Christopher Owens - Lysandre

There’s a moment on his song “Love Is In The Ear Of The Listener” where Christopher Owens, the former Girls frontman, expresses doubt in the plainest way possible: “What if I’m just a bad songwriter, and everything I say has been said before?” Then, not entirely convincingly, he reassures himself: “Well, everything to say has been said before, and that’s not what makes or breaks a song.” The whole song, in fact, is about doubt, and attempting to convince yourself that your doubts are wrong. But at least on the songwriter score, Owens didn’t need to worry; he’s one of the best we’ve got. After an early life of almost unimaginable chaos and upheaval and shittiness, he didn’t come to music until his late ’20s and almost immediately showed a rare gift for cutting, economical emotional precision. He’s fond of saying that the songs on Girls’ debut Album are the first songs he wrote, and holy shit, those songs are great. On Lysandre, his solo debut, his gifts haven’t abandoned him. Consider, for example, the way he captures the sudden rise from squalor to adulation, a topic that’s already animated a whole ton of great rap songs, on “New York City.” First, there are the stray memories of the life he was lucky to escape: “I remember begging my best friend for my life / He cut me and his wife with a pocket knife / I remember getting picked up for petty crime / Getting locked up for holding a dime.” And then, the euphoric rush of the chorus: “But look at us in New York City / Everybody’s listening to me.” Owens’s voice, tremulous but smooth, captures the transition with a wonderful bewilderment. But unfortunately, he’s getting this feeling across on a song where it sounds like the sax player from Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band bum-rushed his way into an early Dandy Warhols studio session. And that’s the big problem with Lysandre: It’s not a Girls album, and it probably should be.

In this Pitchfork interview, Owens attempted to explain why he suddenly and unexpectedly left Girls last year, and it’s not a very satisfying explanation, something to do with band-member turnover that was too high. He also mentions how he doesn’t want to be part of anybody’s indie scene anymore, and fair enough. But Girls were so good at indie rock. Somehow, JR White knew exactly what to do with Owens’s great voice and his even better songs at every turn: When to slather on effects-pedal whooshes, when to bury subtle little handclaps in the mix, how to put together a perfect endorphin-rush intro. The result was the sort of thing indie rock promises and so rarely delivers: Intense, personal sentiment, delivered artfully, in the form of music that nods to rock history but breaks from it wherever necessary, that ropes in a ton of different influences without ever sounding like anything other than itself. The more I listen to Girls’ two albums and one EP, the more they remind me of, say, Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville, an album that started out sounding like a burst of pure internal turmoil and slowly reveals its insane level of craft over time. I don’t actually know anything firsthand about Owens and White’s working relationship, but I imagine it the same way I imagine David Simon and Ed Burns’s working relationship behind the scenes of The Wire: One visionary genius, one very good craftsman who helps keep everything grounded and focused. Lysandre, then, is Owens’s Treme: The solo follow-up that shows flashes of his old partnership’s brilliance but too often falls frustratingly short, mired in its own great intentions, missing that counterbalance voice. And as with Treme, saxophones figure heavily.

I have little doubt that Lysandre is exactly the album Owens wanted it to make. For one thing, it’s a loose concept album, a story about a relationship that started on the first Girls tour and ended shortly thereafter. And there’s a lot going on in it, too: The rush of sudden almost-fame, the dizzy cloudy oblivion of love just starting, the weird conflicted shittiness when this thing that you’re supposed to be excited about is keeping away from the person who’s become your addiction, the veiled resentment when it all ends. If anything, the story of Lysandre, I have to imagine, tells more about the end of Girls than any band-member turnover. It’s a small and personal story, but it’s one that gets resonance from its specificity. Very few of us have been through a situation like the one Owens describes here, but plenty of us have been through periods of absolute upheaval, where your life completely gets turned upside-down and you’re not sure what’s real or how to deal with it. And there’s craft here, too. Producer Doug Boehm, who did such great work on Girls Father, Son, Holy Ghost layers on the flutes and harmonicas and acoustic guitars just gorgeously, and the album’s luxurious ’70s singer-songwriter aesthetic works as often as it doesn’t.

