeson’s rich stylings of spirituals and standards. The 170 tracks were excellently restored by engineer Andrew Walter, and the box includes spare but decent notes on the material.

More recent history—going back a mere half-century or so—is celebrated in Sony BMG’s Original Jacket collections, which gather acclaimed LP-era recordings and in a package that reproduces the album covers in miniature on the CD sleeves. Originally presenting faithful reissues of the albums themselves, the company took some heat for the comparatively brief playing times. The four releases noted here feature filled-out discs, while the sonic state of the recordings seems to be that of the most recent CD release before this set. Each sports 10 discs. In the Jascha Heifetz set, early-stereo recordings of the big concertos dominate, along with Bach’s solo sonatas and the violinist’s final public recital. Pianist Arthur Rubinstein’s set centers on solo Chopin, covering his stereo RCA recordings and probably filling most of your Chopin needs. The Vladimir Horowitz set mines earlier composer-specific collections that bear almost no resemblance to the jackets they’re paired with here, while Bernstein Conducts Bernstein is an essential collection of shows, symphonies, ballets, the Mass and more.

The early digital years didn’t always produce good-sounding stuff, but Chandos got a handle on it quickly. Conductor Neeme Järvi recorded a wealth of Prokofiev’s orchestral works, and the Complete Symphonies have been reissued in a four-CD box, each disc shorn of the material that accompanied the original CD releases. But you’ll find much of it in a series of six single disc issues, including suites from Alexander Nevsky, The Buffoon, Cinderella, The Love for Three Oranges, Lieutenant Kije, The Stone Flower and much, much more.

A Prokofiev footnote: Two distinguished cellists have new recordings worth considering. Rhapsody pairs the Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff sonatas (Virgin Classics), with cellist Gautier Capuçon and pianist Gabriela Montero performing.

Taking matters into his own hands, early music specialist Jordi Savall founded his own record label, Alia Vox, and has been lacing his new release schedule with reissues of older discs deleted from other labels. Thus his vigorous 1993 recording of Handel’s Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks returned earlier this year, as did a lean, affecting 1994 set of Purcell’s Fantasies for Viols. One of the best of the new is a handsome book-and-two-disc package of music—The Route to the Orient—associated with 16th-century Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier.

This list wouldn’t be complete without Mahler Symphonies, and this year alone the London Symphony released four of them—numbers 1, 3, 6 and 7—with the dynamic Valery Gergiev helming the band. Start with any one and you’ll want them all.

Simon Rattle continued his impressive reign with the Berlin Philharmonic with a recording of Stravinsky Symphonies—specifically, the Symphony of Psalms, Symphony in C and Symphony in Three Movements (EMI).

On the vocal front, I didn’t understand why classical snobs disparaged Sting’s foray into Dowland—it was an original, inspired approach. But a straight-ahead classical approach by countertenor Andreas Scholl is heartbreakingly gorgeous, presenting songs by Dowland and his contemporaries in a disc titled Crystal Tears (Harmonia Mundi).

Naxos put together six discs (available, so far, only separately) of the Songs by Charles Ives, with a variety of performers contributing to the alphabetically-arranged list. And EMI combined elements from the Ensemble Modern’s Portrait of Ives (Orchestral Sets, “From the Steeples and Mountains”) with 13 songs sung by Marni Nixon with pianist John McCabe into American Classics: Charles Ives.

The much-recorded King’s Singers topped themselves with this year’s Simple Gifts (Signum), in which the male sextet contrast classic old folksongs with works by Randy Newman, Stephen Stills, Paul Simon, Billy Joel and others.

And my favorite opera recording this year was a budget-priced reissue of John Eliot Gardiner’s version of Berlioz’s version of Gluck’s version of Orpheus and Euridyce, beautifully sung by Anne Sofie von Otter and Barbara Hendricks (EMI). It’s the classic trip to hell and back, a perfect way to put behind us the past eight years.

—B. A. Nilsson

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