Week Twenty Six: Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

It must be a shade over twenty years ago that I first heard Mogwai; a track called New Paths to Helicon on Mark Radcliffe’s Graveyard Shift that made me (probably only metaphorically) sit up and take notice at a time of night when I would otherwise have been drifting off to sleep. At the time, it sounded quite unlike anything I’d heard before: a melding of the dynamic shifts between quiet and loud of hard rock and grunge with early 90s shoegaze music’s love of experimentation with effects pedals, to achieve a trance-like effect which I imagine must be what others must have got from rave music a few years earlier. At that time, I don’t think I’d ever heard the term ‘post-rock’, I’d certainly never encountered any Dirty Three or Tortoise, though I think, had he had the money to go investigating entire musical genres off the back of a single track on a late-night Radio 1 show, my eighteen year old self would have loved it

And sure enough, their first couple of albums, Young Team and Come On, Die Young were regularly on my headphones as a student on those nights when my inability to get started on anything more than 48 hours before it was due in saw me stuck in the South Bridge computer labs until 4 in the morning (I think I might have mentioned this before when I was reviewing Endtroducing a few weeks back). But in the intervening couple of decades, I can’t say I’d really given Mogwai’s continued existence much thought. A former manager was keen and lent me Mr Beast a few years back but, while I can’t say that I didn’t like it, I never felt particularly inclined to keep going back to it.

Listening to Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, I can’t help thinking that the problem with Mogwai is that they really only have one ‘trick’ up their sleeve, and there’s surely a limit to how many albums of it anyone can really need to hear. My few days’ acquaintance with the record certainly didn’t leave me with the vague irritation that, say Vampire Weekend did a couple of weeks ago, but I can’t say I really remember any of the songs. There’s nothing on here as brilliantly simple as Mogwai Fear Satan from their debut, or even Glasgow Mega-Snake from Mr Beast. I am hardly the first person to observe that this record sounds like the sound-track for a film that just doesn’t happen to exist (though to be fair, they’ve done a couple of actual soundtracks for film and television that does exist: Zidane is if nothing else, more interesting than the film it soundtracks, an art-piece which is simple a 90 minute football match where the camera remains focused on the French star for the entire game: maybe it’s of interest if you’re a football obsessive, or maybe even then, it simply goes to show that there’s a reason that’s not how football matches are usually televised. I’ve heard Les Revenants is really good, but have never found the time to watch it,)

Listening to Rano Pano, or Mexican Grand Prix, I couldn’t help thinking that what separates so-called post-rock music from shoegaze, the fact that it’s almost entirely instrumental, counts against it. It needs vocals, and not just the heavily synthesized vocal chants that are hidden in the mix of George Square Thatcher Death Party (Was there one? I was out of the country at the time, and was informed of her death by, appropriately enough, by an SNCF employee who had guessed my nationality from the clumsiness of my French and was telling people that the trains were on strike – which struck me as fitting way to mark the occasion.)  On the subject of which, writing entirely instrumental music does give the band a certain freedom to call their songs whatever the damned hell they like.  Hence Oh How The Dogs Stack Up (though it’s not an experiment I’m minded to try at home)

Last year a rather more cultured friend of mine who pays attention to the programme for the International Festival took me along to a show called Flit, a musical performance piece with a ‘band’ made up of, among others, Mogwai’s Dominic Aitchison, Martin Green from Lau and Becky Unthank on vocals. And it sounded great: I could happily listen to Becky Unthank singing over a Mogwai backing track all day. But I’m not sure that I really yet another collection of seven or eight minute instrumental rock tracks. Because when it comes to post-rock, I think Mogwai just don’t have the range, the willingness and ability to experiment, of the best work by, for example, Godspeed You Black Emperor!

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Week Twenty Five: Coat Of Many Colors

I’ve always had this idea that Dolly Parton was more of a pantomime character than an actual, real living, breathing musician. As much as anything that has come up thus far in this project, it’s a record I’m fairly sure I would never otherwise have listened to. Dolly Parton is filed away under at least two different mental categories that would tend to put me off: country-and-western and what, for want of a better term, I can only call ‘showbiz tunes’.

