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words are geographical

maura @ 12:24 pm

I am angry, so angry, angry and sad, like so many people are right now. I am doing the things I can do to help push back against the things that make me angry and sad. It’s hard to write about those things — they are big and I feel small.

So instead I’m going to write my lingering anger and sadness about Grimes. The past two years have brought lots of moments of reckoning re: our problematic faves, some moments bigger than others. Since learning about her politics I haven’t been able to listen to Kate Bush, for example, even thinking about her makes me sad. Though not nearly as sad as I’ve been since Grimes and Elon Musk came out as a couple and I had to completely cut her music out of my life.

Yeah, it’s small potatoes compared to so much else. But it feels like a betrayal on so many levels. She’d been that rare woman in music who did almost everything herself, not only writing and performing her own music but also producing, mixing, etc. Her music is weird and poppy and dancey and electronic and weird; individual songs often involve many tracks layering and looping lots of different sounds, which I think must also make mixing a challenge. Many of her more recent songs hit that feminist rage note that is sometimes so necessary. She worked with other women in music who I love love love. And then she allied herself with a rich powerful white man who wants nothing more than to be more rich and more powerful. The patriarchy at work, ugh. (Though I have to say that the prospect of him creating some sort of spaceship to escape Earth and taking all of the other rich powerful greedy cruel white men with him is kind of dreamy.)

Her first two records were partially instrumental and kind of quiet, making them super useful for me for two distinct reasons: calming and writing. Sometimes when I’m feeling anxious or unsettled I gravitate toward electronic dance music — something about the way many EDM songs layer sounds on top of other sounds hooks my brain into listening very carefully which I almost always find soothing, like it’s occupying my brain just enough that I can’t be worried about whatever it was I was worrying about. This brain hooking is also very useful when I’m writing. I usually find it challenging to write in complete silence and gravitate toward instrumental music when I need to write something; singing is too distracting, though sometimes very melodious instrumental can also be distracting. Electronic music is generally a good accompaniement to my writing practice — even if it’s energetic — because it keeps my brain focused enough not to try to sabotage myself (because writing is hard, and, let’s be honest, it’s always a struggle to write).

I am still sad and angry, but recently what has been helping me get over my Grimes melancholy is the new record by Orbital, Monsters Exist. This is their first record since Wonky in 2012, which I listened to approximately 1 zillion times while writing up the results of the big project my research partner and I did in 2009-2011. The new record is terrific — lots of dancey stuff and quieter stuff and absolutely helping me out in both the calming and writing arenas. It’s hard to pick favorites but I really like the first track on the bonus disc, “Kaiju,” which starts off sort of minor key and scary and turns into something major and joyful midway, sort of like my favorite track on The Altogether bonus disc, “Beelzebeat.” “There Will Come a Time” has a spoken word track that’s a bit dire, but there’s also an instrumental version on the bonus disc which is lovely. And the singles are also terrific — I’ve found the video for the first single, “Tiny Foldable Cities,” to be intensely mesmerizing, combining both my love of Orbital with my love of urban landscapes.

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that’s not supposed to happen

maura @ 10:30 am

Two weekends ago (or roughly one million years ago in mental time) I was trying to catch up on the magazine backlog and read Emily Nussbaum’s review of the HBO show Westworld. I can’t remember exactly at what point during my reading that I realized that the Colourbox song Just Give ‘Em Whiskey extensively samples the original Westworld movie, but I have not been able to stop thinking about it since.

Colourbox is one of my more favorite underappreciated bands from the 80s. They were on the arty British 4AD label, and sort of oddballs even among their labelmates. (One of the founding members of the band, Steve Young, died last summer, another in the sad string of deaths of great musicians this year). Their songs ranged from boppy electronic songs — including one of my favorite covers of You Keep Me Hangin’ On — to trippy collections of samples from movies, TV, and elsewhere. So I’m reading the New Yorker article and all of a sudden it hits me: were most of the samples in Just Give ‘Em Whiskey, which I’d long wondered about, from the 1973 film Westworld on which the current show is based? A bit of internet searching confirmed it and led me to the original film trailer.

