Mastodon Rock

Heavy metal is full of daft ideas. From Iron Maiden singing songs about the genocide of the Native Americans whilst screaming like their bollocks are caught in a mangle, through Judas Priest’s superb “I’m not gay in all this leather and this mustache isn’t a coded message that I like a bit of the other, honest” USP to Metallica’s “We’re hardcore metallers, us, we’d never shop at Armani. Doh!”. But some of the greatest daft ideas in metal recently have come from dumb-but-clever specialists Mastodon. A concept album based on Moby Dick as a metaphor for touring? Check. A concept album about a mountain filled with ravenous beasts that drain the blood of anyone that climbs it, as a metaphor for joing Warners? Check. A concept album about Rasputin, astral projection, quantum physics and black holes and lord only knows what else, as a metaphor for, oh Jebus, I don’t know? Check. All albums filled with thundering riffs, growling, psychedelic interludes, free-jazz inflected drumming, more arpeggios than you can shake a 12-string guitar downtuned to C at; yep, check all those.

I love Mastodon. They distill everything that has been great in heavy rock in the past twenty years and turn it into a huge, ornate, massively complex yet brutally simple monster. They delight in twisting songs constantly, changing time signatures, keys, anything to unsettle you or make things more interesting (see, Midlake?). They’ve become, over the past few years, the go-to band for chin-strokers who want to rock out. Like me.

So, the prospect of seeing them live, playing all of 2009’s “Crack The Skye”, got me more excited than any other gig so far this year (yep, more than Pavement reforming). And it’s fair to say they didn’t disappoint. First off, the crowd was as diverse as you’d expect, given the band’s status as the Pitchfork-approved metal band of the day. Teenagers with Mastodon t-shirts (suprisingly polite, too), indie kids, grown up old codgers like me muttering about “In my day this whole place would be a mosh pit”, and the occasional nutter (I’m looking at you, tall bloke in the red t-shirt)1. All were united during some of the heavier moments, nodding their heads in unison.

Launching into “Oblivion”, one thing was clear. Mastodon rock. Despite a slightly muffled sound (expecting their recorded sound to be reproduced live was asking a bit much), their rampant riffs came rampaging through the crowd. Sure, you’re never going to get Brett Hinds’ intricate guitar playing reproduced as clearly live as on record, but what the live experience lacks in clarity is comfortably replaced by the sheer force of their riffs.

The riffs, and the noise. At first, I thought it wasn’t really loud enough, until I noticed the bottle of water in my hand vibrating. Still, what’s a metal gig if not loud? Wasn’t as if I’d come to watch Norah Jones. Next up came “Divinations”, and this too rocked like a herd of very, very angry buffalo. Buffalo angry with you. “Quintessence” followed this, and was ludicrously good. The speed at which Brett can play his arpeggiations (sic) is mind-boggling. Now, some people criticised Mastodon for being too “poppy” on the opening three tracks on “Crack The Skye”, but when they are this good, who can blame them? The visuals – a largely black-and-white movie of the album, featuring Rasputin, Hell, starfields, psychedelia, and all sorts of silent-movie tropes – were stunning. Though they didn’t exactly do much to help decipher the lyrics.

The set then dove into the more psychedelic/grunge/metal/stoner rock of “The Czar”. 10-minute long treatises on the Russian revolution have the potential of being, frankly, dull; even the sight of a twin-necked guitar didn’t stop this from rocking. As did the rest of the set; the more traditional metal of “Crack The Skye” was simply brutal. Much of the crowd busied themselves by going mental, and the rest spent their time doing the universal hand signal of metal. “The Last Baron”, heavily influenced by Kyuss, proved to be a superb closer.

The band went off, leaving the keyboardist onstage to make some ominous sounds. A few moment later, they rejoined the stage and piled into “Circle of Cysquatch”. This second half of the set was made up of tracks from their earlier albums. No “Bladecatcher” or “Colony Of Birchmen” sadly, but this far heavier material rocked like a bastard. Released from trying to decipher what the hell “Crack The Skye” was all about, I found myself drifting into that wonderful blissful state that comes from seeing a truly great band. The noise, the riffs, the sheer power of the music made me forget everything other than being enraptured. Looking around the crowd, I wasn’t the only one.