I struggle to explain my prejudice against country-and-western as I like a lot of music that comes from the same roots as American country – anything from Low to Ryan Adams, through the War on Drugs, the Byrds and the more folk-tinged aspects of REM.. Of course, we prefer to call it Americana, or perhaps ‘roots music’ rather than ‘country and western’, but maybe there’s not so much more to it than that I can’t get past the Stetsons and the horses.

Over at Mookbarks, Fiona speculated about the difference between American Country and British folk music. My take on it, for what it’s worth (warning: oncoming sweeping generalisation approaching) is that the country tradition that Parton comes from, which is by no means the whole of country music – discovered on the Grand Old Opry in her late teens – is much closer to the light entertainment music-hall tradition in this country than our folk music traditions.

Take the title track, Coat of Many Colors: is it really that hard to imagine hearing something very similar, perhaps dressed up in more modern production values, being belted out a talent-show starlet on ITV on a Saturday night. Yes, being country music, it is inevitably also marinated in the specific time and place from which it came (I’ve never been there, but somehow I imagine the deep South being the sort of place where the sentiments of She Never Met a Man (She Didn’t Like) don’t sound quite so strange as they do to my ears) but this is fairly unashamedly big pop music.

But what of the music itself? Catching up with the Big Mouth podcast, earlier this week, the team were reviewing Glen Campbell’s final album, and one of the guests was moved to remark that the ‘farewell album’ can be made to work in country music because “it is the most mawkish musical genre”. And listening to, in particular, My Blue Tears and If I Lose My Mind, with their lachrymose pedal-steel guitar, the remark seemed fitting.

It may be no coincidence that to my mind the weakest tracks are those written by some-time collaborator Porter Wagoner. The Mystery of The Mystery is the low point. Now it may simply be that, as someone who thinks that while Richard Dawkins misses an awful lot of fine opportunities to keep his mouth shut, he’s basically right about the god malarkey, but this really does feature toe-curlingly awful (and slightly creepy) lyrics, set to an entirely forgettable tune.

“The mystery of the mystery must stay unknown
Only God can know and man must not see
Great minds have tried but they will not find
The answer to the mystery of the mystery.”

Maybe, maybe I’m being unfair about what is really just a song about the limits of human knowledge, as seen through the eyes of someone who grew up in the Church Of God.  But Edie Brickell put it much better.  Religion is a smile on a dog

But while spending a week with this record did for the most part confirm that my musical prejudices serve me reasonably well: it is, for the most part, not really my thing, there’s more than enough here to show that Parton has genuine ability as a song-writer. In particular, the further she gets away from the tropes of country and western music, the more interesting this record is. Early Morning Breeze is a slice of jazz-influenced folk that, whisper it, sounds like it could have been recorded on this side of the pond and helps me to understand why Laura Marling is an admirer. Here I Am goes easy on the pedal-steel and throws in more than a hint of gospel and soul music, the sound of Tennessee meeting Detroit.  And either of these: Parton the fey folk-singer or the full-throated soul diva, sound more interesting than this record.

 

Highlights: Early Morning Breeze, Here I Am

Week Twenty Four: Call The Doctor

First things first. Turns out it’s Sleater-Kinney as in rhymes with slater, not as in rhymes with ‘sleeter’ (not sure what one of those would be: someone who provides suboptimal snow?). So I’ve been pronouncing their name wrongly for the last fifteen or so years. And why is that? Because for all that I knew who they were, and indeed was not entirely unfamiliar with Call the Doctor before it was chosen as this week’s album at Mookbarks, I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard anyone talking about them on the radio or television.  They have spent nearly a quarter of a century lurking a little under the radar.

