Jesca Hoop – Kismet

The cover to today’s album has caught my eye more than a few times at work, and I always regretted passing it by without purchasing it. I eventually remembered the album long enough to go ahead and download it on Zune, then listened to it a couple of time and loved it, and then went back to work to find that the CD is gone now. Oh well, I’ll have to buy it later, but for now let’s go ahead and talk about a lovely album from a unique little girl:

It of course doesn't hurt this girl's case that she's really pretty. Love the hair!

I had a few hesitations about this album at first, I mean, what if it turned out to be some boring (or worse, indie) sounding hour-long diatribe into senseless… THINGS?! My fear was exacerbated by the endorsement on the back of the CD by none other than Tom Waits, for whom I have an ambivalent appreciation.

Turns out “Tom Waits” was the farthest thing from my mind as soon as the obscure stringed instrument and bird calls carry in the simple folky tune “Summertime”, but hang on. Simple? There’s about 3 or 4 part harmonies going on at every moment. It’s a little imposing at first, but after the first minute and a half, her voice comes back in again, and it’s completely different. Suddenly she’s singing low? What trickery! This is just the hook I had been looking for in a recording, as simple as it seems, the idea of changing the very tone and structure of your singing to serve a different part of the song (the “adult” vocals compared to the “kids” vocals) is something I last heard from a singer called Nick Drake. Bravo!

So just when I strapped myself in for a smooth late-night swim in the river that Tom Waits promised, suddenly the album takes an abrupt turn. The track “Seed Of Wonder” starts with reggae-flavored/accented rhythmic singing, and a really sweet sounding melody coming in every other verse. Then 3 different vocal parts come in and sing different parts, and suddenly I have no idea what’s going on, but I’m interested. The other part I love about this particular track is that it’s 6 minutes long and never really stays in one place for too long.

It was then that I had to learn more about this mysterious girl. Turns out she is not only endorsed by Tom Waits, she’s somewhat of a protege of his, and came into her sound merely by the process of writing stuff she wanted to hear. How novel! Well, as a huge stickler for originality, that was about all I needed to know to enjoy the rest of the album with a mind open for whatever she wanted to throw my way.

And throw she does! After the multi-instrumental goodness of the previous tracks, she strips it down to just a delicately plucked acoustic guitar and really up-front vocals for “Enemy”. Though the guitar remains at the center of the mix, other melodies and harmonies come in from different sources just to stay a while, and they are certainly welcome.

The sounds of a film projector open up the track “Silverscreen”, which she sings with a very strange accent (she doesn’t seem to be fixed on any particular way of singing as demonstrated in the first track). The song is kind of “noir” for lack of a less sleepy term to use. I appreciate it, though the influence of Tom Waits is starting to show a bit. I don’t know though, anyone can get an oboe to play a haunting melody against an upright bassline, why contribute it to just one person?

“Money” comes in with a nice straightforward message about how commercial success colors the sounds that we hear on albums that apparently aren’t Kismet. It’s a much more straightforward pop song where the typical synth crap is replaced by lovely acoustic instruments and a Jesca’s smooth vocal delivery. I really can’t explain how much I appreciate when actual “thought” is put into arrangements like this. The bridge is not to be missed either, particularly for CUSSES!

Then Jesca winds up the next song, “Dreams In The Hollow”, with some wind-up tool, which I guess releases the French lines sung instead of English ones. I guess French is a better language than English, after all.

Then we have a lovely acoustic song about… Hurricane Katrina?! Well it’s mentioned in a line, I guess I haven’t figured out the rest of “Love Is All We Have” yet, lyrically anyway. It’s another near-soliloquy like “Enemy”, where other sounds come in just to visit for a while and build the song up a bit without distracting from the central performances. Beauty!

Just in case you forgot that this is an album of variety, the next song is a number that defies explanation, called “Intelligentactile 101”. It’s kind of a spacey folk jam (like a daughter-of-David-Bowie kind of song, perhaps?) It reminds me of Bowie anyway, and that is certainly not to its detriment. It’s one of my favorite songs actually.

“Havoc In Heaven” is a song she apparently is trying to sing like Björk only without so many dynamics, and it’s got a nice oppressive beat. What more could you ask for?

