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Uilab

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Fires EP

Willie's comments: In 1996, Stereolab hooked up with NYC “post-rock” trio Ui to record this EP, two thirds of which consist of different mixes of a cover of Brian Eno’s glambient pop treasure “St. Elmo’s Fire.” Ui plays the instruments, Stereolab sings and occasionally adds more production. Those bits are great, running the gamut from faithful reinterpretations of Eno’s song (the “Radio” mix, helmed by Ween collaborator Greg Frey, the Moog-centric “Snow” mix) to only tenuously related experiments in synth-lounge music and delay effects (the “Spatio-Dynamic” and “Red Corona” mixes, respectively). Then there are two other songs, “Less Time” and “Impulse Rah!” The latter borrows from Sun Ra in an unremarkable demonstration of the fact that any number of percussive tracks can indeed be played simultaneously, and the former is a tuneless but entertainingly groovy collection of basslines and wordless vocals from the ‘lab’s Laetitia Sadier and the late Mary Hansen. It’s probably not enough to encourage Stereolab fans to check out Ui (I can only assume that most of Ui’s fans already know Stereolab), but it’s enough to make those fans happy. If nothing else, the inclusion of any of the “St. Elmo’s Fire” versions on mixes for your friends/coworkers will solidify your hipster cred, so there’s no need to splurge on the horn rims if you have this. Grade: B+

SEE ALSO: STEREOLAB

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Ulysses

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010

Willie's comments: Quite some time after Apples in Stereo members Robert Schneider and Hilarie Sidney divorced, Schneider threw together a backing band and threw together some songs and threw together an album under the name Ulysses, presumably to work out some of his frustrations. And I do mean "threw together." Well, I don't mean it literally, but you see where I'm going: the whole album was recorded with one microphone inside a garage, which could've been a nifty literal throwback to the days of the early psychedelic garage rockers that Schneider so reveres... if the resulting disc were any good. At all. As it is, the monophonic production squashes all the instruments together in a way that may be authentically garage-rocky, but that does no favors for Schneider's plodding songs. As was evident from the Apples' releases before Schneider let his inner George Martin out to play with the band's arrangements (Fun Trick Noisemaker and the EPs compiled on Science Faire), the man's hit-to-miss songwriting ratio is really not that impressive, and although his fillery songs can handily be saved by appropriately giddy neo-'60s production (as on the Apples' fantastic Tone Soul Evolution and The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone, which- I should note- also contain plenty of hooks), they just sound empty when you boil them down to their essence.

And that's what Ulysses does. Like the Rentals' Return of the Rentals, crisp Moog sounds (courtesy of keyboardists Ben Fulton and Robert Beatty) are employed in an attempt to justify the laid-back, stripped-down atmosphere, but not only are they not enough to salvage the dawdling likes of "Glacier" and "Change," they're all but buried beneath the drums and lo-fi guitars. Even when the tempo picks up on songs like "The Falcon" and "Frustrated," the energy can't overcome the lack of properly immediate production. However, the main problem is still the fact that these songs are just plain leaden, and there's not a single one in 010's half-hour running time that's fully worthwhile. The melodies are half-formed and hookless, the chord progressions unoriginal and uninspired; it's a boring ol' mess. Futhermore, while I'd be a hypocrite to chide Schneider for the bile with which he attacks his ex here (as the breakup album I recorded, The Airbag's Lipstick Kiss, has been compared to "looking at a huge, infected, open wound"), the ugliness of lines like "Inside a pissed-off prostitute, I try to get my mind off you" is both off-putting and totally incongruous with the slight, upbeat music. Here's a mnemonic device for you: scramble the letters in Ulysses and you get "uselyss." There it is. Grade: D

SEE ALSO: APPLES IN STEREO

SEE ALSO: MARBLES

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Unbelievable Truth

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Almost Here

Willie's comments: Unbelievable Truth is a musical project fronted by Andy Yorke, who happens to be the sibling of Radiohead’s singer/lyricist/genius Thom. So, for better or worse, Andy’s band is destined to put up with endless comparisons to Radiohead. That’s somewhat unfair, since Unbelievable Truth approaches music totally differently from Radiohead: Where Thom is concerned with changing the world, and uses complex fusions of prog rock, pop, and electronica to make his point, Andy is content to comment on love and other aspects of daily life, and his music is appropriately simple, folksy, and pretty. Andy’s voice isn’t as distinctive as Thom’s, but it is gorgeous and (Jenny tells me) his accent is sexy as all get-out. Almost Here suffers from rather monotonous production (and Andy doesn’t help his case against this criticism by repeating a big chunk of “Solved” in the middle of “Forget About Me”), but there are plenty of good songs here. “Solved,” “Finest Little Space,” and “Higher Than Reason” are memorably catchy, while the beautiful “Same Mistakes” can stand next to some of Crowded House’s better work. Ultimately, though, this album only illustrates that Unbelievable Truth has a lot of potential; hopefully, the next one will be the affecting classic that they’re obviously capable of. Grade: B

