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Friday, December 27, 2019

Album of the week, Dec. 27




Album of the week (of the year?), Dec. 27: Purple Mountains - Purple Mountains

I am ashamed to admit that up until about ten days ago, I had no idea who David Berman was, had never heard a single song by the Silver Jews, and suspected that this one-album project «Purple Mountains», which for some bizarre reason kept cropping up on year-end lists all around, would probably be a collaboration between another boring bunch of bearded neo-folkies, nice for a couple listens and then gone for good (see Avett Brothers, Band Of Horses, etc. — the list is actually endless, because for every generic urban teen-pop sensation these days you have to have yourself a generic rural revival band). I could partially be excused for this, of course, since Berman had very consistently kept a low profile from the very beginning of his career, and the only way I could have learned about it would for me to become a very big fan of Pavement, which I never did become.

Maybe it was all for the better, though, because these days I am so short on pleasant surprises that to receive the biggest surprise of the year right now made this Christmas a little bit more endurable than it has been for me over the past two or three years. Thirty seconds into the first song I was all "oh no, not another modern country-rock singer-songwriter with nothing to say, and playing something that sounds like Weenʼs ʽPiss Up A Ropeʼ at 30% the energy and 10% the humor, too". Two tracks into the album, I was feeling a spiritual connection stronger than with any other 2019 record Iʼd heard. Halfway into the album, I was feeling as if Iʼd just made myself a new friend. By the end of the album, I was literally tearing up — and it was only by the end of the album, mind you, that I actually began looking for more information on Purple Mountains and the man behind it.

If, like me ten days ago, you happen to be in the dark about David Berman as well, let me just state a few brief facts about the music. This is a collection of ten simple, unpretentious, unassuming tracks that should generally be characterized as «country-rock» or «roots rock» or whatever and offer no particularly new or challenging musical ideas whatsoever. Most of them are moderately catchy in the same way that any traditionally-oriented country tune may be catchy — in the sense that youʼve probably heard it before. The arrangements, constructed by Bermanʼs small backing band, are just diverse enough so that the songs do not completely blend into each other: a touch of swampy harmonica here, a swoop of pseudo-Mellotron there, a sweet little slide guitar solo here, a bit of quasi-Latin brass instrumentation there. The singing is competent, but from a technical point there is absolutely nothing to write home about. Based on all this evidence, this is an album that I should, by all accounts, have hated or at least forgotten about the very minute it breathed its last breath — and so should everybody else. Instead, it became the freshest breath of musical air I remember breathing in in... well, quite some time.

Back in the old days, when I tried to carve out a crude, but workable system of criteria according to which Iʼd rate records and artists, arguably the most elusive of those — but also arguably the most important of them all — was the criterion of adequacy. Not to be confused with the easily understandable sincerity, it is more of a question about whether all the parts of the whole come together in an organic and unforced manner. Is the style of singing adopted here suitable for the chosen musical arrangements? Do the words pursue the same goals as the melodies? Is the level of atmospheric ambitiousness and pomp justified by the complexity of the music? It was the kind of intuitive, but efficient test that, for instance, a progressive rock band like Genesis would typically pass with flying colors, while a progressive rock band like Kansas would flunk face down in the mud (leading to a lot of bewildered people asking me, «how can you hate Kansas if you claim to love Genesis?» — too bad I never had enough time to finish that Only Solitaireʼs Dummyʼs Guide to the Art of Adequacy).

This criterion of adequacy is something that gets broken down over and over again, more and more often as we advance through the first decades of the 21st century. Chances are that if you are a modern artist — commercial, indie, doesnʼt really matter — you have probably violated it many times without even suspecting. Crappy pop artists who toss their simplistic shit up in the air at Glastonburies and Coachellas, hoping that it will rain down on their audiences like a modern day Beethovenʼs 9th — or crappy indie loners like Justin Vernon or Phil Elverum who think that the surest way to get into your hearts is to ostentatiously deliver you their own on a plate, cut up into small-size chunks and delicately wrapped up with a silver ribbon each. Above and beyond everything else, though, most of those people are busy creating their own personae. More often than not, I find myself shying away from a record because I get a distinct feeling that its author is trying to be somebody else — and, again, it does not matter if we are talking about some insecure 18-year old girl trying to be the next modern day Madonna, or about a perfectly normal next-door neighbor going on stage and trying to become the next modern day Robert Plant. Thereʼs this damn distance between the real person and the artistic personality that seems to become wider and wider with each passing year, and it certainly doesnʼt help things much in the adequacy department.