And wow, watching that trailer is a trip. It turns out that many (most?) of the samples in the song are from the trailer, and though they’re not necessarily chronological, the song still seems to convey the plot of the movie (or at least as much of the plot as I can figure from only having seen the trailer): a luxurious theme park for rich white people where the robot workers become sentient and revolt. One of the samples that’s prominently featured in the song is an exclamation made by one of the park’s visitors when he realizes that the robots have gained agency: “that’s not supposed to happen!”

The last 10 days have felt like a lifetime. Another line that’s prominent in the song is “do you fight?” (which fellow nerds on the old 4AD listserv suspect is from the 60s British TV show The Prisoner). I’ve been reading, calling elected officials, donating, editing Wikipedia, talking to friends and family and colleagues, thinking about what comes next and how I can help move from “that’s not supposed to happen!” to “do you fight?”

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i can remember

maura @ 9:21 pm

I’ve been both surprised and not surprised by the huge outpouring of traditional and social media response to the recent and sudden death of David Bowie earlier this week. There were two separate 2 page spreads in the NY Times on Tuesday alone. Some folks I follow on Twitter who aren’t fans have expressed completely understandable perplexity (is that even a word?), which I totally get. I’m sure the circumstances surrounding his death have contributed to this as well — family and close friends keeping his illness so secret, his play starting its run last fall, his new album released on his birthday last week, on what ended up being two days before his death.

Speaking as a fan — not the hugest fan but fan enough that we have more than 10 of his albums — I was utterly gobsmacked. Again, the shock for sure (and also he was the same age as my parents are and I remain unprepared for and unpleased at the prospect of my parents dying). But I’ve read a few articles and essays written by fans, journalists, others and it’s remarkable how many common themes emerge. He was an incredibly talented weirdo who made amazing music that made the rest of us weirdos feel less weird.

The sheer length of his career also means that his music was almost always there at some point in many folks’ lives. That’s how I remember his music, more than anything, as flashes on a timeline, specific scenes:

– I’m 9 years old at my friend’s house. She has two older brothers, one in middle school and one in high school (I think), and we sneak into their rooms and steal their records to play on the turntable in her room. Changesonebowie is a favorite. My parents listen to lots of music at home but they never got into Bowie. Maybe a year or so later I ask for the album for my birthday or Christmas and it’s one of the first records I’ve ever owned that’s mine, not my parents’.

– I’m 14 years old and my family is just about to move halfway across the country (for the second time during my adolescence) from Columbia, Missouri to Wilmington, Delaware. Bowie’s Serious Moonlight tour is set to hit Philadelphia that July. I beg and beg and beg to be allowed to go, but it doesn’t happen. Later on I learn that the live footage in the video for “Modern Love” was filmed at that show in Philly and I am so angry with my parents as only a 14 yr old can be.

– I’m 18 years old and have just graduated from high school, old enough to go to concerts in Philadelphia with my friends, thankyouverymuch. It’s the Glass Spider Tour, two nights at the enormous Veterans Stadium. It’s the one and only time I’ve ever slept out all night to get concert tickets, taking turns with friends sitting in the car and in line at the Christiana Mall, heading to Wawa for coffee early in the morning. The concert is incredible.

Later memories are not as snapshot-clear. I had a phase of listening to Low almost exclusively, over and over again. I saw Labyrinth in the theater, with the then-unknown Jennifer Connelly, and Absolute Beginners too. The cassette I made with Aladdin Sane on one side and Scary Monsters on the other side lasted forever, seemingly, until last year when we got rid of the car with the cassette deck. I also had the factory cassette of Ziggy Stardust that I played until it wore out — luckily Jonathan had the CD. I have kept that Changesonebowie record, for all these years, even though I never listen to it because those songs are all on other albums.

Bowie’s music was like a blanket, is still that way: it’s comforting, familiar, and there’s a song or album for any mood. We don’t have the last few of his most recent records but I’m pretty sure we would have bought Blackstar anyway, and Jonathan bought it for us on Monday. One day soon I hope I’m able to listen to it.