Ginny's comments: If Andy and Thom Yorke got together for an album, they'd be unstoppable, though male-stubborness and sibling rivalry will probably prevent this from ever happening. Though it'd be impossible to mistake Unbelieveable Truth's music for Radiohead's, I won't even waste my time attempting to compare their drastically dissimilar styles. However, both Andy and Thom have a distinctive vocal simiarity that, despite their best efforts to avoid, is a genetic trait that makes their accents both gorgeous and magnetic. Andy, in particular, has a voice so gentle it seems to melt into the acoustic guitar. "Higher than Reason" and "Be Ready" are amazing, and though some of the other tracks tend to be a bit on the bland side ("Forget about me" and "Building" for instance) the album shows that genius DOES run in the family. Almost Here is the album-equivelent of Nirvana Unplugged. Simple, yet elegant acoustics accompany darkly beautiful lyrics (only a near-sighted critic would dismiss this album's genius with an aseptic word such as "pretty") Unbelievable Truth should be given massive credit for being infinitely compared to Andy's sibling counterpart, and they've held their own pretty darn well. Almost there, guys. GRADE: A
Added note:
If you love this album as much as I do, I implore you to buy the "Solved" single which contains the best song they've ever recorded called "Roadside No. 1." It wouldn't simply stand up next to "the best Crowded House song," it would run it into an early musical grave. Incredible.

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The Unicorns

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Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?

Willie's comments: I can deal with bands being either smug or twee, but not both at the same time, and this smartass duo (multi-instrumentalists Nicholas Diamonds and Alden Ginger) is frustratingly unwilling to commit to one side or the other, thus making their sophomore album unbearably cutesy for long stretches. With toy instruments, outdated keyboards, and clattering song structures that rarely allow potentially hooky melodies to linger- instead knocking 'em quickly into the dust like a Whack-a-Mole game- The Unicorns initially recall the musical scribblings of talented, hyperactive indie-rockers like Half-Handed Cloud, The Olivia Tremor Control, or Of Montreal. However, with each subsequent listen, the messiness of songs like "Child Star" and "I Don't Wanna Die" becomes less charming, especially when you've got a handful of comparatively well-developed songs like the groovy "Sea Ghost," the ominous "Tuff Ghost," or the sublime "Jellybones," which carries a great melody through several effective sections and includes a trippy, buzzy keyboard intro to boot. It doesn't help matters that the guys sing in an unnecessarily strangled approximation of Wayne Coyne's high-pitched gargle (an influence made explicit by the inclusion of a Flaming Lips line in "Les Os"), but it would take more than accomplished singing to salvage most of these underdeveloped piecemeal jobs. Fneh. Grade: C+

READER COMMENTS:

Trevor e.y. writes: i couldn't agree more with your review of the Unicorns. I was very disappointed in it, escpecially the way it was hyped by magazines and websitres at the time. Notice 2 years later, it is never talked about....

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UNKLE

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Psyence Fiction

Willie's comments: It sounds like a great idea to have a host of talented vocalists and guest musicians accompany DJ Shadow’s deep grooves- a sort of trip-hop supergroup. However, as the presence of actual vocalists distracts from the trancey nature of Shadow’s work, the tracks succeed or fail on the merits of the guests’ contributions. As such, songs featuring Kool G Rap and The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft fall flat, and "Getting Ahead in the Lucrative Field of Artist Management" is little more than a sophomoric joke. On the plus side, however, Badly Drawn Boy lends his voice to an impressive "Nursery Rhyme," and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke wails on "Rabbit in Your Headlights," a pensive, moody piece of electronica noir. Grade: B

SEE ALSO: DJ SHADOW

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: SUBURBIA SOUNDTRACK

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: BEASTIE BOYS; RADIOHEAD; CORNELIUS; BADLY DRAWN BOY; BUFFALO DAUGHTER

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Unrest

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Imperial f.f.r.r.