Shamelessly Stolen From Songkick

The band thanked everyone profusely, and looked goddamn happy as they walked off. Us? We left the Roundhouse grinning like total idiots. I wanted to immediately listen to the whole of “Crack The Skye” again (and am listening to it typing this). I tell you what, this lot are special. Take any preconceptions about metal and cast them aside; their more accessible material off the album is easier on the ear than much of Muse’s recent output. Some of the more hardcore fans might not think that’s a good thing, but I don’t care. This was the best live band I’ve seen in some time, and I’ll be at the front of the queue for tickets next time the rock up in London.

Mastodon rock.

MP3: Quintessence by Mastodon

1 And thankfully, no-one talked during the quiet bits. Not that they could, as the quiet bits were still pretty damn loud. But they didn’t even try.

Buy “Crack the Skye” (CD/MP3)

Playin’ On The Radio

When you’re working 14 hour days, you need music that is easygoing, chilled out, and calming. Something that soothes your furrowed brow, but isn’t too soporific. Something relaxing, with a mellow tunefulness that seeps into your brain, and sends you to a happy place; beguiling music that keeps you interested without taxing your stressed synapses. No, not Mastodon1. The current crop of Swedish bands – now, that’ll do the trick. I finally bought the Aerial album the other day, and then along came The Radio Dept to further cheer up my long tube ride home. If you travel on the Jubilee Line at some point in the evening, and see a tall, shell-shocked looking man nodding his head to music in a happy, peaceful kind of way, it’s probably me. Listening to The Radio Dept2.

It's Curtains For You

They’ve got a new album out in March, calling “Clinging To A Scene” and lead single “Heaven’s On Fire” is a blinder. Listen. Now. More details at their website here.

Normal, more verbose service will be resumed at some point in April.

1 Though they were fantastic live. Review tomorrow, hopefully.

2 On that note, the new Joanna Newsom is going down well too, but does take some time to really click. Which is what you’d expect.

MP3: Heaven’s On Fire by The Radio Dept

The Week Of Mixed Gigs – Midlake, or Poor Band (Minor Key)

Many years ago, I went up to the eastern Highlands of Scotland with a bunch of friends, for a long weekend of walking and drinking. Mostly drinking. One sunny day, we took a walk up into the mountains to Loch Brandy, and (as tends to happen in Scotland) the weather turned. There we were, hunkering down behind a rock to avoid the worst of the horizontal rain, when a thought struck me. “It sure is beautiful up here”, I pondered, “But I wish I was somewhere else”.

Loch Brandy, In Glorious Monochrome

Which is exactly where I am with Midlake’s new album, “The Courage Of Others”. One song is beautiful, but taken as a whole, all adds up into one big melange of doom and gloom. Writing an album with 11 songs, and making 10 of them in a minor key, doesn’t make for a chirpy or pleasant listen. And this is a real shame coming from a band whose previous album (“The Trials of Van Occupanther”) was, for the first half at least, an absolute joy. Tender, rollicking, evocative, deftly written, wonderfully played and sung, it’s one of my top albums of the naughties. I’ve given the new one a chance, and whilst I can see that it’s lovely, in its own way, it’s not really for me.

Will I change my mind seeing them live at the Shepherds Bush Empire?

On trundled the band, augmented by a couple of extra guitarists, beards and all, launching first into “Winter Dies”, a slow-to-mid-tempo song in a minor key. Then “The Horn”, a slow-to-mid-tempo song in a minor key. Then, “Small Mountain”, a, yes, you got it, a slow-to-mid-tempo song in a minor key. By this stage, I was thinking “Well, they are great musicians, the flute playing is all well and good, but I’m getting, you know, a touch bored.”

Set List (in E#m)

Thankfully, the band heard my errant brainwaves and played “Bandits”. And herein lies the rub, like Billyboy Shakespeare said. Hearing the new songs interspersed with older numbers just threw the problem with the newer songs into sharp relief. “Bandits” was lovely. “Young Bride” was equally lovely. You know, these songs have texture and style and are little bundles of exquisite songwriting. They don’t batter you into submission with their minor keys and unvarying tone of doomosity.

