Call It A Ritual

Despite the fact that recorded music comes to us in a variety of forms — old, new, emerging, tactile, and weightless — there is still the moment when it arrives in our hands or to our ears. And when we download that album onto computers, phones, and iPods, or we purchase a CD or LP, we have specific ways to go about unleashing those songs.

The process of first hearing an album is a ritual I love. Different from buying a single song, the acquisition of a new album carries a ceremonious quality. Naturally, the experience depends somewhat on the expectations each of us has toward an artist or band. A theretofore unheard-of artist might reveal a less careful or considered listening, but a sophomore album released after a long delay, or the follow-up to an artist's most popular or critically acclaimed release, might induce more scrutiny, or even an anxious first listen.

For me, the ritual associated with hearing an album for the first time depends on the format. With CDs or vinyl, the tearing off of the packaging and the opening of the booklet is part of the process. Often, the first track is playing and I'm still exploring the artwork, the lyrics, the production credits, and the "thank you" list. These distractions often force me to go back to the first few tracks again. With vinyl, I might flip the record over a few times or revel in the smooth, almost magical surface from which the music will emerge. With these formats, it becomes more than an aural experience, but a fully sensory one. I like to think that hearing a new album is like a first-time meeting: You try to have a mix of open-mindedness, curiosity, and a bit of healthy skepticism.

I'm often fidgety at first.Sitting, then standing, then pacing, noticing each time I'm drawn in or losing interest. Other times, the ritual involves doing something other than merely listening — for example, putting on the album and then cleaning the house, making dinner, or talking on the phone. That process is employed more toward bands with which I'm unfamiliar, in the hope that I'll hear something from the other room and want to run back toward the speakers for a closer inspection.

Context also plays a role. A first listen in an office environment is a much more private, even furtive ritual: The headphones are filled with a distraction due to the unfamiliarity of the songs. In a car, the ritual of hearing a new album might involve excessive volume; for some, these are the best speakers we have, which certainly changes the experience.

Some of us listen to these new albums straight through, beginning to end. Others start with songs we might have already heard — the single, an early download. Occasionally, we might get stuck on a song, fall in love early on, and not get past Track 3 for hours. No matter what the process, the means, or the context for hearing a new album, most of us have developed a physical or emotional routine — some sacred, some mundane — but we carry it out regardless.

So, what are your rituals when hearing a new album for the first time?

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I think you pretty much summed up how I listen to new albums; it completely depends on what preceded the album, how I feel about the artist, where/when I'm listening, etc.

The other day I was so nervous about listening to a new album by an artist I love, I started crying 20 seconds into the first song and there appeared to be no real reason for it. Maybe I take it all too seriously.

Sent by Leah | 1:58 PM | 7-24-2008

I the kind of guy that likes to stop and smell the roses. When I instantly connect with a song, I will play the hell out of that song until every note is as familiar as the freckles on my girlfriend's face. Then it's onto the next song.

Sent by alex from philly | 2:27 PM | 7-24-2008

For me, my ritual for listening to a new album goes something like this: sitting down with a mild distraction (such as being at the office or a crossword puzzle), with very nice headphones on, and letting the album play start to finish. I do this because my mind races and wanders, and I like to have something else to do that helps me listen to the music with out getting bored or distracted, and because if its truly an "album," it deserves to be listened to start to finish to see where the artist(s) want you to go, musically and conceptually.

Radiohead's "OK Computer" album taught me to do this. From start to finish, its a brilliant, cogent album. In point of fact, the last sound the listener hears on that album is a mechanical "ding!," as if you are now done, toasted, and ready to go. Speaking of which, the new Atmosphere album, "When Life Gives You Lemons...," is phenomenal and is completely worth this style of listen.

It may sound odd, but I've found that I am only able to do this with a cd or vinyl album. There is something about having the "whole package" I was intended to have, the art, the booklet, etc., that completes it all in a way I need. I remember downloading (for 90 cents) Radiohead's "In Rainbows" album, and it just wasn't the same as when I bought a physical copy and listened to it that way. It makes me wonder...Am I a materialist, or a finicky purist with a very specific need when it comes to good music?

Sent by Ryan | 2:27 PM | 7-24-2008

In high school, I would always get on the public transit and listen on my discman[I was late to the whole ipod thing], as a way to escape my loud family and make sure I wouldn't miss a minute of music.