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there are mountains to climb

maura @ 11:21 pm

Over the past week or two I seem to have developed a slight overwhelming obsession for the music of Grimes, an electronic dance music artist from Vancouver. I’m not at all ashamed to admit that, like the old person that I am, I learned about her from reading an article in the New Yorker. It’s not a little ironic that as it’s become easier and easier to hear new music online I find myself listening to fewer and fewer new bands, and mostly default to my old standbys. There’s the old thing I think, and the busy job thing for sure, but also perhaps the there’s so much music out there right now where to even begin? thing.

Anyway, so I’m reading the New Yorker, about 4 issues behind as usual (I had this one week in early August when I was totally caught up, it’s like a unicorn week of summer). I always glance at the music articles but this one was longer than usual which caught my eye. I read for a bit and learned that she also produces and engineers her own tracks — she compared herself to Phil Spector and claims Grimes is the girl group. I also learned that she’s on 4AD, one of the few labels left for which I’ll always at least give a listen to almost anything they put out.

So I start hunting around online and the first thing I find is this track, which apparently she released online earlier this year when it was scrapped from plans for a new album:

It’s been a while since I fell so hard for new music. That *is* the magic of the internet, for reals, because it took me approximately 10 minutes to buy her last record + EP + single and I haven’t listened to anything else since. She’s touring now and coming to NYC next month and of course it’s unpossible for about a million reasons — it’s a weeknight (but all ages! could we bring the kid?) and sold out anyway, and EDM live shows are kinda wasted on me since I’m not really a dancer.

Her stuff is poppy but weird and many of the songs have some of the same attributes that I like in other EDM, especially Orbital and mu-Ziq — layered beats in complicated patterns, plus lots of changes mid-song. This song has a shambling set of back beats that are just amazing, in particular in the first few minutes of the track. Trying to listen to all of it all at once gives my brain something to puzzle over that makes me feel oddly calm — I’m sure there’s some neurological reason for this, but in this suddenly incredibly busy semester I’ll take it, no fancy science explanation required.

The article specifically mentioned that Grimes was concerned that the songs she’d recorded for her new album, including the one above, were too hopeless to put out. It’s a melancholy song, to be sure, though I also find it simultaneously hopeful even when it makes me want to cry. It’s a good song for me for right now. We’re coming up on a year since the unexpected and sudden death of a close friend followed quickly by the somewhat more expected though still sudden death of my mother in law. I’m sad, I’ve been sad, I’m still sad. It’s been a weird time to have a new job that’s a step up, to have a bunch of articles recently published, to have successfully navigated the getting the kid into high school process. The older you get, the more it’s sad and happy at the same time. Music always helps.

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eggs and their shells redux

maura @ 7:03 pm

One thing that’s happened in the past just under a year is that with increased stress comes increased reliance on old music rather than new. I’ve been practically unable to listen to any of the music I’ve gotten for my birthday last year or xmas, with the exception of a few gifts that were of music that I’d once owned but no longer do. Usually those are casualties of the cassette tape and the thriftiness of college. We no longer really have an easy way to play cassettes outside of our 18 yr old car, which does have a tape deck, and an old boombox with a cassette and CD player that we used to play the white noise CDs when Gus was a baby. The CD part is broken but I think the tape part still works (though come to think of it I’m no longer quite sure where it is). And the thing about college and my 20s is that between doing a radio show and having roommates I ended up taping lots of music rather than buying the LP or CD. Now that I’m an old lady I wish I could go back and trade in some of the LPs and CDs I did buy for those I just taped, because only some of that music has had staying power with me.

Familiar music has been like a security blanket to me this past year. I guess it always is. Maybe this is just a normal aging thing, but what’s been new is the narrowing down of what I’ve been listening to. Really it’s maybe only a handful of bands:

– For writing/research: It’s still Orbital. Still. As always it’s got the perfect tempo to keep me moving along when I write, and because their music is mostly instrumental there are no words (usually) to distract me. Really it’s practically Pavlovian, like using Word and Times New Roman (which for me = academic writing).

– For working at work when I’m in my office — email, planning, scheduling meetings, the usual: Pipas. Sometimes Amor de Dias, but if I’m feeling blue they can often make me bluer so it depends. I have all of the Pipas records and I make Itunes play them all through alphabetically by album which means it starts with Mental and ends with Sorry Love. And if I’ve still got work to do I start it all over again.