Then, after a power cut (dealt with in charmingly insouciant manner), came some more tracks from the new album. Minor key, major key (“Fortune” – the only major key song on the album, fact fans), minor key with a dual flute assault. And then relief! “Van Occupanther”! Hurrah! A charming little song, with the most heartbreaking chorus, with the ascending “Let me not be too consumed\With this world”; if the band aren’t playing your heartstrings like a harp at that point, you should just give up on seeing bands. Or give up on music altogether.

And then “Roscoe”! Double hurrah! Which, the clever clogs amongst you will point out is also in a minor key. But it doesn’t matter. The song moves along at a pretty decent clip; the harmonies are exquisite, there’s a palpable tension in the lyrics and it tells a story – it’s not just “Minor key, we’re all doomed, here’s a flute solo”. Speaking of which, we then had “Acts Of Man”, “Children Of The Grounds”, “Core of Nature” and “Bring Down”. All of which were, yep, minor key. Except Sarah Jaffe came on to sing one of them, which lightened the mood a touch.

Thankfully, the set closed with “Head Home”, with a bolted-on new intro, fooling us all into thinking it was another slow-mid-tempo minor key number, but of course mutated into a truly wonderful stormer. And having “Branches” as the encore again showed exactly what this band can do when they want to.

Minor Key!

I wouldn’t want you to think I dislike the new album, or didn’t like seeing them live. Not in the slightest – we had a great night1 out, the band are charming, friendly and wonderful musicians, and seeing the work experience kid (joke courtesy of Arseblogger) run out those guitar solos like he wasn’t even trying was an experience all on its own. That kid is the new Slash, I tell you. Genius.

It’s just that these songs work well when they are listened to individually. On a whole record, the listener gets battered into submission by about track 6 and it’s a struggle to keep listening. Live, a track here or there interspersed with their other material would be fine. They are good songs, after all. The problem is that there’s precious little variety. The songs are so similar compositionally that they just blur into one. I don’t want to get all Fix Your Mix on you (go to this utterly amazing article on “Ready, Able” by Grizzly Bear to see how this compositional analysis lark should be done – frankly, it’s completely beyond me), but there are ways of making minor key songs interesting. “Van Occupanther” had a few (“Head Home”, “Roscoe”), but you didn’t notice, as they were gorgeous songs, interspersed with diverse and varied songs. “The Courage Of Others” doesn’t. My sole notes from the first listen I had to the new album simply read “Minor Key? WTF!”.

(In case you’re thinking “This guy is a total muppet! He wants happy music!”, well, let’s just say that Tindersticks first three albums are amongst my favourites, and there’s about a handful of major key tracks on there. And even the major key songs are effing miserable. It’s not about the key, or the message, it’s about what you do with it)

I’ve got no doubt that this lot are hugely talented; you don’t write an opening four song sequence as seen on “Van Occupanther” unless you really, really know what you’re doing. But it seems as though they’ve got themselves stuck in a musical place that may well be interesting for them, but isn’t for us. Or me, at least. Please come out of the dark, dark woods and into the sunshine, chaps.

1 Notwithstanding the usual London gig-going idiots, who think it’s fine to talk over the intros and the quiet parts of the songs, and then bellow along to the songs they know, out of tune, like a drunken walrus. Not that it would help if they were in tune. I came to the gig to see and hear the band, not listen to some fool yell along. This isn’t Oasis, you know. Shut up.

MP3: Small Mountain (Live) by Midlake

MP3: Van Occupanther (Live) by Midlake

Buy “The Courage Of Others” (CD/MP3)

Buy “The Trials Of Van Occupanther” (CD)

Melodica, Melody and Me, and Me and Them Over There Too

The other night at the Freelance Whales gig, we saw a bunch of youngsters called Melodica, Melody and Me making a lovely folky, skiffly sound not unlike early Gorky’s or The Coral (come to think of it). And I promised to put some songs up if they emailed them to me. And they did! So here they are. They’re demos, so haven’t been polished up and made sparkly, but you can pick up their unmistakably cheery vibe. I like them. Hope you do too.

MP3: Runaway by Melodica, Melody and Me

MP3: Ode by Melodica, Melody and Me


Now this one came up out of the blue. Those lovely Canadyland folk, Broken Social Scene, posted the opening track to their new album “Forgiveness Rock Record” on their website today. It’s called “World Sick”. I know nothing about it other than it rocks, goddammit. Rocks, in that flailing-on-the-edge-of-chaos-that-only-having-26-guitarists can achieve.