But then, a lot of the time, it just doesn’t work. For whatever reason, Owens has decided to make an album that sounds like it could soundtrack, say, a romantic ’70s drama that stars Warren Beatty. It’s all bittersweet studio opulence, the Renn-faire arrangements only sometimes pushing the sentiments home harder. A lot of the time, the constant flute and sax tootles work as distractions. The interludes, of planes taking off and ambient beach noises and airport boarding instructions, don’t add anything except maybe the running-time padding necessary to get Lysandre’s 28 minutes beyond EP length. The mostly-instrumental “Riviera Rock” sounds like background music for a vodka commercial about a non-James Bond secret agent. The whole album sounds like the work of a gifted and ambitious songwriter who wants to move closer to the sounds his idols made but who’s ever so slowly drifting away from the things that once made him great. Lysandre has plenty of great moments, and it’s well worth your attention. But it’s also, by far, the worst record of Owens’s short career. He’s too great a songwriter to count out, and I have every confidence that he’ll be back to making great music soon enough. But it’s endlessly frustrating to hear him put out an album that’s just pretty good.

Lysandre is out 1/15 on Fat Possum.

Comments (67)
  1. I was hoping when he made his solo debut, it would be an album of material written post-GIRLS. As stated above, Lysandre isn’t a Girls album, but it should be, and I think a large reason for that is because he wrote these songs years ago while still in the band and assumedly n the mindset of their sound. I like its rockier moments, but think it’s a bit too Bacharach at times. I also don’t care for the repetitive use of Lysandre’s Theme throughout the album, especially when played with that castle times minstrel flute. The sax during “New York City” sounds like a guest spot by the SNL band. It’s kind of cheesy in that sense.

  2. Disappointing. Still totally gonna listen to it and try love it though.

  3. Damn. My fears have been realized. Great Wire/Treme analogy.

    Still looking forward to hearing it…

  4. It might not be as good as the two Girls albums, because nah doy, but I’m still pretty sure I’m going to like this a lot.

  5. Well if you don’t know what’s goin on on “Riviera Rock” take a listen to Gainsbourg “Aux armes et caetera” (I finally get to speak about music from my country, thx Chris) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mLq7EcvRaf0 . Also, I love this album and I find it great Owens decided to make it short unlike many “escape from my band” album.

  6. I barely got through it. Which isn’t to say it’s bad, but so Blah. Smith’s influence was great because it roughed up Owen’s precious edges a bit. Without him… meh.

    • Agreed. I didn’t really have high expectations for this, so I can’t really say I’m disappointed.

    • Christopher Owens was into punk music well before Girls. I love how everyone is suddenly ready to attribute every difference in songwriting to him being a solo artist…when he always wrote the songs by himself. By the way, I don’t know who this Smith person is, but the only other permanent member of Girls was a guy named Chet “JR” White.

      • True that – not sure why I wrote Smith (maybe I’d just read the Smith’s article?). Anyways, I’m not talking about songwriting, but more the sound that *White* was able to add to the songs. Really, these new songs are pretty close to what he was making with Girls, but to me they’re missing Whites rugged influence. I’m not sure what CO’s being ‘into’ punk before Girls has to do with that sentiment, unless you’re saying that since he was into it, than he has the capability to be ‘rougher’ himself but chose not to?

        • Owens had been part of a hardcore scene before there was ever such a thing as Girls. That’s when he started getting tattoos, and that’s when he started being influenced by punk music. I am saying that all the softness and heaviness in Girls songs is there because Owens wrote the songs that way. JR is a talented musician and producer; the songs are the songs. Why JR suddenly has so much punk cred is beyond me. This is like the opposite of what happened with Simon & Garfunkel. The current Garfunkel is becoming some kind of living legend in people’s minds; it’s uncanny.

          • Here, I thought everyone and their mother had read this article. http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/sep/11/girls-christopher-owens-interview

          • I didn’t read that article, but you are saying what I assumed you were saying in my last sentence. Again though, I’m not talking about songwriting or the way he *wanted these songs to turn out – I’m sure they’re exactly what he wanted them to be. Nor am I saying that he’s incapable of making something ‘punk’ or ‘hardcore’ (which I probably wouldn’t be that into anyways). What I’m saying is that I liked White’s influence on the tone and sound of the Girls songs, and that I think it would’ve made these more interesting too.