– For doing dishes on some weeknights: Mostly 50 Foot Wave but sometimes Throwing Muses. The former is louder and sometimes seems more productive — the latter, again, can sometimes bring me down. But loud drums + Kristin Hersh singing is often just what I need at the end of the day.

– For doing dishes on other nights, plus anytime I’m feeling particularly stressed: Cocteau Twins, so much Cocteau Twins. For calming it’s usually the Tiny Dynamine/Echoes in a Shallow Bay EPs; for familiar though not supercalming I’ll do Treasure (still my favorite Cocteau Twins record even after all these years) or Head Over Heels. Plus I’ve had this thing about the song Summerhead from Four Calendar Cafe, sometimes having to listen to that on repeat.

I did have a Janelle Monae and Colourbox interlude in the mid-Fall, but since the holidays it’s been right back to these 4-6 bands. I’m wondering when I’ll pull out of the restricted music phase, no sign of it yet.

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in a room in a house in a dream

maura @ 4:43 pm

I’m reading a book called “Facing the Other Way” about the history of the record label 4AD, and looking through the photos made me realize that I never wrote about the Throwing Muses show we went to last March. March! Can’t believe it’s already been that long. In some ways it’s kind of a boring thing to write about. I mean, it was terrific, full stop. Plus they’ve continued on tour and lots of other people have written about the shows in much better detail than I will here, especially now that I’m 4 months out.

But seriously: amazing. Tanya Donelly opened with a short set of new stuff and old stuff. The new stuff was okay — I have to admit that I’ve lost track of her in the post-Belly years. And the old stuff — Belly as well as some Throwing Muses — was delightful. As I mentioned back when I wrote about the Amor de Dias show we saw in March, Sam from Magnetic Fields played bass (or was it cello?) for Tanya Donelly, which was fun. I guess he’s the itinerant strings person for bands of a certain age playing live in NYC.

Part two of the show was Throwing Muses in its current lineup — Kristin Hersh, David Narcizo, Bernard Georges — playing entirely new songs from their most recent record (released as a book + CD) Purgatory/Paradise. The new stuff is phenomenal if dark, and it was pretty powerful to see it live. I keep telling people that it’s a concept album even though that sounds weird and old people prog rock, but it really is, at least in the sense that it all hangs together as a complete record to listen to start to finish. But the songs worked well live, too, especially beginning and ending this part of the show with “Glass Cats.”

Part three was old school Throwing Muses in which Tanya Donelly came back up on stage. There’s no way, of course, that they could ever play everything you want to hear, but I was super happy with the songs they did choose, especially “Green,” which I’m not sure I’ve heard live before, and “Flying,” which was my favorite track on their 2003 Throwing Muses album.

Looking back at that Amor de Dias post I’m reminded that I got all nerdy when Purgatory/Paradise was released. I got the record for xmas but didn’t end up even listening to it until January, because I made myself listen to every Throwing Muses EP and LP in order of their release before I could listen to the new record. I was also happily surprised to see that they thanked every Strange Angel by name in the record’s book — because there I am!


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i used to wander in the empty road

maura @ 9:04 am

March is almost over, and like most folks in the eastern half of the US I can’t help but think good riddance. It’s been a long weirdly cold winter, so cold we all bought balaclavas (which we can’t help but call baklavas). There was some good snow, so I hate to complain too much, but it was often during times that were difficult to enjoy fully, like overnight or during the commute to work. I’m ready for spring.

Two bright spots in March were concerts! First was Throwing Muses, about which I’ve been writing an epic post in my head for a few months actually, starting to before I got their new record for xmas. So more about that later.

Second was the first night of the Chickfactor shows, the only night we went to because babysitting is expensive. We picked this night because of Amor de Dias and the Jim Ruiz Set, and we were not disappointed even though we were almost late because I read the schedule backwards. The correct schedule was a good thing, because school night curfew is midnight so we ended up having to miss the last band.