Another Odd Cover?

Damn, I love this band. Massive hat tip to Knox Road!

MP3: World Sick by Broken Social Scene

Buy this album. Now. (CD/MP3)

The Week of Mixed Gigs – Beach House

I really like Bush Hall. A lovely old hall, replete with cherubs over the stage (shabby chic, the missus called it) a nice bar and a friendly clientele who generally shut up when the band are on. And in London, that’s unusual. So we were fully expecting a nice, pleasant evening watching a band I quite like, with support from a band I’d heard of and was looking forward to seeing. Simples.

Lawrence Arabia, hailing from New Zealand, make perfectly nice West Coast country-rock with the occasional arty wig-out. And they’ve got beards. Plus, they seemed like a thoroughly nice bunch of fellows, something which is not to be underestimated in a support act. We once saw Louis XIV supporting someone or other, and whilst one of my main tenets of this blog is to not be too rude about bands I don’t like, I can only say they were utterly dreadful, and unpleasant to boot. They nearly got bottled off.

So, Lawrence Arabia: Good. Must check their stuff out properly.

Beach House have been one of those bands I’ve admired, and liked, but never really taken to my heart. Sometimes I find that I need to see a band live before their songs start to make sense. And writing this now, a day later, I think that’s just happened. I put on “Teen Dream” on the way to work this morning, and you know what? It sort of made more sense. Their special brand of woozy narco-pop, like listening to Joy Zipper as an acid trip starts taking a bad turn, works surprisingly well onstage.

Victoria Legrand’s vocals, even more strident live than on record, keep a sharp edge to the generally relaxed music, stopping them from descending into a sleepy blur. Alex Scally’s guitar playing is elegant and delicate; sometimes he’s hardly touching the strings. He reminded me of Vini Reilly, which is never a bad comparison.

The set consisted mainly of songs from their recent “Teen Dream” album, with a few oldies thrown in for good measure. Now, I didn’t manage to do my usual set list thing, so I really can’t run through what they played (and this is also due to me not knowing the song titles. Look, I’m forgetful, ok?), but of the night’s highlights: “Silver Soul”, introduced with an ominous “Get a hold of your neighbour”, was magnificent. “Norway”, driven by Victoria and Alex’s twinned voices, was full of yearning. Closer “Take Care” even had people in the crowd dancing, twirling each other in little circles.

And so we all left happy, strolling into the cold dark wastes of Shepherds Bush. I think I’ll be listening to Beach House a while longer yet. Back to Shepherds Bush tonight, for the folk-rock stylings of Midlake. More beards!

MP3: Apple Pie Bed by Lawrence Arabia

MP3: Norway by Beach House

Buy “Teen Dream” (CD/MP3) by Beach House

Buy “Chant Darling” (CD/MP3) by Lawrence Arabia

The Week of Mixed Gigs – Freelance Whales

Fifteen seconds. That’s just about all it took into the first song of Freelance Whales‘ set at The Borderline before the hairs on my arms stood up. Must be a record. Still, it’s kind of what I expected. Their album “Weathervanes” (out March 16th in the US, and not at all in the UK yet) has been on near-constant rotation on my iPhone for weeks now, so the main question about seeing them live was whether they could translate their slick recorded sound to a live stage. And the answer to that is: Yes they can (mostly).

Some Freelance Whales

First off, the support. Being a man of advanced years (ok, in my late thirties), seeing a bunch of young whippersnappers come on stage and play like they’ve been doing it for years can be somewhat annoying. Or at least, it would be if they weren’t any good, but they are. Melodica, Melody and Me (I would complain about the name, but I’m the guy who called his blog “Loft and Lost”, for Pete’s sake) make a wholeheartedly charming folky sound. They reminded me of a young Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, only not so Welsh, obviously. Or a less scruffy Band Of Holy Joy1. Send me an MP3 chaps, and I’ll happily chuck it up on here. The song about the fisherman or the last one, would be great, ta. Oh, and they got a great reception from crowd (some of whom really should have stayed around for what followed).