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          • Jesus Christ man, quit being such a condescending d**kbag. Are you best friends with this guy or do you always assume you know more than everyone else because you read an article in the Guardian? If you could read and understand what I’m saying, you’d get that it has NOTHING to do with his songwriting, or his projects/tastes before Girls, and only with the OPINION that I hold, which is that I like what White brought to the table. Calm down.

          • You can’t like what White brought to the table because a. you have no way of knowing what he brought to the table and b. you didn’t even know his name until I told you it. An opinion based on nothing is meaningless and worthless.

          • And you have A. no way of knowing what he did/didn’t bring to the table unless you were in the studio. I’m going based off of what I hear in the songs. You’re going off of an article you read. You win? B. I apologize for getting the name wrong – I’m not a huge Girls or Chris Owens fan, just an interested party. So please, wise sage, tell me everything that was going on in Chris Owen’s head when he recorded this, because you seem to have some mystical knowledge about all things Lysandre and the desire to bestow it upon a single person who finds this album to be disappointing. And could it be not TOO unreasonable to assume that this album is disappointing because the only other person involved in his other, superior body of work, was not present for the recording of this collection of songs. COULD IT BE?!?!?!

          • I don’t have to have any mystical knowledge of the creative process. You’re the one who is relying on that. I have read multiple articles on Girls and the making of Lysandre. That’s how I know about them. Knowledge is power. It allows one to make statements that actually carry some weight, such as that there is literally nothing in JR’s background that suggests his musical influences are significantly different from Christopher’s…not that it would matter anyway since, again, he never wrote the songs. I don’t care whether you find the album disappointing or not. I only care that you are trying to comment on the differences between the Girls albums and this release based on assumptions that have no basis in reality. I think the album is disappointing because it is too short and, and it is too short because he rushed its release. He didn’t have to do that, but for some weird reason he did. He’s sitting on enough songs for several more albums. Also, “wise sage” is redundant.

          • Michael, please stop.

          • Cody, please shut up. You’re extremely late to the party. My last comment was four days ago. Now why don’t you go walk into an empty room of your choosing and plead with the people who are not there to stop arguing so as not to offend your delicate sensibilities?

          • Haha, sorry I didn’t check the date before I commented dude, I just saw you talking completely out of your ass and I decided I had to act!

          • Relying on facts to talk about what members of a band contribute makes perfect sense; relying on assumptions does not. If I am wrong, please tell me how.

          • Dude, I’m not even here to say who’s right or wrong, all I wanted to say is that, speaking as a third party observer and with no malice whatsoever intended towards you, you’re coming off like a pretentious jerk. Saying things like “‘wise sage’ is redundant” does not help your argument, it is irrelevant and makes you sound like a snob. Not only that, but correcting grammar or spelling in an internet argument is usually the last resort of people who know they have lost an argument.

          • Last resort? Please. That was very obviously something I tacked on for fun at the end of a very long argument. There’s nothing wrong with adding some spice to the mix. I was absolutely taking advantage of an easy opportunity to be condescending to that guy who knew nothing. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I make no apologies about it. I’m not required to argue in a civilized manner if I don’t respect someone at all.

  7. As much as it pains me to say, this review is spot on. The Girls version is Lysandre is superior. I also had high expectations for the bathroom songs from the Bitchfork session, but they all came out sort of flat. I don’t think this is a bad album, but I expected much, much more from Chris. Oh well, maybe next time. He needs to get the band back together. I also find it confusing that he mentions breaking up Girls because they couldn’t find a solid lineup but then looks forward to his own solo work because he can have different musicians with every project. How does that make sense?

  8. a very blah album to me… also feels like january was a bad time for this record at least for me in michigan haha, seems like it could be a better spring record. still going to see him next week and i imagine it will be good

  9. Guys, I haven’t listened to the album. I probably will, at some point. But there’s something I really need to get off my chest and this just felt like this is the place to do it.

    I am really offended by the Charmin toilet paper slogan “Enjoy the go.” This video explains what they mean:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=028cCeHunNc

    Basically they say that coffee and spicy food gives you diarrhea. Obvs – this is a given. We all know this. But to say that soft toilet paper will help us to “enjoy the go” when you’re having explosive diarrhea is just a flat out misleading, disgusting, and downright DEROGATORY lie. And I’m sick of it. Sick of this.