Well you could ask for a hip hop song with nice low frequency booms, and if you did, you’re just as unusual as Jesca Hoop, as that is exactly what she comes back with. I can’t help but dig “Out The Back Door”, particularly since I enjoy some very bassy headphones indeed. I also absolutely adore the haunting piano keys in the background during some segments of this song. Really what I adore is a song where I HAVE little parts like that I can pick out as my favorite.

We then have the quite traditional-sounding jazz song “Love And Love Again”, which I THINK is a cover. I am too lazy to check this. It’s a beautiful waltzy number, and the singing kind of rushes it along, which gives it an interesting effect. Of course that effect could be in my mind since I am working on quite an extended no-sleeping period (I think I haven’t had any sleep between the previous 3 Album Du Jour entries). I think I am just going to close here by saying Jesca Hoop accomplishes a very difficult feat indeed, being an interesting solo artist despite the temptation to conform to any type of style or way of thinking. Her all-over-the-place genre bending is a breath of fresh air above the sea of “independent” artists trying to be the next big thing. The real charm of this album, at least from what I can tell from a single day of listening, is that Jesca really is just doing music she would want to hear. I am not sure it’s like “swimming in a river at night” like ol’ Tom Waits says, since I would consider that act terrifying, perhaps it’s more like just being there at the river at night. Ah I dunno.

 

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Ghostland Observatory – Robotique Majestique

Without having heard of the group, I saw a DVD of Live From Austin, Tx. featuring  a duo called Ghostland Observatory. I was naturally curious, and read the back of the box, and one of the things the box made sure to mention was that the band is from Austin, and that they recorded their albums in Austin, and this made me suspicious. I know Austin’s reputation for being awfully proud of itself, so I had no choice but to cast a gloomy shadow of doubt and pre-judgment on this flamboyant-looking duo. I mean, come on, it’s a guy singing dressed like a disco indian, and another guy standing in front of a stack of synthesizers wearing a cape.

It should come as no small surprise that I love these guys.

It's like a robot making love to a tree!! is how the band describes their own sound. Robotique Majestique is the band’s 3rd “studio” album, created only 3 years after their first album (I can’t help but dig prolific artists, being a Radiohead fan, I keep getting fooled into thinking that it should take 4 years to create an album of 12 songs). It was loaned to me by a Starbucks employee with which I was engaged in a discussion of music (before this blog I didn’t have any other outlet by which to talk about music in 1000+ words a day). I since purchased the album and sought out the other two, but decided to write up this one since it’s the first one I heard.

The sound doesn’t deviate far from the band’s established sound, and really, it shouldn’t, since the albums have all come in such quick succession. It’s described on Wikipedia as being “difficult to classify” (great job, encyclopedia of the internet), so I’ll try to do that here. The “instrumentation” (provided by Thomas Ross Turner) is a combination of reverb-laden heavy drum beats (or, occasionally, reverb-laden real drums) that bring to mind 80’s electronic music with the bass turned up, and really warm-toned synthesized loops that bleep and bloop along to the band’s simplistic chord progressions. Against all this is the occasional bought of random noise or the lead singer (Aaron Behrens) playing power chords on a guitar. The singer tends to sing really high, far above what seems comfortable for him (I say this because I have yet to see a live performance where he can recreate the high notes on the song “Heavy Heart”), and it’s in a style not atypical of electronic bands, a mix of soul and not being able to sing along to any discernable melody. If one were to classify all this, I’d say “Electronic disco in minor keys”, or just “Electronic”. There, easy stuff, Wikipedia!

Now onto this album, it starts with an instrumental called “Opening Credits” which is kind of like the synthesizer version of a sci-fi movie soundtrack (either a really cheesy one or a cartoon). It’s a fairly fun track, but doesn’t stick around too long, which is good because this is not a progressive rock album.

The first “real” song on the album is also my favorite, which makes things rather convenient. It’s called “Heavy Heart”, and as you may could tell from my comment above, has a vocal melody full of high notes. What are the lyrics? Who knows, there’s no real effort expended in making them understood, but they seem fairly motivational. The bassy synths are particularly pleasing in this song, as I tend to not go so much for higher-pitched electronic music. The melody is also catchy, bordering on addicting, and really what more can you ask for in a song?