This is why Purple Mountains, despite all of its simplicity, immediately stood out for me — first and foremost, it is one of the most adequate, if not the most adequate, period, record of the past few years, hell, maybe even the entire decade, that I had the luck to come upon... ironically, in the very last weeks of that decade. It is nothing more and nothing less than David Bermanʼs personal diary, subtly arranged in poetic and musical form — and its aim is simply to make public that diary exactly the way it is, without omitting any significant details and without embellishing any single one of them. The music perfectly serves its purpose: it makes absolutely no pretense at innovation or «specialness», but it ensures that the diary, all of its thoughts and sentiments, reaches and influences your senses, much like a pharmaceutical capsule ensures that the relevant powder reaches your infected organs. Likewise, Bermanʼs singing voice is completely devoid of any artificial tricks or modulations that give vocalists their unique characteristics, but it has this little natural quiver to it, you know, the one that sounds so endearing when the singer actually manages to hit the right notes — your ears are guaranteed not to bleed, and at the same time you have the impression of dealing with a fragile, vulnerable human being who just might need a friend in yours truly... and you might need a friend in him, too.

The amazing thing about Purple Mountains is that, although all of the songs consistently focus on a long series of disillusionments, disappointments, personal tragedies and global catastrophes, it is not a record about the narcissistic art of self-pitying. As the very first song tells us, ʽThatʼs Just The Way That I Feelʼ: Berman simply wants you to know that after a fairly long period of searching for the meaning of life, he has realized that life has no meaning, or, if it has one, he has no way of ever finding it out. At the center of it all lies a somewhat predictable breakup story: several of the songs explicitly deal with the end of his long and troubled relationship with his wife — a relationship that may have been doomed from the start, as it typically happens with a relationship between one person who loves life to a certain extent and another person who hates life in most of its forms. But, once again, Purple Mountains is not your average «breakup album». When he sings about how ʽAll My Happiness Is Goneʼ, it should be taken not only in the context of its immediate lyrics about the "light of my life", but in the general context of the album as well — which covers quite a few irritating factors. Most importantly, he does not present this situation as a tragedy: more like an inevitability of life, something to be accepted and dealt with in the same manner that we accept and deal with bad weather, or, say, news about some gruesome airplane crash in a country (or galaxy) far, far away.

I have not even mentioned yet that the album features some of the best lyrics I have come across in this century — I normally tend to avoid quoting specific lines, just so nobody could suspect me of being over-wooed by the words rather than the music, but, hell, much of this stuff is easily Dylan- or Cohen-level shit, and also, yes, this time around I will actually allow myself to be over-wooed by the words, just because it is downright scary how often they click with my own feelings. Just see here: "The life I live is sickening / I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion" (ʽThatʼs Just The Way That I Feelʼ — not to mention rhyming "destroyed" with "schadenfreude", which should score extra points on any board); "Lately, I tend to make strangers wherever I go" (ʽAll My Happiness Is Goneʼ); "Got a comb over cut circa Abscam sting / Make a better Larry than Lizard King" (ʽStoryline Feverʼ); the oft-quoted hilariously bitter "If no oneʼs fond of fucking me / Maybe no oneʼs fucking fond of me" (ʽMaybe Iʼm The Only One For Meʼ); and probably my favorite of all — the ambiguity of "Light of my life is going out tonight / With someone she just met... Light of my life is going out tonight / Without a flicker of regret"; if these lines arenʼt Nobel-worthy, I donʼt know what fuckinʼ is).

Once again, though, even if the lyrics are inarguably the albumʼs strongest individual selling point, Purple Mountains is not an album about brilliant word-craft. Nor is it an album of «Americana», though you could technically file it under that label for lack of a better one. Nor is it an album driven by ego and personality — nor is it a conservative retro-statement; at times, Bermanʼs deep crooning might bring on faint associations with Johnny Cash or even Frank Sinatra in his Wee Small Hours phase (Frank would most certainly have endorsed the slow-paced, humbly gorgeous ʽSnow Is Falling In Manhattanʼ), and at other times, I even had faint thoughts of J. J. Cale, but Berman is not a minstrel, not a minimalist, not a deconstructivist, not a... in a way, it is easier to define Purple Mountains by all the things that it is not, rather than the one thing that it is, and this is a good thing, because the result is an album that is at once fully conditioned by its personal, social, and cultural context and at the same time completely and utterly independent of it. All that matters is the honesty and adequacy, and the implications of the awful pain, not an embellished, amplified, hyperbolized version of it; if we do wish to find the closest analogy in Americana rootsiness, I think the best example would be Hank Williams, though that was, of course, a very long time ago and followed completely different standards.