    Let’s get real for a minute here: when we’ve had 1 million cups of coffee or some curry or something, downtown gets burned. it’s just the natural reaction of the poo coming out too soon – it doesn’t have time to cool in the colon (is this true?). The last thing I want to do is put some rough paper on my 3rd degree bum burns (B-burns). What do we really want? The cool touch of some an angel’s moisturizing cloth.

    Let’s get even realer about this: why are we using dry paper at all? The toilet paper game has seen the least innovation of any product since toothpicks. What’s happened since we made the jump from corncobs in the outhouse to paper? “Cashmere”? “Give me a break” (John Stossel). At the end of the day, it’s paper. What are we? Animals?

    “Oh no I pooped on the floor!” “That’s okay – here’s some loose leaf for it” – Analogy

    It’s time for change. We need innovation in order to push forward into the next century of hygiene and toward a better, cleaner tomorrow. When i’ve got a real train wreck of a “backdoor situash,” it takes me a rainforest to clean it up and get all the pieces. It takes a rainforest. Then there’s b-burns. Why not use a wipe with some moisture to clean it up quick? Lickity split. No shit.

    Thanks,
    D “Concerned Consumer” Tatas

    • To help reduce ring sting, I use a bidet, and then give myself a good powdering south of the equator.

    • the European have those jets that go up your butt, don’t they?

    • Two words: baby wipes

      • the bidet is obviously ideal, however a rental situation makes installation difficult, if not illegal. what i’m saying is “don’t pee in my cornflakes and tell me it’s raining” (Judge Judy). It’s like when mcdonalds talks about the high quality of their food – NAH – it’s JUNK. charmin acts like they’re making this major contribution to wiping: Enjoy the go! enjoy destroying your hole! i guess the product should reflect the slogan guys, but at this point i think we’re getting mad men so maybe i should just put this one to bed…at least…until the next ‘rrhea…

        …d…t…

        • Donny-T, you just keep reinforcing my opinion that you are the best poster in the history of posting. Let me ask you this, what about those bears? Do they not make you feel very uncomfortable? Especially when the kid bear comes out from behind the tree with the bits of the “other brand” stuck to his ass-fur?

          I, for one, “enjoy the go”. I like to keep it regular. I go dry paper, no bidet, no baby wipes, no medicated pads (though I’m not opposed to any of these ideas, or any other innovations that might be around the corner as a result of this conversation). I might hit the shower afterwards if things got too real. But I’ll tell you what, Donny, I don’t like commercials about it. I don’t like cartoons pitching rump ribbon. I don’t like the insinuation that charmin has put in the work, when it is me who has put in the work. Having said this, I have done the market research, and those fuckers at charmin put out a hell of a square. I’m no stranger to boycotting a product based on how annoying a marketing campaign is, but if you’re using Angel Soft, or Scott, or the store brand, just do yourself a little favor and give the charmin a try.

          • you know, life is funny. fickle. it’s easy to be a “ranting randy” or a “whining whinny” or a “negative nancy” and to go on about this or that thing. but that’s at the micro level. too easy.
            to take it to a macro level? the next level? to lay it all out there, square by square, like the unspooling of a TP roll across the floor of life? Well, that my friends takes a special individual.

            I thought I knew the toilet paper game. thought i had my head wrapped around the shortcomings, where we should be, and what the the issues are or were. maybe I was fooling myself. i think my hatred for those bears actually made me believe that charmin put out a “shit” product (pun intended). “it’s too thick” I said. “what is this, a towel?” i complained. “i can’t even fold it. I have to fold it – I’ve done it all my life” I reasoned. i tricked myself into believing it wasn’t a fine, nay, superior product. but when I think back, i remember that day char-char was on sale, and we bought it, and the surprise I felt when i realized what I had been missing. sure, it was no angel wipe. but it never made itself out to be one.

            i’ve got some changes to make. changes, for the better. thx el-d.

            yours,
            d-titty

  10. Well, I’ve been listening to it for a week now. It sounded pretty bad when in the beginning: repetitive, too clean and over-adorned and I really didn’t connect with the flute, female vocals and sax arrangements. But then it happened what happens with Owen’s songs: they grow on you. Three days ago I woke up with a melody in my head and I went straight away to my Girls CDs to play it in my stereo. That’s when I realized the melody I was humming was Love Is In The Ear Of The Listener. Today, I simply love it and I do think Hank Above Skies is spot on with the Serge Gainsbourg comparison: this is Owen’s Vue de L’Éxterieur.