The next song, “No Place For Me”, starts off with more bassy synth that is joined by a very 80’s-tastic plodding beat, the kind used by AC/DC in at least 1200 of their albums. This song also introduces some noisy things that I promise you came from some kind of keyboard device, and some vocal pelvic-thrusting “HUH”s, which are entertaining. The fake ending is pretty great too, so again no complaints.

The next song, “Freeheart Lover” almost replicates exactly the ploddy beat from the previous song, but is saved by the multitude of overlayed “fills” which keeps the thing interesting. The melody in the high-pitched synthesizers reminds me a great deal of the intro to Ninja Gaiden II on the NES (not the X-Box 360 you damned heathen), and for that reason, I can’t help but love this song.

“Dancing On My Grave” actually starts with vocals instead of the beat, which is like the planets aligning. Really, the title kind of says it all about this band, it’s like dance music but with the dour minor chords of death! I guess it’s dance music for dead people. Either way, the “dance” meter is turned up for this track, so there is more emphasis on the beat and less on the oppressive sludgy synths that have taken over the mixes in previous songs. A breath of fresh air!

Then we have the album’s title track, which keeps up the same beat with different things in it, and by this time I should think the average listener might start to get a little tired, possibly sleepy, maybe unable to control large vehicles, but above average listeners will still be dancing at this point. The sludgy synth makes a return to this song, and with the reverb turned up, so that there is no escape.

We then move on to “The Band Marches On”, which is a lot of fun on bass-heavy headphones, as it features that crazy random low-frequency bass behind the beat that is so popular in car audio stores. The drums sound like they’re probably real on this track, but it’s hard to tell through all the reverb. It’s not until about a minute and a half that the “real” melody comes in, so it’s like having to fight Dr. Wily again.

The next song is another favorite of mine, “Holy Ghost White Noise”, which is actually anything but “white noise”. The thing I love about this song is the beat, it’s not just a 1-2 punch like the rest of the album, it’s got a slight bit of swing to it, but not so much, after all, you wouldn’t want to derail the synthesizers. I should point out at this point that I really dig Aaron Behren’s voice, and it’s really one of the things that won me over to this band so quickly, so the fact that I picked an instrumental as “a favorite” doesn’t mean any detraction from the songs with vocals.

Another song I consider a late-album success is “HFM”, where the speed is actually turned way up and more of a punk element is brought in. The vocals are distorted and really who cares what the guy is saying, it’s a track I can’t help but enjoy, and if you don’t enjoy it, at least be thankful it’s one of the shorter tracks on the album. There is a lot of low frequency and high-frequency playing around in the mix, as well, so really this is a joy to listen to.

Finally, the vending and opening of a canned soda introduces another 1-2 beat against which the last song plays. It’s called “Club Soda”, and I guess it’s meant to be a dance club hit, thus the imagination and variety of sounds is hugely compromised to keep that beat going. Still, it’s hard to keep a good band down, and about a minute and a half in, the guys switch the beat around and introduce layers of sound that keep the song interesting. This song is the 3rd of the instrumentals, and really it would probably had been better titled “Ending Credits” because that is a bit more what it sounds like.

Robotique Majestique is really a good album, so if you’re in the mood for good electronic music, I say you can do way worse. Just ignore the fact that they’re from Austin and that Austin is very proud of them; that stuff gets irritating quick.

 

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Poor Old Lu – Sin

After yesterday’s abysmal entry about an album I actually kinda dig (except, well, you probably know), I decided it’s time to write about an album I really like. In fact, it’s one of those albums from my past that I can remember owning on cassette for years before even starting a compact disc collection.

I’m-a-talkin’ about my once-favorite band: Poor Old Lu (still favorite in many categories, but ousted from all-time-favorite-of-all-genres by Gentle Giant some time ago). Before I explain much further, Poor Old Lu is most definitely a Christian band, so possibly won’t appeal to all palettes, but I say to true music fans that appreciation for music should not be hindered by religious belief or lack thereof. I can say in all honesty that there are atheist, agnostic, and even Buddhist music acts I consider in my favorites, and anyway what kind of person would dislike someone like Johnny Cash for instance simply because he’s Christian? Such thinking is very narrow indeed, and I don’t need you losers reading my blog (but do tell your friends to stop by).