Willie's comments: The late home recording project of Mark Robinson (currently of Air Miami) is reasonably good. Among such one-man bands, Unrest isn't nearly as magnificent as James McNew's Dump or Damon Gough's Badly Drawn Boy, but rather belongs in the company of Bill Callahan's stultifying Smog. Imperial f.f.r.r. is widely held to be Unrest's best album, which shouldn't make anyone salivate to investigate the band further. It starts off promisingly enough, with the irresistable pop confection "Suki" and the dreamy drone rock of "Imperial," but it quickly goes downhill. Too many songs, such as "Champion Nines" and "Firecracker," are repetitive instrumentals that not only go on too long, but do not develop at all along the way. By album's end, even the fully formed songs have lost their hooks ("Yes She is My Skinhead Girl") and Robinson has fallen into irritating self-indulgence ("Full Frequency"). Perhaps you have more patience than I do, but it took me about three sittings to slog through the whole thing. And I don't think it's a trip I'll be taking again. Grade: C

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: THE 6THS

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Until the End of the World soundtrack

Willie's comments: Has any movie soundtrack ever had the star power that this one packs? R.E.M., Elvis Costello, Depeche Mode, Lou Reed, k.d. lang, U2, and the Talking Heads all appear here, but the amazing part is, they all contribute great songs! It’s remarkably cohesive for a soundtrack album, too- virtually all of the songs float along in a dreamlike haze, regardless of which artist performs them. The exception is Reed, whose nonsensical rocker “What’s Good” is such a hoot that it’s impossible to harp about its baffling inclusion here (“What good is seeing-eye chocolate?/ What good’s a computerized nose?/ What good was cancer in April?”). R.E.M.’s “Fretless” is an Out of Time outtake that’s gorgeously dour, while Julee Cruise’s cover of Elvis Presley’s “Summer Kisses, Winter Tears” is terrifically spacey (and her singing voice sounds charmingly like Mokey from Fraggle Rock) and Patti Smith and her husband Fred turn in a hypnotic spoken-word track. From all accounts, the movie was pretentious at best, laughable at worst, but it was worth making just to get this soundtrack out. Grade: A-

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Urinals

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Negative Capability... Check It Out!

Willie's comments: I cannot tell you how much I love this sort of compilation that brings together every single song by great, short-lived bands. It's a pocket-sized discography! (For those of us with large pockets... for super shoplifting.) The Happy Flowers' Flowers on 45, The Left Banke's There's Gonna be a Storm, etc... very satisfying to own. Anyway, Negative Capability brings together every studio track L.A. punkers the Urinals recorded- along with 11 live tracks- between their formation in 1979 and their mutation into the band 100 Flowers in 1981. (Granted, they reunited in 2003 for another studio album, but don't step on my editorial hook.) And it's beautiful. Too fast to be sloppy, yet too lo-fi and minimal to even compare to the craftsmanship of the Ramones, the Urinals' penchant for two- (or one-)chord punk blasts with stutter-step rhythms and simple, chanted melodies puts them in the same boat as Pink Flag-era Wire. Of course, Wire would actually be steering the boat, whereas these guys would be hanging off the side, throwing empty beer cans at fish and daring each other to try to touch the center of the propellor without losing a finger. The liner notes admit the Wire comparison, but also credit the Urinals with influencing Mission of Burma, The Clean, and The Minutemen, and... I guess, maybe. I think it's easier to draw a line between this band's hit-and-run aesthetic and sophomoric sense of humor (two highlights here: "Male Masturbation" and "I'm a Bug") and that of The Dead Milkmen's early stuff, though.

However, primitive and silly as these songs are, they're actually fantastic songs. Or songlets, at least. Singer and bassist John Talley-Jones barks his lyrics maniacally and unintelligibly, but rarely does the band resort to flat-out noisemaking. The guitar tones are crisp, the vocal lines on-key, and the rhythm section actually listens to each other, which is more than a lot of these bands can say. And the more thought-through songs, like the wonderful surf-feedback instrumental "Orange Anal Sin," are delivered with the same faux ferocity as songs like the one-chord gem "Ack Ack Ack Ack." The live bits at the end of the disc are fun, with semi-serious covers of songs by The Soft Machine, The 13th Floor Elevators, and Hanna/Barbera as well as audience-mocking jokes like "Mr. Encore." However, you want this for the first 20 songs, which rock on by with hooks and energy to spare, and at least a dozen shoulda-been punk classics like "Hologram" and "Sex." What? *sigh* No, you don't want to buy this after you pick up Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. What's wrong with you? Grade: A

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What is Real and What is Not