  11. wow this perfectly describes everything i feared when i heard the first single….

  12. Just based off of this it’s nice.

  13. Conversely, I love this. I think it’s a mistake to evaluate any Christopher Owens album too quickly; I didn’t know how I felt about FSHG for months after its release. But as with that one, I could tell right away with Lysandre that it was rewarding and worth the time. Sure, it’s different from the Girls albums, but it’s not less complicated; the manic sax on “New York City,” which I wasn’t sure about at first, now strikes me as a very appropriate accompaniment to a song that is less about being up than it is about uppers. There’s some great stuff here, and largely I find the arrangements charming; “Riviera Rock” is great. And, while I’m disagreeing with the write-up (which, by the way, is well done and espouses a position I bet will be pretty popular), I actually thought Owens’s reasons for breaking up the band were poignant and convincing. I’m just writing this comment because I don’t want anyone to skip this album. I love Elvis Costello, but I didn’t listen to Brutal Youth or Mighty Like a Rose until I was deeply in love with the rest of his catalog, because no one seemed to like them. Well, those albums are great; it’s not that they’re less successful rehashes of his previous work, it’s that their new beasts no one happens to like. This isn’t a less successful Girls album; it’s a new kind of album from Owens that very well might disappoint some of his fans. But it’s still a thing very much capable of being loved. Listen for yourself!

  14. How do u pronounce the name of this album? Is it Lys-Andre? Or Lysander? Or does it have a french “RE” pronunciation? Sometimes u know that an album is just going to suck from the title, like TI’s Heavy Is the Head: Tough Guy in a Cadillac or whatever the fuck it’s called.

  15. that riff is nice but when
    –its an album this short
    –girls music can be criticized for being repetitive
    it just doesnt work. are there good tracks here? certainly, I think ‘everywhere you knew’ is great and will be.
    But if Christopher Owens wants to stay in the conversation he’s gotta step it up next time around

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  17. I think the main thing I’ve learned here, is that Girls fan are bitchin’ about everything so quickly (it’s too short, there’s a sax solo, Chet White isn’t there (no kidding),it’s repetitive …) . It sure seems like you wouldn’t let the guy put a solo album if it didn’t sound like his former band. Which is kinda funny coz most of the times fans want it the other way around.

    • I have not heard it yet, but seriously, 28 minutes is the bare minimum for an album’s running time, and if you gave segues and repeating parts, that is no longer an album. That’s not me being a jerk; those are facts. If you’re going to release 28 minutes of music and call it an album (which also entails charging album prices), then it had better be Pink Moon.

      • “have”… not “gave”

        • What the hell are you talking about? Milo goes to College is 22 minutes long. And its awesome! With that said. This album sucks, and it shouldn’t be a big surprise. This guy has always been a weak songwriter. The shoegaze part on hellhole rat race and the beach boys background vocals on Laura were able to distract from it. But for the most part he has a terrible sense of melody. And making his vocal melodies the center of songs the way they did on this one was a terrible decision. I mean I thought that Holy Ghost record sucked too, but this is just beyond even that. Hopefully now that people are calling him out for what he is, which is a lazy songwriter, with an obviously very limited record collection, he’ll go back and work on his craft a little bit.

          • Way to go! You mentioned an album of one-minute songs that is totally irrelevant to this discussion. That’s right, pal. One-minute songs are not the norm (and an album of one-minute songs that are good enough to make up for their scant running time are even rarer), so 99% of the time, an album that is under 30 minutes just means you are getting screwed. Never mind that Owens is clearly not writing in even remotely the same style. You obviously know nothing about music though, so it should be easy for everyone to disregard this and anything else you type in the future.

      • Not a punk fan, I take it?

        • I like a lot of punk music, but I certainly don’t define punk narrowly as only super-short, fast songs. That’s something i would expect my parents to do. I think most people who attempt to write in that style fail at it. There are a few great bands that managed it, and the rest usually sound like cookie-cutter imitations of them. Punk spans many genres, and my bands always manage to make an album that is at least a half hour long. If they don’t, they are reasonable enough to call it an EP.