To go backwards now, Jim Ruiz Set were great, similar to the last time we saw them two (I think?) years ago. They played the oldies and goodies, “Stormtrooper” will always be a favorite of mine. And the band had a xylophone this time around which was very fun. As they were leaving the stage Jim claimed that this was their last show, that he’s retiring, though I’m pretty sure he’s said that before. We’ll see.

Amor de Dias were fantastic, well worth the wait. We’d tried to see them last year on a tour to support their then-new record, but the entire tour ended up getting canceled when their visas didn’t come through in time. (I just saw on Twitter that the same thing’s happening to Ben Watt right now. What gives with the visa weirdness, US government? It’s just pop music!) Last year’s cancellation made me sad sad sad — Pipas was and Amor de Dias is one of my favorite bands, and while of course we got our tickets refunded it was a huge giant bummer.

They played a good long time, maybe 45 minutes, mostly stuff from the new record but a few gems from their first, including “Bunhill Fields” which I love. Lupe and Alasdair were joined by several special guests to supplement their guitars, first Sam from Magnetic Fields on cello (and the second time this month we’ve seen a show in which Sam was a special guest), then someone from Comet Gain on bass, and finally Pam Berry on vocals. Their music is mostly quiet and contemplative and it was gratifying that folks were into that, there wasn’t much excess talking.

(Wow, this is totally an old person reviewing an old person concert, right? It was so quiet, we didn’t even need earplugs, and we were home by midnight! My bunions were so relieved!)

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my spaceship leaves at 10

maura @ 9:13 am

Janelle Monae’s new record The Electric Lady dropped during a particularly busy week — the first week back to school for the K-12 set, the mayoral (and other) primaries — so I was a couple of days late to the party. But I finally picked it up a few days after its release and have found it mighty challenging to listen to anything else since. And also somewhat challenged for words. I’ve been thinking on this blog post for a couple of weeks now and am still not quite sure what to say.

The record is phenomenal, of course, another chapter in Monae’s futurist-feminist-funky-dance universe. I think chapter is an apt descriptor, too — like her other records this one is highly narrative. She builds worlds out of music. It’s a trip.

Like her last record, this one includes two sections — Suite IV and Suite V — and the orchestral tracks that begin each section are lush and dreamy. Suite IV is both more danceable and rocking, both of the singles are from this section (and most of the guest stars, including Prince!), which I suppose makes sense (and mimics her last record, too). Suite V is full of mostly softer grooves, lots of great stuff, but predominantly quiet (excepting the awesome funkfest Ghetto Woman). Sprinkled throughout are hilarious radio bumpers in which DJ Crash Crash takes callers and discusses the exploits of Cindi Mayweather, Monae’s android alter-ego — they give me total flashbacks to De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising, a record that knocked my socks off in college. Truly I love it all, but the title track and “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes” are my current favorites.

Someone on twitter said that this is one of the only records that she listens to straight through rather than on shuffle, and something in the way she said it made me think that kids today only listen to music on shuffle, never straight through. I love a good mixtape, but I like an album that fits together well enough to listen to start to finish. Perhaps it’s because I’m old enough to remember the days when I’d have to go to our family’s living room to play records, and listen to one side at a time. And perhaps I’m lazy — I’ve found that I actually listen to 7″ singles more often in our digital age because when you rip them to MP3 you don’t have to get up to change the record so often. And that’s part of making a narrative record, too, the opportunity to listen from beginning to end reveals the story within.

There are other thoughts I’ve had too, but really you should just go read Janelle Monae’s Black Feminist Futures over at The Feminist Wire, because it’s right on.

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or are you toxic for me

maura @ 4:39 pm

I need a pop band to come to my assistance. Ever since last May’s Popfest I’ve been thinking about a song that doesn’t exist: a cover version of “Bluebeard” by the Cocteau Twins. A bit of poking around online revealed this fairly true to the original cover version of Bluebeard by someone called Deluciva, as well as this version by Faye Wong which is identical except sung in Chinese.

But neither of these is what I want to hear. The cover version I’m thinking about is a slightly speeded-up track with a male vocalist and far less shimmery guitars, something a bit more spare. Maybe Math & Physics Club could do this cover, or Allen Clapp? The weirdest thing is that this mythological, as-yet-unexisting cover version is actually playing in my head, though of course not precisely because I can only ever understand about 50% of Liz Fraser’s lyrics.