Right, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about Sin:

That peep is judging you with its cold, recessed eye-bits

One of the reasons Poor Old Lu has retained its spot in my heart with much larger acts is that they are quite a unique sonic outfit. Not just unique for a Christian band, I mean there really is no band I have heard that sounds like them (not saying much on my part, I have a very limited experience with American alternative rock bands). Their sound is a blend of chunky, full guitar chords (none of this power chord nonsense), kind of thinned-out and melodic bass that doesn’t sludge up the mix, and perhaps the most unique, the fantastically busy drumming and raspy vocals that don’t seem to realize they’d be much better suited for something MUCH heavier. The team of Aaron Sprinkle, Nick Barber, Jesse Sprinkle, and Scott Hunter (respective to the instruments above) are no strangers to variety either, particularly in this, their sophomore album on the Alarma Records label.

The other curiosity to this album is, if taken by its vinyl (or cassette!) A side and B side, is almost entirely dire and angry on the A side and the “hits” (at least the ones that warranted music videos) are all tucked away towards the end of the album. This kind of works since there’s certainly no Late Album Slowdown to deal with, but the two sides contrast rather sharply so it could be that the most “accessible” tracks being right at the end might have driven away a few new customers, but oh well their loss.

The album actually does start out on a high note with “Complain“, which is one of their stronger opening songs, I feel (my favorite would be on an album to come that I will certainly write about). It’s strong, fast, and the angry people’s key of G, so all is well.

The next song, “Bones Are Breaking” kind of starts into a melancholy feel that speeds up for the chorus and is a really smooth track all around (despite the false-start). The one thing that can be noted about Poor Old Lu’s songwriting, and really a lot of “good” Christian rock, is that the lyrics can be as earth-shattering and dour as you can imagine, but there’s almost always a redemption verse right at the end, or during the bridge. Often it’s subtle, but the chorus and bridge lines of “Bones Are Breaking” are an excellent example of how Poor Old Lu redeem themselves in their lyrics:

Well I can’t hold this weight
upon my shoulders anymore
My bones are breaking
Hands are shaking
With everything

So I
Give all
To You
My God

And really, if it weren’t for the bridge, this would practically be a suicide song on par with Rezso Seress. Fortunately the album picks right up after that!

Actually… no, it doesn’t. It goes into a fast-paced and rather aggressive tune called “My World Falls Down“, which is an anti-sanctimonious song that is quite the concert favorite (most likely due to the heavy guitars and straight-up screaming rock finish). Then comes “Slow”, which takes it down a notch back to grief-stricken depression set to an interesting rhyming scheme dealing with colors and elements to correspond to emotional turmoil, and ultimately redemption. It’s a good track though not very popular, I get the feeling that the band isn’t even that fond of it.

Lyrically, the next song, “I Am No Good” is one of my favorites. It’s a song that completely tears apart the idea of Christianity equating to unfettered self-confidence and positive thinking. These types of songs in the so-called Christian genre are very few and far between, and often fly under the radar until they offend someone (I remember a Southern Baptist friend being very negative on this song). The music is wonderful in this track, but really the boldness of suggesting a very fundamental yet feared aspect of belief in any Higher Power (that, indeed, the presence of a Higher Power makes us a much Lower Power) instantly wins me over. There are only a couple of other Christian singers that I have seen do this with a lot of success, and one of them is Johnny Cash.

The next song, “Thoughtless”, is a follow-up (though written apparently at a later time) to “I Am No Good”, and follows the same idea that I just spoke of. It’s a really powerful song, and uses the idea of quantifying all of your worldly good with pocket change:

In my money, I was at home
To the beggar, I was so cold
In my pockets, all that I could hold
As I left here, this was all I was told

Well I get a dime for all of my good
A nickel for all that I could
And a quarter for all I said I would
And I was left poor, poor, poor
Oh my how poor

Again, if it wasn’t for the spiritual side of this album, one would well imagine this being simply a self-loathing mess. A little while after this intense song chimes its last chord on a cliffhanger, a single acoustic guitar comes in and plays a very nice bit of instrumental melancholy, which indicates the switch from Side A to Side B.