    • To be fair, many people aren’t “bitching” that Chet White isn’t there, but analyzing the new collection of songs without him as compared to the previous collections of songs with him. Seems like a pretty reasonable thing to do to me.

  18. For me, Girls/Christopher Owens peak was BDC EP. It really showed that the band and their sound were taking a giant step forward. Their next LP, FSHG, was good not great. It sounded like a bunch of decent songs lopped together to make a complete record. It showed no cohesiveness. The lush and brillant 6 song EP had my hopes sky high. Don’t get me wrong, FSHG was a good record, but it didn’t hold up next to Album or BDC EP. I’ve had Lysandre for 2 weeks now and I can’t decide whether I love or hate it. The above review hit some familiar points for me. Wonderful moments are too few and far between. However, I am and always will be a fan of his music. The story of this particular girl and Girls first tour was obviously something he needed to get off his chest and I’m okay with that. I’m just a fan.

  19. Tom, exceptional article; one of the best I’ve read here in quite a while. I’ll have to second the nod to the Wire/Treme analogy. I’m not sure that I agree with you regarding Chet White’s role in the songcraft, but still a good point. I am definitely missing JR, though I agree that this is probably exactly the album that Mr. Owens wanted to make. It’s a little hokey at times, but I also agree with some other posters that his songs tend to be “growers”. I don’t think that this album will have nearly the listening longevity with me that previous albums have had.

    I have been a really big fan of Owens’ music, but I almost wish that I had never heard or read any interviews with him. Or heard any background on songs. Or had to listen about his chaotic life. The more I learn about him, the less fascinated I am with his art. I still find him to be a very unique songwriter who is able to acknowledge his influences without being simply derivative. He has always seemed just at the cusp of falling victim to his own grandeur (exactly the way that Dan Bejar fell into the void with the last Destroyer album, though I know that a lot of people liked it). Hopefully this will be the farthest that Owens goes in the direction of the “70′s romantic drama”. For me this album, from cheesy sax to questionable length, is a reminder that, genius aside, Owens is still an addict who is really consumed with himself and probably cares very little what any of us thinks about his songs.

  20. Have to totally agree with this review. Listening to this album a few times and really wanting to love it having always loved Girls, it became frustratingly apparent that the problem with it is that it just doesn’t contain any of Christopher Owens’ best songs. Although I could imagine them sounding way better if recorded as Girls and more in the production style of FSHG. There’s just no punch to these songs, no unhinged moments, and they suffer because of it. The instrumentation, the backing vocals, the flutes…it all becomes too precious. Ben Greenman summed it up in his review, talking about how the album’s intimacy sometimes comes off as timidity, which is sad, because even at his most desperate and damaged (Vomit, My Ma), Owens never sounded timid.

  21. “Part of Me” = Christopher Owens’ “Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright”

  22. it’s easy to see why Girls and Owens would be instant Pitchfork/Stereogum darlings. Never mind the music for one second; they have the most stereotypical indie band name (a band named “Girls” that are comprised of only men), and their debut album had the most stereotypical indie album name (naming your album, Album, is not clever).

    The second point is that the entire band is a throwback to everything that’s happened before, and by now, indie rock has reached a sort of standstill. The most innovative indie rock bands reach out to other sounds (Arcade Fire’s penchant for chamber pop is a good example as any).

    The third point is that this album a piece of shit. It’s completely logical that he signed a deal with the Grey Old Lady to stream it because The New York Times is also a piece of Obama communist propaganda and should not be considered a paper of your beloved the greatest country ever, dear Americans. Stick to the Albuquerque Daily Monitor, pleaze.

  23. super weak…i mean for real…everyone here is being way too kind

  24. Jealous of the album cover. I can never get a good selfie…

  25. Éamonn Shannon  |   Posted on Jan 12th, 2013 0

    Sure, it’s not Girls (was anyone really expecting it to be?), but this isn’t terrible. True to any Chris Owens album, there are some really beautiful melodies and well-crafted songs here.
    Maybe try and think about how you’d feel about this album had you never heard of Girls.

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