Sent by Kirie | 2:27 PM | 7-24-2008

I don't have a ritual per se, but I do like to listen to an album in it's entirety the first time. When I get new CDs, I usually just look through the booklet once and never view it again unless fishing for lyrics. I still prefer buying a CD over a digital version, but that's because I listen to most of my music while in my car.

Sent by Curt | 2:49 PM | 7-24-2008

For new artists, I have to say I have to listen a few times through before I really HEAR what is coming out the speakers, unless something grabs me... I ease into those.

For artists I already know and love, I like to have the spare time (rare as it is) to sit down and listen to the album through while reading the liner notes, hoping to have that song on the CD that I instantly know I will be able to listen to on loop for hours and never get tired of listening too. I sometimes have to make myself NOT hit the back button and listen to a song again, otherwise there will be albums out there I've still only listened the whole way through a few times because I get caught on that one I really like...

I do have to point out though, my favourite surprises when I hear something new in a song I've listened to for ages... like that song you hear through speakers and when you hear it through headphones suddenly hear that detail you missed before. Its like hearing the song for the first time again, and will get me to then listen to the whole album that way in hopes of hearing more little details I missed before.

Sent by kdk | 2:56 PM | 7-24-2008

I'm the type who will go to the single I've already heard and then focus on the few songs surrounding that single. Eventually (often weeks) later I'll explore the rest of the album. It's too overwhelming sometimes to try to digest an entire album at once...unless that album is The Flight Of the Conchords.

Sent by Jamie Hellgate | 3:26 PM | 7-24-2008

I also enjoy the sensory experience of a new album. The music, the liner, even the smell of brand new, never been opened liner notes, or the way old vinyl smells like old cigarette smoke, etc. I like to come home from the record store on my day off and just listen to new music.
I also have expectations for a band's second or third album. Will the new Wolf Parade album hit me the way the first one did? Should I think of a second album the way I think of the second M. Night Shyamalan movie? Having certain expectations even though you're looking for the plot twist and therefore cannot have the same experience you had with the first movie? It's an infitely rewarding process for me.

Sent by Brian | 4:08 PM | 7-24-2008

I put on new albums when I'm cooking.

Sent by mccormack | 4:10 PM | 7-24-2008

Right now I'm listening to Me and a Monkey On the Moon, Felt's last album, for the first time while I'm reading this post. That's my ritual. My computer, my headphones and surfing.

Sent by Melvillain | 4:18 PM | 7-24-2008

If it is an album that I have looked forward to for several months then my 'ritual' is to wait until I can devote full attention to it (usually later at night) lay down and listen to it on headphones (a must) while pageing through the booklet and when that's done doing some light browsing of a magazine. If it makes the grade then I will add it to my 6-cd changer in my car and go through the painfull process of deciding which one to replace.

Sent by Joel from Charm City | 4:24 PM | 7-24-2008

I let the anticipation overwhelm me. Lately, my time to sit with albums has disappeared, so when I do purchase something, i find myself delaying the listen until i can fully commit some serious time. I leave the disc in a visible place where the cover taunts me to the point of madness. Might be hours or days, but i won't touch it until i can fully appreciate it. It's a reminder to sit, listen, and really take it in

But no matter what i hear from the stereo, i make no solid judgments until I've heard a complete spin through headphones.

Sent by gcn. | 5:03 PM | 7-24-2008

kdk, i'm glad it takes you a few listens to, as you say, actually hear an album. I'm the same way and I kind of have a complex about it. Like my ears aren't sophisticated enough to pick up on what others hear the first time through. My girlfriend, for example, can make an accurate judgement immediately after listening to a new song or album and tell me exactly what she likes or dislikes... and she's very astute. I thought that was the way you were supposed to hear new music. I always got overwhelmed listening the first few times and I was embarrassed - like I lacked some musical synapse that every other music lover had.

To this day I still ease in to albums the same way I did in high school. I buy something and let myself forget about it - put it on every now and again and don't pay attention to it. If it's a good album, it will suddenly grab me when I least suspect it and I won't be able to do anything besides listen to it. That's when the experience of new music becomes rewarding for me. It's delayed gratification, but when it hits, it hits like a sledgehammer, or more accurately,, like a grade school crush.