Listening to the album just made me realize that, perhaps, here is the very key to my being so disappointed with most of modern music — in its endless quest for, on one hand, innovation and modernisation, on the other, imitation and resurrection, most artists have simply forgotten that the artistʼs first, if not only, task is to be able to express the artist himself / herself. They all really want to be someone else: the next Kate Bush, the next Springsteen, the next Mariah Carey, the next Britney Spears, the next Pearl Jam, whatever. They donʼt draw their inspiration from within themselves or even from what is happening around them — they draw it from second-hand musical recipes, thinking that if, perhaps, they shuffle enough ingredients between several of them, this is what will make them them. How frickinʼ ironic, then, that it takes a goddamn musical recluse like David Berman, who allegedly spent most of the last decade locked in, to remind us all that true art comes from the heart, rather than cookbooks.

When it comes to individual examples, one link will certainly not suffice for this masterpiece. Here is, arguably, the most intimately personal song from the album:


— and here, for contrast, is the most directly «social» song from it, transparently reflecting Davidʼs disappointment in humanity and religion while still preserving enough space for his little phonetic games (note all the quirky internal rhymes in the bridge):


 On an additional curious note, after discovering Purple Mountains, I had time to round up some highlights from Silver Jewsʼ individual albums — and while they all predictably shared the same Berman charisma and showed his excellent lyrical skills, nothing really hit as hard as this album. Itʼs almost as if his entire life was really leading him up to this moment: in one of the interviews accompanying the release of the album, I saw him explaining to the reporter that he felt this might indeed be his best work, despite how clichéd such a statement could feel coming from the mouth of an old musician, what with all the old dinosaurs always boasting about their «returns to form» etc. — except that he was 100% right about it.




SPOILER PART (Do not read this if you have not yet heard the album and are not at all aware of the circumstances around it — rather, go listen to it first and then come back here):


Believe it or not, it was not until I had finished listening to the album and formed a clear understanding in my soul that it was something truly special that I actually learned about the man behind it taking his own life less than a month after the album came out. This was great news and this was terrifying news. Great, because not even God himself could now come down and say that "oh, you only really pretended to love this because the dude hanged himself" — deep down in my soul, I know that Bermanʼs suicide is just as irrelevant to the power exerted by these songs as, say, the killing of John Lennon is irrelevant to enjoying Double Fantasy as one of the greatest hymns to domestic bliss and tranquility. Terrifying, because when you identify yourself so much with the moods, words, and sentiments of a guy who spent most of his fourth decade in the pangs of "motivational paralysis" (which I also suffer from more and more these days) and finally took his own life at the start of his fifth... well, you get my drift.

What is particularly sad is that Purple Mountains are not at all suicidal in mood. Of course, on paper lines like "Darkness and cold, darkness and cold / Rolled in through the holes in the stories I told" and "All my happiness is gone / Itʼs all gone somewhere beyond" might seem like quotes from a suicidal note, and in retrospect, it seems as if they formally were; but even so, I do not believe for one second that Berman actually thought of the album as his testament when he was recording it. On the contrary, there is a stoic feel to these songs — an acknowledgement that even if life seems to have absolutely no meaning at the moment, and even if communication with the outside world has become one large uninterrupted act of colossal failure, it may somehow be in our interests to simply accept this as a given and adjust to the grimness of the situation. This is, almost explicitly so, the lyrical message of the closing song, ʽMaybe Iʼm The Only One For Meʼ, but the entire attitude of the album is about that — rule of the day is «no self-pity, no overblown morbidity» — and only now that the man is no longer with us, we can see how hard it must have been for him to observe that rule, and how his brain actually drove him to break it.

Some of this decadeʼs best albums have already been associated with death (Bowieʼs Blackstar, Cohenʼs You Want It Darker), yet, for some reason, Bermanʼs little oeuvre strikes me harder and harsher — not just because he was so much younger and took his life himself, but also because both Bowie and Cohen had long since built themselves their own cozy ivory towers, definitely not shutting themselves out but privileged enough to look at this degrading world of ours from a bit of a safe distance; Berman, for all his reclusiveness and mental issues, always sounded like he was very much of this earth — probably one of the reasons why his engagement with Judaism after heʼd dissolved the Silver Jews turned out to be short-lived and only led to yet another disillusionment. Itʼs all about a guy who would very much want to be friends with everybody, who would be happy to see the world return to the light, but who has finally realized that the entire system, from the political to the personal, has become too fucked up for him to be able to solve this problem. And I donʼt know about you, but I definitely sense quite a bit of David Berman inside myself. Heck, who am I kidding? If you donʼt have a bit of David Berman inside yourself, you must be Donald Trump or something.