Anyway, back to the Whales. After setting up their instruments – an impressive collection of keyboards, guitars, a mandolin, a squeeze box, an ocelot and a drumkit, which they spent all night swapping with each other – they launch straight into “Generator^1st Floor”. With all the band singing their “Ah ah ah”‘s to a massed crescendo, you can see exactly where the Arcade Fire comparisions come in. It’s a sheer moment of pure joy, causing the aforementioned hairs on arm moment.

For “Hannah”, the band clump together on the stage, as if for comfort, bringing out the song’s delicacy. It’s one of the songs that show that this lot really are onto something. How many bands construct their songs so well, with lovely, graceful changes in tempo and tone, filled with great little hooks and riffs and charming opaque lyrics, like “Hannah takes the stairs because she can tell that it’s a winding spiralcase”? How many do it on their first album, after only being together for a year? I can remember being this stunned by bands like Broken Social Scene and Grizzly Bear, but they’d already recorded and released an album before their breakthrough; they certainly weren’t this sharp on their first attempt.

That's Not My Lipstick

Sailing through their album “Weathervanes”, nearly in order too, these thoughts keep cropping up. The album is so well-made, so beautifully written and recorded, that I half-expected them to be some new manufactured act (*cough* Kings of Leon *cough*), manipulated with invisible strings by some shadowy svengali. But that’s so clearly not the case. They really do look like a bunch of folks from Brooklyn and Queens brought together by a shared love of the geek rock of REM, Weezer and Ween, inspired by the togetherness of Arcade Fire and nutured by the fertile Brooklyn music scene. Other than a missed beat here and a slightly out of tune harmony there, the songs worked well live and were less mannered and a touch rawer than on record.

And it’s on that note that I’ll come back to the “mostly” comment at the top. For all their songs and performance, there’s not the cohesiveness you’d expect of a band that have made such a great record at their first attempt. They’re lacking a bit of that togetherness, that tightness, that comes of playing together hundreds of times. They don’t quite feel like a full proper band yet; sure, they get along pretty well onstage (there’s some charming chats between them and they definitely gel well), but they need to get out on the road and become a fully-fledged band. Just like Arcade Fire did. Doh!

Some More Freelance Whales

And this is exactly what they are doing, with a big tour of the US lined up and appearances at SXSW in March. Their happiness to come and meet their fans after the show bodes well too2. By the time they head back to the UK in July (or possibly later) I’d expect them to have taken over the world, and I’ll be able to proudly say, I was there at their second ever London gig.

The funny thing about last night is that they don’t even have a record label in the UK, let alone a release date. Pitchfork and their closest UK equivalent Drowned In Sound have hardly mentioned them at all, despite a whole bunch of people in the crowd who knew the lyrics to their songs. But anyone can clearly see this lot are hugely talented, with a killer debut album. Sure, it doesn’t have the same kind of strong theme as Arcade Fire’s “Funeral”3, but it’s a gobsmackingly fine album nonetheless, and one that could propel them to some kind of indie stardom once the world wakes up to them.

Pre-order the album here. Do it, and do it now. You have to listen to this album and you have to see them live, before they get so big that you can’t get a ticket to their shows for love nor money.

Just like the Arcade Fire, then.

MP3: Hannah by Freelance Whales

Note on the title: I’m going to three gigs in four days; this, Beach House, and Midlake. So this is the first in three-part series, I suppose. A prize to the person who correctly identifies why the title is the way it is4.

1 Of whom I really should write a post about one day. Go and look up “Tactless” on YouTube, and if you’re not utterly charmed then you have no soul. You’ll probably be baffled by the appearance of Vic Reeves, who I believe was dating her from Transvision Vamp at the time.

2 I’d loved to have stayed longer and had a proper chat with the band, but we had to go and have a debauched all-night tequila and mescal session with some Mexican filmstars. Oh, ok, we had to go home and rescue the babysitter. So sadly I never got to ask them if they really do use autotune. Next time, maybe.

3 A comparison with Wolf Parade’s “Apologies to the Queen Mary” is probably more apt.

4 Don’t get excited.

Don’t Need No Valentines

Today is a special day for those romantics amongst us. Or those who like bitter-sweet love songs, in which the usual tropes of love songs get turned on their head. Miserable gits who like miserable songs, in other words.