I can’t remember exactly when I first became aware of them, but I’m fairly sure I had no idea who they were back in 1996 when Call the Doctor came out, because I found out about music through Steve Lamacq’s Evening Session, Mark Radcliffe’s Graveyard Shift and, to a lesser extent, whatever was flavour of the month in the NME. And at that particular point in time, the British music scene was very focused on the home-grown product. Which is a shame, because my 18 year old self would have appreciated this a lot more than Menswear or Sleeper, or the second Oasis record or whatever else Radio 1 were hyping at the time

I’m not quite sure where they fit in to the musical canon. I think I first gave them a listen because they had been compared to New England American gothic country punk band Throwing Muses (at some point I will probably get around to writing an bonus piece about why their debut record was one of the best records to come out of the 1980s) but I don’t quite see the comparison.  Sleater-Kinney are not quite so not-of-this-world.  They’re a bit late, and not quite ragged enough around the edges, to be riot grrrl (though they came from Olympia, so you might want to argue that they were the very definition of riot grrrl. I have a theory that the most interesting music to emerge from that scene came much later, when its protagonists had learned to play. I’d rather listen to Ex Hex’s Ripped, produced by three forty-something veterans of that scene a couple of years ago, than anything by Bikini Kill or Huggy Bear) and insufficiently miserable to be grunge. But perhaps the trick is to wind back another twenty years for a musical reference point. Listening to this record, I can see why Greil Marcus described them as the greatest punk band there ever was.

Their sound is a little low and bass-heavy, compared to say, the Sex Pistols, which is odd because they don’t actually have a bass guitar player on this record. It is a three piece comprising lead guitar, rhythm guitar and drums, and I can only guess that the sound comes from having de-tuned the guitars down to, at the very least, a D, and possibly a C#. It’s fast, it’s at least somewhat furious sounding, and lead singer Corin Tucker produces a really in-your-face vocal performance. All of which would do little to distinguish them from a thousand other bands if the songs weren’t any good, but I’m pleased to report that it’s generally pretty good – and in places, better than that. There’s something euphoric about the way the guitars change up a gear at about 1m 35 into opening track, Call the Doctor and Good Things is an object lesson in how to write a 3 minute pop song.

It’s not the most musically diverse sounding record in the world and I don’t doubt that were it longer, it would start to feel  samey, but they have called it exactly right in keeping the songs short (only Good Things and Taste Test exceed the 3 minute mark, and even then, only by seconds) and the whole thing is only half an hour long.

I happened to be thinking about the whole experience of nightclubs this week, sparked by a trip for a friend’s 40th to Balkanarama, which I think must be the first time I’ve been inside one in the best part of ten years, though I rather enjoyed the experience of jumping up and down in a crowded sweaty room to very rapid east-European folk music. But back in the day, I used to regularly spend my Saturday nights (or perhaps it was my Friday nights, I can’t quite recall) on the bottom floor of a place called ‘The Rocking Horse’ on Victoria Street. While the upper two floors tended to play what I’ve taken to calling throat-infection metal and sub-Marilyn Manson goth music, the bottom floor was a haven for the punkier end of indie and this album would have sounded great on that small dance floor. But as far as I know, I never actually heard a Sleater-Kinney track being played there.

So stick it on the stereo, turn up the volume and jump around in the moshpit inside your head.

Highlights: Call the Doctor, Good Things, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, Taste Test

Week Twenty Three: Vampire Weekend

I’m fairly sure that I very briefly gave Vampire Weekend’s debut a go some years back, and quickly dismissed it as ‘not my sort of thing’, possibly without actually making it all the way through its 34 minute run-time. Some time later, I remember being a little surprised to read something in, probably, the Guardian, suggesting that it was a kind of spiritual successor to Paul Simon’s Graceland.

Because, revisiting it properly this week, I can confirm, that it really isn’t. Yes, I suppose there is a kind of surface similarity in that both records make use of Afrobeat influences, but where that felt integral to the song-writing process in the case of Graceland, on Umpire Weekend’s record it just sounds like a bolt-on novelty, a fairly desperate attempt to distinguish this from lots of other run-of-the-mill chirpy indie pop music, to make them sound more musically innovative than, say Villagers.

It begins with a rather irritating synth keyboard stabbing noise, and Ezra Koenig’s vocal, which I really can’t warm to. The song, Mansard Roof is really fairly non-descript, though it does have in its favour the fact that it is a good deal less annoying than singles Oxford Comma and A-Punk. Oxford Comma sounded vaguely familiar and even the title has a kind of clever-clever knowingness that leaves me thinking ‘oh, shut up…’

I suppose it could be thought of as carefree summer music. But it just doesn’t click for me. It’s not the sound of sitting on in the park on a warm summer’s day with a book, a beer or an ice-cream, so much as the sound of being stuck indoors with a nasty illness, watching other people enjoy the summer weather.