[Since this review has definitely outgrown the "mini-" format, video of the week will come separately, a couple days later].

32 comments:

  1. Zzz, George chooses the safest 2019 album as his fav. How predictable...

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    1. I've only heard a few tracks off this album, and while I definitely wouldn't call it "the safest album of 2019," it is what I would have predicted George to pick as album of 2019. Another possible choice would be that Brittany Howard solo album. I don't really care though, I like Berman's previous work, and I liked reading George's thoughts on him as an artist.

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  2. I don't find it a safe choice at all. Big Thief or so would have been a safe choice. Purely musically this albums is quite boring, a repeat of many things that have been done before. But they are done extremely well. Therefore this album sits in the top 10 of many year end list, but I haven't seen it land in the top 3 or even top 5 anywhere, so the term "safe choice" would not be supported. I would not have guessed George would've like this album so much and thought he would toss it off as musically too generic and artistically too much in the vein of other recluses or dismiss the clear Pavement connections from the past (and there's a bit of that slacker mentality in Berman's music).

    I'm happy this album connected with you and gave you a pleasant piece of music to finish the decade. Hopefully many more will follow even though the signs aren't always there yet. I absolutely love American Water too, and it has equally great lines. The other Silver Jews albums have not connected with me as much.

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  3. Purely musically this albums is quite boring, a repeat of many things that have been done before??

    Yet it is not a safe choice? LOL. an original cinematic masterpiece like Caligula is trashed. So George-like..

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    1. You are beginning to sound like a broken record, friend, but perhaps you might take the time to think about this: in the year 2019, there are no longer any "original cinematic masterpieces" in music, whatever that might mean. Every single major venue has been explored, and your precious Caligula is no exception - it merely repeats and reiterates the tropes that have already been explored by dozens, if not hundreds, of neoclassical / darkwave / industrial / avantgarde acts over the past thirty years. It is no more "original" in its neo-classicism as Berman's music is in its neo-countryism. Your brand of pseudo-elitism simply doesn't work in the 21st century - you might just as well start building up a case of why it is so much more important to listen to Mahler than to Pink Floyd.

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    2. Ah, GS, don't underestimate the percentage of pseudo-elitists that love to brag about Mahler ..... the true snob propagates the importance of Von Zemlinksy or (if you're a Russophile like me) Catoire. Mahler and Pink Floyd (OK, Animals is brilliant) are for sissies. So is that Caligula album.
      Now I also have the opportunity to grumble about "not an album about brilliant word-craft", while you hardly write anything about the actual played and sung notes. From this observation I draw the conclusion that they are as little interesting as say Bob Dylan's. That may be still be a tad more tolerable than that "cinematic masterpiece" (of boredom).

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  4. "in the year 2019, there are no longer any "original cinematic masterpieces"...


    Oh, please. This sounds like an old granny rebelling against all things new.

    Music in not limited, not is it possible to exhaust any art form in a way u suggested.

    But I know where you're coming from... I have that need as well, to frame some things in life and all..

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    1. You've obviously never heard any real old grannies rebelling against new things, or else you wouldn't come out with such a cliched response.

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  5. I think it is legit. Your assertion that "there are no longer [...] masterpieces" reminds of that old folks who once claimed that Bowie is Rock's last great author or something.... Nostalgia mixed with reluctance to accept new things. Deny it all you want.

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  6. It's so George Starostin to bash Purple Mountains in the original review, then take it down and praise them in the new review!

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  7. Wow, this was unexpected. I gave this album 2 listens but it didn't make much of an impression on me. I'll try again.

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  8. Anyone who thinks that Caligula is groundbreaking should listen to the works of Meredith monk and Diamanda Galas from the 1980s.

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  9. I know both very well... Lingua is similiar but still very much original, besides Caligila is really different than Dolmen Music

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  10. Well to my ears shes is just a pouser. Her art is nothing but cliches. She is as cutting edge as die antwoord.

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  11. Suicide news treated as a spoiler that's a bit creepy

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  12. Regretfully I tend to agree with the others above. I think your opening exposition is pitch-perfect, meticulously argued, etc., but the music itself is so antithetical to everything you stand for, George. Listening to it once, even twice, doesn't give me the least desire to listen to it again -- the very argument you always use when dismissing a contemporary album. In the context of David Berman's career & life, it's of course a heart-shattering offering, but taken on its own, it's no big shakes, a sleeper which will never in the future be revealed as a lost masterpiece.
    All of which is very difficult for me to admit to, since (like virtually everyone else who follows your site) I'm a devoted believer in your rare, impeccable taste. But there you go, given the choice of album of the year, I'd still have chosen Weyes Blood, for all its derivativeness. An (almost) pure gem, and a voice that pierces this soul far deeper than Berman -- his clever lyrics notwithstanding -- ever could.