Willie's comments: In 2003, a reunited Urinals (having replaced guitarist Kjehl Johansen with Roderick Barker) released their first studio album, 25 years after originally forming. In the interim, they enjoyed a brief career as 100 Flowers, and Talley-Jones and Johansen spent some time in Trotsky Icepick, neither of whom I’ve heard as of this writing… but at some point, the band clearly absorbed pointers on merging punk with other, shimmerier rock genres from such Western bands as Camper Van Beethoven, Meat Puppets, and Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, because What is Real and What is Not sounds similar to Negative Capability only in that there’s a significant amount of talent behind the songwriting. No longer dependent on songs whose total notes can be counted on one hand, the Urinals are willing to incorporate harmonies, jangliness, and even acoustic guitars in their comparatively ornate compositions, which don’t lose any of their previous biting sarcasm, catchiness, or energy. The album is remarkably thoughtful, particularly on its best track, “Beautiful Again,” which is as accurate an expression of paranoid depression as I’ve ever heard (“I don’t dare to raise my head/I might blast the birds from out of the trees…I’m afraid to open my eyes/I’d see that every flower is diseased”), given the same easygoing, sun-baked treatment as all the other tracks. But at the same time, the Urinals never forget to have fun, whether they’re joyously plowing through a Bee Gees song (“Jumbo”) or Talley-Jones is envisioning himself as a horny superhero who fights the evils of female road rage (“I Make Love to Every Woman on the Freeway”). As such, it’s probably still the best representation of the punk ethos from people who were there that you’re going to find this century, made by men who get that it’s nevertheless okay to actually sing the praises “of the Fucked-Up Girl.” Grade: A

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U2

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The Joshua Tree

Willie's comments: For an album that sold umpteen million copies, The Joshua Tree is really, really boring. It’s surprising that a producer as consistently creative as Brian Eno couldn’t eliminate the monotonous quality of the Edge’s chimey guitars and Bono’s wailing vocals. Big hit singles “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Where the Streets Have No Name” are basically interchangeable, while most of the other songs don’t leave any impression at all. Only “With or Without You” is worthwhile, thanks to the stirring bass line, but rather than buy this pretentious mush, if you want to hear that song, just tape any given episode of Friends which revolves around romantic troubles between Ross and Rachel. Grade: C

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Achtung Baby

Willie's comments: By 1991, U2 could have been called "the biggest rock band in the world" without much argument from anyone. The Joshua Tree was mystifyingly huge, and Bono's head had grown to match, so the band rejiggered their sound a little for Achtung Baby. Instead of relying on the one-note slickness that made The Joshua Tree such a bloody chore, here the band chose to pump up Adam Clayton's bass in the songs, tentatively dip their collective toe into techno, and write choruses designed to soar to the highest seats in the nosebleed section. Thankfully, it worked, and it resulted U2's most immediately gripping album to date. Apart from the laborious "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" and the abrasive "The Fly," every song has something to recommend it, from the effortless catchiness of "Mysterious Ways" to the hypnotic sleaze of "Acrobat." "One" is masterful peacenik rock, and "Until the End of the World" is a killer song with the sort of detached vocal treatment that only a truly charismatic rock star can pull off (too bad Clayton's bass seems to be lagging a half-beat behind the rest of the song, for some reason. It really annoys me everytime I listen to it, and I want to fix it). This is definitely the place to start if you're curious about U2. Grade: A

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Zooropa

Willie's comments: This time around, producer Eno apparently did things his way. This is a sparse, clattering collection of computerized noises, keyboards, and effects that is, quite simply, the best thing U2 ever did. The title track is an epic swipe at the advertising industry (“Don’t worry baby/ It’ll be alright/ You’ve got the right shoes to get you through the night”) that builds from a droning, chattering pulse to a great rocker. “Numb” lets Edge sing, and he does so in a literally monotonous chant that’s hypnotic and droll, while “Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car” is danceable and surprisingly weird. It’s futuristic, catchy, and clever. Woohoo! Grade: A

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Pop

Willie's comments: Much ado was made in 1997 about this being U2’s “techno” album, but when you stand this album up against Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton’s pulsating electronica theme to the Mission: Impossible movie, or even Zooropa, that assessment doesn’t make much sense. Despite an appreciable increase in the number of danceable rhythms on songs like “Discotheque” and electronic effects on songs like “Mofo,” Pop sounds basically like a return to the rock smarts of Achtung Baby. And that’s to the good: “Staring at the Sun” could hold its own against “One” as the band’s catchiest song, while “The Playboy Mansion” has Bono murmuring lines like “If Coke is a mystery/ And Michael Jackson history” to some expert slow funk. “Miami” is really grating, but apart from that, Pop is classic U2: Spiritual, intelligent songs that stick to your brain just as the album’s title suggests they should. Grade: A-

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All that You Can't Leave Behind