Side B starts with a very upbeat (almost a “punk western” song if I were to call it anything) track called “Hope For Always“, which is entirely about the Hope that defeats the loathsome feelings contained in the previous side. This theme is continued in the phase-shiftastic “Where Were All Of You”, which is more pop-sounding and is the first straight up evangelical number (in that it mentions Jesus Christ being “crucified for you and I”).

The next track is the amazingly funky “Bliss Is”, which is incredibly fun though the lyrics deal with being raised in a dysfunctional family and even contains direct suicidal elements, but is redeemed by a very unusual but honest line:

Savior, save me from what I know
Save me from what I know

The video is just plain goofy. I love it. This is one of my absolute favorite Poor Old Lu tracks, in fact, but that’s not to take away from anything else on the album.

The next song is “Cannon-Fire Orange”, which is a song the band has recorded many times and has its own story attached. It’s a good track, perhaps incongruous with the first part of the album, but an excellent fit for the second, and certainly a good segue into Aaron Sprinkle’s (of whom I will be making many entries seeing as how he’s a prolific solo artist and has another band now) singing debut, “Ring True”. I’m not super-crazy about this song, to be honest, except when I can sing along and harmonize, that’s really fun.

If you thought the A-side to Sin was dark and depressing, have the guys got a surprise for you. The next-to-final song on Sin, “Sickly“, is not only a band favorite, but very nearly the guys’ best song. Incredible, seeing as how it was written apparently without the writer’s knowledge (he consistently states he doesn’t remember writing it, only that it was there when they recorded it). It deals with a very tricky subject, and that is contrasting elements such as “Is it sunny, or is it raining out today?” that seem akin to Bipolar disorder, and in fact the whole thing seems to spell out hopeless depression (“I don’t know, but I think I’m going crazy”) against which prayer (in the very final line, “I think I’ve gotta pray”) seems to be the only answer. The “seems to be” part of this song is really what gives it a haunted feeling, because the other “redemption” songs rather bluntly put it to you that there IS an answer to the problems stated in the song, but “Sickly” takes it to the level of real fundamental problems, whether emotional or mental, and leaves the answer open. It really stirs up some emotions if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing.

The very last track is a Jesse Sprinkle original instrumental played solely on 12-string acoustic guitar. He would later re-record “Come To Me” on his own solo stuff, so I don’t consider this a significant track other than the attempt to NOT end the album on “Sickly”. It’s still pretty, though.

There’s also a secret track (as there is on 2 other Poor Old Lu albums) which is an answering machine message from emo pioneer Jeremy Enigk as a child to Lu bassist Nick Barber about a missing necklace. Did I mention I love Poor Old Lu?

Anyway, if I were to recommend Poor Old Lu to someone, I might recommend a later album since they are far more polished, but I would be remiss not to recommend listening to Sin at some point, as it is a gritty and very raw album that deals more maturely with the spiritual and religious life than a whole stack of Michael W. Smith’s.

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The Pale Pacific – Urgency

Every once in a while, I run into a band that is in every way good enough to “change my life” and what-not, but they are so buried in obscurity that really I’m only able to get about 1 or 2 albums from them before they disappear forever.

Such a band is The Pale Pacific.

This is the biggest picture I could find, just deal with it!

Now, as I understand it, The Pale Pacific are considered “indie” and I am not sure how to take that. They definitely produced their stuff independently, and they do enjoy reverb on guitars and such, but if I had to call it anything, I’d call it melancholy pop, something that sounds great on a dreary rainy day, of which Washington state (where the band resides) has plenty.

The band actually started out a lot more upbeat, back when they were simply called The Pale. Actually, if one took the previous album to this one, titled Gravity Gets Things Done, it was more half-upbeat, half-dreary, and very long. I suppose the addition of “Pacific” to the band’s moniker signaled the advent of a new all-dreary sound. The only Pale Pacific album, Urgency, however, is really good for being so dreary.

The album opens up with “In The Sun, Pt. 2”, the first part of which is on the Rules Are Predictable EP, the Pale Pacific’s first EP under that name. Really though, the song is not a true sequel, it’s actually just a re-recording of the original, where driving beats and distorted guitars are replaced with mellow E-piano and acoustic guitar. The song is quite short, and almost sounds unfinished, but serves really well as an intro to what’s coming up.