I’m pretty sure the reason for all of this cover version obsession is hearing Cassolette’s cover of the Primitives’ “Crash” while at the Popfest. Cassolette’s version is fairly true to the original but with just enough difference to make it interesting. And of course it’s a fantastic song to begin with, who couldn’t love it?

Cover songs are strange beasts. When I had a radio show in college I used to make mix tapes of cover versions of songs. Some covers I love much much more than the original song, like Bauhaus’ cover of “Telegram Sam” by T. Rex. Others are both wonderful — “The Passenger” by Iggy Pop and the cover version by Siouxsie & the Banshees is firmly in that camp. Still others are kind of a joke but end up being kind of awesome nonetheless, like Age of Chance’s cover of Prince’s “Kiss” and Killdozer’s cover of Janet Jackson’s “Nasty.”

I stopped making covers mixtapes at 4 — someday I’ll find the time to digitize them.

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when all’s well

maura @ 6:22 pm

Over last weekend while we were away I read Tracey Thorn’s book Bedsit Disco Queen. It’s a fast fun read that I found hard to put down, consuming it in huge gulps over two days. Not that I’ve read lots of them, but I’m finding that I really like reading memoirs of musicians I admire. A few years ago I read Rat Girl by Kristin Hersh and had many of the same feelings about that book. As an aside, thank you, reading journal, for reminding me that it was not last year but December 2010! Honestly I can’t believe I ever didn’t keep a reading journal.

Tracey Thorn is probably best known as 1/2 of Everything But The Girl (her partner Ben Watt the other 1/2), but she’s also famous in indiepopland for her earlier band the Marine Girls. More recently she’s been releasing solo records that are also fantastic (and not just because her lyrics sometimes speak to growing-older-lady stuff that resonates increasingly well with me). Her voice is frankly amazing, and it’s lovely that she’s back to recording again. I wasn’t cool enough to listen to Marine Girls when they were actually making records, though I came to them later during my serious indiepop phase in the early-mid-90s. Probably the first song I ever heard that featured Tracey Thorn’s singing was “The Paris Match” by Style Council. I feel like I used to own a vinyl copy of EBTG’s 2nd record “Love Not Money” — I have a vivid memory of listening to it in our living room when I was about 15, and my younger sibs giggling at the cover photo of the two little boys peeing into a puddle. But I can only find the CD in our house now.

The thing about reading a book about music (and this book sprinkles lyrics throughout, as did Kristin Hersh’s book) is that you can’t help but hear the music the whole way through. It’s a strange experience: as a fan I know the music side of the story, the discography and maybe the bare outlines of the musicians’ lives, in addition to occasional insights from the song lyrics. In some ways you’d think it would be boring to read this kind of a book because of what’s already known. But it’s fascinating, really. Context is added, details filled in (e.g. the story of “Hatfield 1980”). It’s also compelling despite the known bits: at one point last weekend Jonathan was calling me and I said “not just yet, I’m at the part when they release ‘Missing'” as if it were a cliffhanger — which, in a way, it was. Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt have 3 kids who are a little bit older than my kid, so hearing about them was naturally interesting for me, too (as with Kristin Hersh’s writing/tweeting about her kids).

Knowing those details changes the music for me, too. This week EBTG has been on fairly constant repeat — I was pleasantly surprised to find that I’d already ripped the CDs at work as well as home (go me!). The extra narrative in my head that now accompanies many of the songs is quite nice. The only down side is that all of this is making me wish I’d seen them in concert more than just the one (fabulous) time. Until about a minute ago I thought it was the “Walking Wounded” tour, but I just pawed through all of my old ticket stubs to reveal that no, it was Hammerstein Ballroom in November 1999, the “Temperamental” tour and the very last time that EBTG ever played live in the US. Hammerstein is a pleasant if somewhat-huger-than-I-prefer venue, and this concert was also one of the first that I remember feeling like I was really a grown-up: given the choice between the open dance floor below and the balcony with seats, we opted for the latter.

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