Josh Rouse’s “Sweetie” is one of his beautifully sung, gorgeously composed numbers that he seems able to turn out in his sleep. Seriously, does anyone have such a gift of picking out a tune as Josh? His tender voice sings plaintively over strummed acoustic guitar during the chorus, with the last line spelling out the song’s twisted romance:

“We’ll sleep on roof tops\We’ll ride on bicycles\Maybe we’ll get married\Don’t you want to, sweetie?”

As for the middle eight (“Won’t you sing with me…”), *swoons*. I wish I could write like this man.

Richard Hawley loves his bittersweet love songs too. He’s made his musical career out of them. And you know what? He’s damned good at it too. With a beautiful baritone that wouldn’t be out of place crooning away in the 1920’s, allied with guitar skills that would make Duane Eddy blush, he sings tales of lost love, fallen love, and all the myriad ways that love just goes wrong, of which “Valentine” (unsurprisingly) is one of his finest:

“Don’t need no valentines, no no\Don’t need no roses\Cos they just take me back in time, no no\Now you’re not here anymore”

If your heart doesn’t soar at the second chorus’s rising vocal line, you truly have no heart. Seeing him perform this live at the Royal Albert Hall was one of the highlights of my gig-going career. Whilst he might be a great example of the maxim that there’s nothing new under the sun, he shows you can still do something better than what’s come before with inspiration, big bags of talent, and hard work. Oh, and a great voice.1

And delving deeper into the well of melancholy, here’s that cheery chappie Will Oldham in full Palace Music garb, singing about Valentine’s Day. You just know it’s not going to be an easy ride.

“It’s Valentine’s day\And I’m catatonic”

What a marvellously twisted soul he is.

Happy Valentine’s.

MP3: Sweetie by Josh Rouse

MP3: Valentine by Richard Hawley

MP3: Valentine’s Day by Palace Music

1 Speaking of which, his forum here is an absolute marvel. It’s been running for years and Richard himself is the main man on the site, chatting with fans about anything and everything. If only more musicians would talk to their audience like this…

Buy Josh Rouse’s “Country Mouse City House” (CD/MP3)

Buy Richard Hawley’s “Lady’s Bridge” (CD/MP3)

Buy Palace Music “Lost Blues & Other Songs” (CD)

(You know, you really want to go and buy all three of these. All are marvellous)

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Fix Me Some Mercury (Rev)

Whilst lazying around this morning, my son started playing music on my wife’s iPhone. He’s been playing Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” rather a lot lately, but this time he led with a Mercury Rev track from 2004’s “The Secret Migration”. I’ve got to say that I was pretty disappointed with that album; far too much of the flowery white horses in the forests bollocks rather than the wondrous magicalness of “Deserter’s Songs”, or even the uneven “All Is Dream”.

Rev It Up

But this track was “In The Wilderness”, and it’s a rollicking stomper with no mention of fairy princesses. An absolute stormer; I’d completely forgotten about it and hearing the song again was a rather pleasant suprise on such a hungover day. It might get this album back on my iPhone for a bit of a reassessment…

MP3: In The Wilderness by Mercury Rev

Buy “The Secret Migration” (CD/MP3)

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A Repeat Of All Working And No Playing

By jove, I’m a busy fellow right now. I’ve got work coming up out of my ears and a whole load of half-written blog posts cluttering up my WordPress dashboard (sorry, Steve), plus the mountain of unlistened-to music has built to Everest proportions. So, if you’ve sent me something recently, it’s buried under a massive pile of other music in my Inbox. One day, I will get to it, and if it’s good I’ll post it1.


Speaking of “eventually”, someone sent me an album by Ólöf Arnalds ages ago, and I eventually got round to listening to it on the train home from Stansted2. Quite lovely it is too, if you like a mix of Joanna Newsom and Bjork with some Sigur Ros thrown in (she’s Icelandic).

Here’s the title track of her 2007 album, “Við Og Við”. Lordy, I wish I could play guitar like that. She does have a new album coming out in “Spring 2010”, which I’m assuming is quite soon.

MP3: Vid og Vid by Ólöf Arnalds

1 Unless I get caught up in musicblogocide2010 (see this brilliant article for all you need to know). I have my own thoughts about this which I hope to post soon3.

2 Someone needs to tell the train company that “Express” does not entail travelling at 40mph.

3 Yes, I know.

Buy “Við og við” (MP3 Download; the CD is quite pricey)