At its worst, it’s just downright teeth-grindingly awful. I very quickly found myself skipping ‘Blake’s Got a New Face’ with its repeated yelping of the song’s title. I can’t quite put a finger on when and why nonsense lyrics work, but I can only add this song to the list of counter-examples.

But on about the fourth or fifth listen, bits of this record did begin to unlock themselves for me. For all the world music/afrobeat influences that have been talked up, it’s actually the use of very conventionally western string section that provides the interesting extra colour on many of the tracks here. M79, for all that the strings remind me just a little of the theme tune to Blue Peter, works really well, and I like the way that they sit in the background on Walcott. I Stand Corrected is just a good piece of pop song writing. Not enough to encourage me to check out their later albums, but such that I kind of understand why people who are not me really like Vampire Weekend.

Highlights: I Stand Corrected, M79

Week Twenty Two: I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight

I’ve got quite a few Richard Thompson albums as it happens. Years ago, two different friends decided that I really had to hear his 1999 album, Mock Tudor and bought me copies for Xmas, back in those dim and distant days when people bought records as presents. And they were both right – it was a record that clicked with me.

From there, I went on and got copies of a number of his other 1990s records, including Mirror Blue, You? Me? Us? And Rumour and Sigh. I’d recommend all of them (probably Mirror Blue most of all), but at some point I think I must have decided that I’d heard as many Richard Thompson albums as I needed to and I’ve never investigated his back catalogue any further. Specifically, I’d never heard any of the records he made with his then wife in the 1970s that made his name as a solo artist after he’d left Fairport Convention.

There are an awful lot of bands where the received wisdom, at least, is that their first few albums represent their best work and thereafter, they merely produce less and less interesting copies of their earlier work (or copies of the copies, like a sort of metaphorical version of that Alvin Lucier record that featured a couple of weeks back). To pick an especially obvious example, who exactly really wanted to hear the fifth Oasis album? (actually, I could quite happily live without ever hearing the second Oasis album again, but that’s a rant for another time).

But the experience of listening to I Want to see the Bright Lights Tonight made me wonder if this idea of artists going into a decline and repeating themselves is, at least sometimes, an artefact of the order in which we hear those records. Because, whisper it, it sounded to me an awful lot like a less interesting version of those 1990s Richard Thompson albums  I got into back at the beginning of the 2000s. In part it might simply be that many acts have a ‘sound’ and most of us only need to hear so many examples of that sound.

This record sounded ok to me, and the best tracks rather better than that, but it all sounded like a weaker version of the material I’d heard on the later solo records that I happened to hear first.  Although if I’m honest, some of my indifference to it stems from the fact that, for reasons I can’t quite put a finger on, I didn’t warm to Linda Thompson’s voice.

Tracks like Has He Got a Friend For Me and We Sing Hallelujah sounded just a little too close to All Around My Hat for comfort. While I quite like a lot of folk rock, for me it just works better when its slow and in a minor key (although that’s an oversimplification – I love this, for example), rather than sounding like the sound track to some kind of barn dance with electric guitars thrown in.

But I don’t want to be too harsh on this record. The title track is just a really good song about wanting to go out on the town that makes me wonder if my problem is not so much with Linda Thompson’s voice as with the fact that I’m not all that taken with some of the other stuff she’s singing.

For me, though, the best couple of tracks both put Richard Thompson centre-stage. The Calvary Cross begins with some interesting guitar noodling which suggests Mr Thompson likes his unusual tunings, before launching into a rather cryptic sounding song that might be about betrayal which put me not a little in mind of The National at their best – though I don’t imagine the members of the National had even been born when it was recorded.

And The End of the Rainbow is one of the better illustrations of an adage which Thompson’s career rather bears out that “the sad songs are just easier to write.” Here it consists of a man telling a new-born baby that he or she has it about as good as it’s going to get and it will be all downhill from hereon in.

“But take a look outside the nursery door
There’s nothing at the end of the rainbow.”

Which is about as downbeat as it can get really…So in conclusion, I doubt I’ll go back to it much, but if I ever get around to compiling my own ‘Best of Richard Thompson’ on Spotify, then I found a few tracks to add to it.