The song “Sucker Punch” should rightfully be considered the best song on the album, which is not to take away from the rest of the album, but it’s a really good song. The beat is trippy, the vocal/e-piano melody gorgeous (hence my hesitation to call it an “indie” song as they hardly ever feature any kind of discernible melody), and the guitars are reverb’d to the moon. The only thing that keeps me from declaring “perfection” with this song is the awkward bassline that doesn’t really follow anything. I guess it works, but I guess being a bassist myself, I can’t help but imagine it being better.

The climactic ending of “Sucker Punch” brings the album up quite nicely from the murky climate it had established into a slightly more energetic phase, and that is continued with the song “Tied To A Million Things”, which features a sinister wall of reverbed guitar and a crunchy bassline that makes me forgive the bassline from the previous song.

After that wall-of-sound mess (a pleasant mess, mind you), we are then treated to a cleaned-up pop song called “Identity Theft”, a straight-forward song about not getting into a life of crime with your dad. It’s got a catchy beat that the song is more-or-less built around, and despite the fact that almost NOBODY I show this album to ever warms up to this track, I think it’s great. It features some real quick strumming from the guitarist as well, which is always fun.

The album is then brought down a spell by the irrepressibly mellow “Fortune Folds”, which is a track that I probably shouldn’t like because it really does kind of sound like an “indie” song at least until the chorus, where it is really a magical little number. The lyrics are really vague though, but in a way that kind of helps to not pay attention to them. After all, if the melody’s good enough, who needs words that make sense?

Speaking of which, the next song is another more “cleaned up” number called “Your Parent’s House”, which is apparently sung from the perspective of a dude who really hates hanging with his girlfriend’s parents and likes to complain about it for 4 minutes in song. Despite the wussiness of the lyrics, it’s a rockin’ track that is every bit as strong as “Sucker Punch” as far as the arrangement goes.

We then move on to “Written Down”, a straight-forward guitar-driven song again sung from the perspective of a selfish wimp, someone who just had a child but wanted a son but got a daughter and proceeded to be all bitchy and passive-aggressive about it (I am guessing anyway, the whole thing is slightly vague). All in all, a fairly fun song.

The tone is then slowed down for “The Strangest Second Chance”, which tells the story of an alienated small-town friend who leaves her group of jerk friends to drive in her truck until she feels better about a recent fall-out. She then proceeds to fall asleep and crashes the car, waking up with amnesia and doesn’t remember the bad stuff her friends did, and loves them again, hence “The Strangest Second Chance”. Uhh, I kind of told the whole story of the song there, but hey if you like really mellow guitars and a slow beat, you should still give the song a listen.

The next song is more of a straight-up pop song, and I’m as fond of it as the others, but it is put together quite well. “If Only She’d Leave Town” is a song about pushing away a woman the singer feels ambivalent about or somethin’ like that. It is one of the only “upbeat” songs on the album, and maybe that throws it off for me.

The album slows down with “Back To You”, about an awkward childhood moment the singer reflects on. It’s a nice, introspective number that I’m sure many particularly sensitive people who recall their pasts often can relate to. I don’t know any of those people, though.

Finally, the album ends with the epic 8-minute crawl of “Fall To Place”, a song so slow you can sometimes forget you’re listening to it between the beats. I really dig it, and in fact the previous album had a very long ending track too, so I guess it’s a running theme. The song is very sad, and in a way that seems appropriate to the overall feel of the album.

It’s not so bad
When you look back
Keep your chin up
But don’t hope for more than you should

It takes an entire minute and a half to sing that much. There are some really fun low frequencies that drone on in the background, though, so I always wind up listening to this track for the duration. Subtlety, eh?

So that’s the album, and it was probably my absolute favorite album for the entire year of 2006, the year after its release. I was pretty depressed all the time, though, and one tends to gravitate to these kinds of albums when that happens. I still am quite fond of it, and I really would like The Pale Pacific (and maybe their “sister” band, Fair, of whom I will definitely be speaking of alter) to come back to Texas, as the only time they came out this way was in 2005 touring with Dredg, of all bands. I was so impressed by their performance that I bought all the CD’s they had available. Still, such is the curse of “independent” bands, they are almost never independent of the amount of money and time it takes to go touring. Moreso the shame, but maybe they’ll put together another album and tour, I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on their Myspace page to be in the know when they do.

 

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