Willie's comments: Well, five albums into these U2 reviews, I suppose I should confess that, like the Butthole Surfers, I don't think I ever properly understood U2's appeal. As much as I love their previous three albums, I recently realized that I love them only as individual albums in and of themselves; not as releases within the context of a great band's work. To put it another way, I'm not a big U2 fan in the way I'm a fan of Radiohead- I don't look at Achtung Baby as "another wonderful U2 album," but just as " a wonderful album." I've just never understood how U2 can be seen as the musical saviors that their fans see them as (and the band desperately wants to be seen as). A tidy little band, sure, but Bono's lyrics have never evoked any sort of emotion in me beyond occasionally muttering, "Huh. That's clever," and the band's traditional sound (i.e., not what they sound like on Zooropa and Pop) always strikes me as trying just a touch too hard to sound majestic and uplifting, floating too high above the listener's head to really relate to. (This is in contrast to someone like R.E.M., who sound as though they're actually down in the trenches with you. Apart from Monster, of course.)

These thoughts were brought on by All that You Can't Leave Behind, U2's attempt to return to sounding like U2 after the electronic diversions of the past two albums. They succeed in that regard, but as the album cover suggests, the band reaches all the way back to the monochromatic era of The Joshua Tree here, crafting more melodies that are pretty and serviceable, but as eminently forgettable as your average cloud. "Elevation" almost recaptures the rock pleasure of Achtung Baby, and I really like the Edge's guitar work on "In a Little While" (an understated little tune that superficially recalls "What Goes On"-era Velvet Underground), but most of the songs ("Kite," "When I Look at the World," "Walk On") are so wispy they're barely there. In addition, the lyrics are uniformly dull, and "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" is an abysmal attempt to humanize the band's sound, and it fails as thoroughly as Blur's "Tender." If, unlike me, you love U2 for being U2, you'll surely dig All that You Can't Leave Behind; I guess I just don't get it, 'cause it bored me silly. Grade: B-

READER COMMENTS:

Rich Bunnell writes: I do think that "Joshua Tree" is overrated, but I can't see how "Zooropa" and "Pop" could even come close to the A-level. They're not horrible albums, but they're utterly average and have far too many tracks that just don't work. Of the two, I actually think "Pop" is better, because it has standouts like "Discotheque" and "Last Night On Earth," but I can't see for the life of me why they're shoved so high up against the band's early work.

I don't consider "Joshua Tree" their masterpiece, but I think it's worthy of a B. As for their real masterpiece, I'm one of those shallow, easily-impressed folks who loves "Achtung Baby" (A+) completely to death. "War" (A) from 1983 is really good, too, and "The Unforgettable Fire" (B-) would be great but there're a few inexplicable filler tracks which really overshadow the good ones.

I heard U2's next album is gonna be "hard-rocking." Did I hear that correctly? Judging from the quality of their "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me" single (but not Weird Al's parody version, "Cavity Search." WEIRD AL FREAKING RULES DAMMIT.) the idea of U2 doing a whole album of the stuff would be reeeeeally grating.

John Schlegel writes: I'm a pretty casual U2 listener. They're a good band, but, considering how much I'm into '80s alternative rock, I'm surprised I don't like them a lot more. I actually love some of their older songs, and some of their classic albums are great (especially War). But for some reason this band has just kind of bored me from the '90s onward. I definitely find their earlier output to be more earnest and inspiring than their much more commercially geared newer sound. I do agree that The Joshua Tree is overrated, but it's still a fine album, and not as mediocre as you say it is. On the whole, I like the album tracks better than all the big singles. A lot of web critics seem to like Achtung Baby the best. I admit that I have not really listened to that album, so I have no opinion of it--the singles just don't really "grab" me in any profound way, which is the way I feel about all newer-era U2. Dunno' . . . I just don't seem to "get" this band. My girlfriend loves older U2, but she sure doesn't care for Achtung Baby. My favorite U2 songs come from their earlier years for sure--"Desire," "I Will Follow," "Sunday Bloody Sunday," and "The Sweetest Thing" (I guess the last one is pretty new-school, but it's an exception).

LoadesC writes: I was into U2 before the first single came out. I would't listen to them now as there are so many better things to listen to! My ratings:
Boy B+
October B
War C
The Unforgettable Fire A-
The Joshua Tree A
Rattle and Hum C+
Achtung Baby A-
Zooropa B+

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: TIBETAN FREEDOM CONCERT ALBUM; UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD SOUNDTRACK(though I really shouldn't have to link you to that one)

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: BRIAN ENO; MOCEAN WORKER

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