Highlights: The Calvary Cross, The End of the Rainbow, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight

 

Week Twenty One: Graceland

Graceland is probably the first album (or strictly speaking, one of the first two albums) that I remember hearing as a child. My parents had a C90 recording of Graceland and Jackson Browne’s Lives in the Balance that they would play on long car journeys. I would have been seven or eight years old at the time, and while I’m sure they must have had other records that got played on car journeys before that time, I don’t remember what they were. (Or maybe they didn’t: perhaps the grey escort had a cassette player and the blue datsun didn’t…)

At the time, I preferred the Jackson Browne album. Which just goes to show that eight year old me had no taste, because Graceland is a much better record. It’s not for nothing that while I’ve gone back and listened to it from time to time over the past thirty years, it was only a moment of idle curiosity earlier this week that had me go back to Lives in the Balance. Seventies political protest music with very eighties production values. And incongruous pan-pipes.  It might sound better if re-recorded, to be fair…

It would be quite possible to like Paul Simon and not really get on with this record or, in my case, the other way round. Some years later; another cassette in another car, I used to hear ‘The Best of Simon and Garfunkel’ a lot in my mid-teens. And to be honest, I don’t really remember it: fairly standard singer-songwriter fare, not unpleasant, but not something I’ve ever sought out since. What made Graceland work,for me at least, was the world music elements. At the time, it was controversial because in making it, Simon had broken the cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa, and while he argued that by working with black musicians, he was not normalising the apartheid regime, but bringing black South African music to an audience that wouldn’t otherwise have heard it, there were those who argued that the decision ought not to have been his to make. All the same, I can’t help thinking that Graceland does not deserve to be considered in the same light as Queen, Elton John or Frank Sinatra’s shows at Sun City. And then there’s the argument about cultural appropriation, which I’m going to dismiss in my middle-class white guy way by waving my hands and noting that almost all musical innovation consists of taking something that someone else has done, and doing something different with it.  If we’re going to insist that cultures live in hermetically sealed boxes and nobody is allowed to lift elements from cultural traditions other than their own, then we may as well give up on pop culture.

Anyway, that out of the way, the record begins with Boy in the Bubble which belongs in that little niche genre of ‘the world is spinning out of control, technology is so complicated and politics don’t make sense’ songs (see also We Didn’t Start the Fire and It’s The End of the World As We Know It) that seem to have been a  ‘thing’ in the latter part of the 1980s. A time when BBC Micros were the cutting edge and punch-card operated mainframes were but a distant memory from…10 years ago. But what makes it work as a song, what makes it something I’d be much happier to hear on the radio than that Billy Joel song, is that it’s not just guitar, bass and drums (although the drums are really good). There’s a great accordion introduction. In contrast with some of the other songs the world music influences are fairly subliminal (the drums, something I can’t quite put my finger on about the bassline, but nothing so overt as Ladysmith Black Mambazo or The Boyoyo Boys’ contributions to later tracks) but it still sounds a lot more open to different musical palettes than most guitar rock.

The title track, Graceland, is the least world music influenced, and most overtly Americana sounding song on the record. Half-baked theory: The 1980s marked the point in time at which the first youngsters to make their name as rock, pop and folk musicians, following the point in the late 1950s and 1960s when recorded music became a mass-market commodity, hit middle age. And while different musicians responded differently to this – the Rolling Stones were not alone in becoming a pantomime caricature of their own younger selves – Paul Simon was among those who decided instead to write songs about the concerns of 40-somethings. So Graceland is the story of a road trip with “the child of my first marriage” taken as, if it is autobiographical, his second marriage to Carrie Fisher, was collapsing.

I Know What I Know is another song where I’m struck by how good the drums in the introduction sound. As far as I know, Graceland has not been mined by hip-hop beatmakers in the way that, say Led Zeppelin’s back catalogue has been, but that’s their loss. More importantly, it has one of my favourite opening couplets in popular music

“She looked me over and I guess she thought I was alright/ Alright in a sort of a limited way for an off-night.”