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    1. It's all right. I am actually more surprised that a small handful of people have supported me with this choice than seeing that the majority did not. We live in the most splintered of times when music tends to separate people into micro-niches rather than unite them in larger ones, and it would be very presumptuous of me to expect my own preferences run against the general trend. Weyes Blood is a good choice, but I think I made it rather clear in my own review of it vs. this review why my own soul goes for Berman rather than Merling.

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    2. George, Berman's album is a good choice, but my best of the year (and one of the best of the decade) is Big Thief UFOF. Gorgeous. It has the kind of qualities you attributed to Olsen and Weyes Blood with major emotional impact. I would love to read your opinion on this album.

      Gabriel

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    3. UFOF/Two Hands, actually. "Not" is a great song.

      Gabriel

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  13. I haven't heard much of this one, but I'm glad you've found an enjoyable 2019 album George. Much as I enjoy reading your thoughts on 2019 train-wrecks, I think your best reviews are when you're writing about music you genuinely love (or at least really like) as here. I doubt I'll end up liking this one as much as you but your write-up does make me want to check it out.

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  14. No offense George, but I think that you should get back to your regular reviewing of albums instead of writing these Album/Video of the week reviews. Don’t get me wrong, this format isn’t bad by any means. But wouldn’t it be better to use your energy into making reviews? I don’t think anyone would mind if it takes two to three weeks to write one review since pretty much everything you write is gold (and I really mean that). But I feel this mini-format doesn’t add much to the blog like writing a fully fledged review would.

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    1. It's a matter of time and energy. I am currently busy converting some of the older reviews into finalized single pages. This is just a temporary diversion, though it might still go on for a couple months like this.

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    2. I'm fine either way, but if I were to choose I wish you'd review (or re-review) the full discographies of your favorite artists. Your new Kinks, Who, Pink Floyd were great. I'd love to see Tom Waits, Elton, The Police, Bowie, Portishead, things like that.

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  15. Jesus Christ, imagine calling this AOTY

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  16. Mr Only Solitaire I enjoy your reviews and maybe you can seriously thinking of starting a proper You Tube music review channel...I have no doubt in your success...

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    1. Thank you so much, but I'd rather leave YouTube music reviewing to Mr. Fantano. I don't look so good in flannel shirts!

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    2. Mr Only Solitaire Thank you for Mr Fantano tip...fascinating and very talented guy...Few recommendations for You Tube reviews:

      1)For top 100 albums 2019 please check a reviewer under the channel name
      "Listohraphy"....very well presented plus he gave us a link that he created of all 100 entries single representative videos (he obviously invested a lot of time into this....very low subscription level but he is great)
      2) For classic rock please check the channel "Classic Album Review"
      3) And for heavy metal/hard and progressive rock channel called
      "Sea of Tranquility"

      Happy new year

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  17. It's amusing to see good old Georgiy Starostin metarmorphose into Greta Thunberg.

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  18. I surely and strongly must agree to the 'next someone'-BS, that has been going on for a while now everywhere (and is deadly boring). Right now I'm not really in the mood to listen to more of the album than those two songs provided as videos, because winter always comes down quite hard on me moodwise, so I prefer - say, 'Judy Teen' to 'Death Trip', but even from these two songs I find it quite telling (and very irritating) that this one is one of the best albums of the year, if not the best.
    Yes, it is easy on the ear and also the lyrics seem to be very good, but my moods aside: I can't fathom how bad today's music must have become when this is (or should be) it.

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  19. I just took my first listen to this beautiful album, and the line that brought tears to my eyes was "The dead know what they're doing when they leave this world behind" from "Nights That Won't Happen". Thank you, George, for bringing this work to my attention.

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  20. Thanks for reviewing this which I have to admit came as a surprise. I starting listening to the Silver Jews in the late 90s right around the time I got laid off from my first job out of school and it just seemed to fit in perfectly. The imagery and observations of everyday life in the lyrics was so different from anyone in that era. I mean it did not start out this way, my first impression of the band was are the delusional, e.g. "When God was young
    He made the wind and the sun
    And since then
    It's been a slow education"
    It took a little time to acclimate but I got to where it all made sense. Look forward to your SJ reviews if that is in the works.

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