The second line is one I can’t help thinking might come in very handy if I were in the habit of writing reviews on TripAdvisor. A story of a fleeting encounter at a society party between two people who flirt for want of anything better to do, while never really connecting:

“She said don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party/ I said ‘who am I, to blow against the wind.”

“She said there’s something about you that really reminds me of money/ She was the kind of a girl who could say things that weren’t that funny.

Listening to the record again for the first time in a few years, there are things that I don’t remember having noticed before: The way that the backing vocals that come it around 2mins 20 on Under African Skies really make the song. The sheer oddity of the lyrics of You Can Call Me Al – I mean, I get that it’s meant to be a kind of account of a middle-aged man who finds himself out of his comfort zone in Africa and rediscovers his love of music in the process – but what is a cartoon graveyard? Or a bonedigger? Come to that, I’d never noticed before that the penultimate track, The Myth of Fingerprints appears to be about someone dismissing the notion that fingerprints are unique “I’ve seem them all and man they’re all the same…”

If you weren’t around at the time, it would be easy not to realise how ubiquitous this music was at the time. My perspective might be slightly warped by hearing it so often on car journeys, but I’m fairly sure that songs like The Boy in the Bubble and Call Me Al got the kind of heavy rotation on Radio 1 that I imagine Taylor Swift or Bruno Mars do now.  But it isn’t so odd, because this is pop music – it has the earworm quality of the best top 40 music. It may be pop music made by a forty-something guy with a quarter century long career as a singer-songwriter behind him but who says that chart pop has to be the exclusive preserve of the under twenty fives?

Highlights: I Know What I Know, Under African Skies, Graceland, The Boy in the Bubble

Week Twenty: I am Sitting in a Room

Cycling around Midlothian on Sunday afternoon, pondering how I might go about writing up this review, I wondered if my problem is that conceptual modern art is just a foreign language to me. And not one like Swedish or Spanish, where I have some hope of working out roughly what is going on from its Latin or German common roots. But Tagalog. Truth be told, I don’t actually remember ever visiting an art gallery of any kind before I was in my early 20s, which is a little odd given that two members of my family make a living as artists.  

So what I’m about to say comes with the proviso that, even more than is usually the case, I don’t know what I’m talking about. But I couldn’t help thinking of PJ O’Rourke’s observation that

“…modern art is…a product that turned ugly because its producers thought art should constantly change. Art quickly ran out of things to change into that weren’t stupid.The modernists believed that artistic creativity—like the manufacture of kitchen appliances or flint spear points—should progress. This is like believing that sex appeal should progress. Sandra Bullock has a marvelous behind. Now if only she could grow a third buttock.

Because while Alvin Lucier’s ‘I Am Sitting in a Room’ may be an interesting experiment, I don’t think I’d want to actually listen to it.

Up to now, I’ve tried to be diligent and stick to the rule of playing every album through at least twice. Even that dreary Alex Parks record with the overwrought covers of Imagine and Everybody Hurts. But I’ll admit I… sort of… cheated with this one. Not least because I couldn’t find the original 18 minute 1969 recording anywhere, and the thought of listening to all 45 minutes of the 1981 re-recording really didn’t appeal. For the uninitiated, it consists of Mr Lucier reading the following four line monologue

I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.”

Maybe the problem is that my flat doesn’t have a bath. Standing in the shower while this is being played probably wouldn’t have the same trance-inducing effect and 45 minutes would be a very long time to stand in the shower.

Yes, I suppose I get that this is all about entropy, about the way that something slowly decays to the point where its original form is essentially destroyed, but (and here’s a facebook reaction button we could all do with from time to time) so what? As a sonic demonstration of the third law of thermodynamics, it’s sort of neat, but did people actually go to record shops and pay for this?  Now I’ve done my own sonic experimentation.  Some years ago, as part of a ‘post 30 songs meme’, one of the themes was ‘a song you can play on an instrument.’ And so I uploaded this proof of claim, which features similar sonic buggering-about (bonus points if you can work out what the instrument I’m playing is and, perhaps rather more difficult, what the song is). It’s an experiment in slowed-down multi-tracked, pitch-shifted recording.  With the dictaphone mic on my mp3 player.   And you might scratch your chin.  But you probably wouldn’t want to listen to it all the way through, and it’s only 5 minutes long.