Sent by nathan | 5:30 PM | 7-24-2008

The process of buying a new record and taking it home is always exciting for me. Its like im carrying something so full of promise, especially when its a band i know or have heard a lot about. I usually take the cd home and play it the whole way through, reading through the booklet and surrounding myself in the art as a whole. Once ive done that i like to take it for a drive or a walk and let the cd become a soundscape. I did this with the new Kaki King album and now everytime i listen to it there is a feeling of forward motion.

I havent developed the same kind of ritual for the albums i download, i think because there isnt that physical feeling of holding the cd and flipping through the booklet which is almost like the entry point into whatever world the artist is trying to create. Give me the walk to the record store any day.

Sent by anna | 5:51 PM | 7-24-2008

The first thing I do is curse whomever made jewel cases so hard to open. After that, I read the liner notes, starting with the thank yous. Then I put the CD into the computer and start listening. If there are lyrics, I read along as I listen. I try as much as I can to focus on the music--no time on the computer, no reading other than the lyrics. If it's an album or band I really like, I'll listen again before the end of the day, but typically I'll listen one or two more times all the way through and then start with either random shuffle and/or putting the songs on my IPod.

Sometimes it takes several days after buying an album before I have time to listen, as I like to be able to carve out an uninterrupted hour.

Sent by Laura E. | 5:52 PM | 7-24-2008

my process for new cd's is similar to yours, i guess. i take off the plastic, stick the sticker parts to the plastic, put the cd in and thumb through the cd booklet while i listen thus not giving my full attention to the first few tracks. lately, this routine has been thrown for a loop because i get a lot of great cd's free from work. for those, i copy them to my computer then, maybe scan through the first 30 seconds to see if anything jumps out at me, then its up to iTunes' shuffle to draw me back into it.

i've found some of my favorite songs via iTunes shuffle after it landed on a good song that got me to pause my freecell game and listen. p.s. freecell rules!

Sent by Lauren | 8:03 PM | 7-24-2008

On most occasions, I let the music play from the beginning while I stay busy working at my computer, on paperwork from work or reorganizing my closets. But there has been only one time where I purchased a cd from an unknown band and devised a plan, on the ride home, on how to approach the music.

In 98', I bought a cd by a Pacific Northwest girl band for $5. Actually, I believe it was a demo, but the store owner insisted it was a full length copy that he had collecting dust. In his words, "I'll sell it to you cheap cause I wanna get rid of it." As I scanned the cover, I knew I had seen the cover idea from another band, whom my father loved. And almost immediately I felt a connection to this band, whoever they were.

When I got home, I couldn't even take a moment to shut the front door, take off my shoes or remove my jacket. I made a beeline to my cd player, popped in the cd and began to listen. Honestly, the very first time I listened to this cd, it was difficult. The voice that seemed to shake as it left the singer's throat. The quickness of the riffs, sometimes so fast I couldn't quite catch them. I had never heard anything like it before, and it was so new that I nearly rejected. But as the last note played, I hit the forward button and the cd began to play again. It's been in my cd player ever since.

I knew on my way to my apartment, after buying this album, that I was going to sit down infront of the speakers and just listen to this cd. Halfway through the album, I found myself sitting on the floor, my back against the wall, my arms holding my knees up against my chest and my eyes gazing at the ceiling trying to picture how the musicians looked while playing these songs. Or what they may have gone through to feel this or that way about this or that song. Whether it was the cover of the cd that drew me in or curiosity that made me want to be apart of the world inside the jewel case, I knew it was going to be big. I knew it deserved my undivided attention. And it got it.

The album was "Dig Me Out."

Sent by brittani | 8:04 PM | 7-24-2008

When I bought vinyl, I would try and carve out some dedicated time to listen to each side, and follow along with the lyrics. If the band is more of a groove band or the music is heavier on rhythm, then I might have it on in the background the first few listens while doing something else.

In the CD and download age, my first instinct is to get the album catalogued in iTunes, since I embarrassingly misplace more CDs than I care to admit. Then I listen in the car when I'm driving somewhere, because my first couple of listens typically involve absorbing pieces of the music -- it takes me several listens before I really absorb an album and can internalize everything (if it's any good, anyway). Get the melodies and basic riffs down first, key in on a few songs, then start taking in the character of the entire album with later listens.

I've never been much of a headphone listener, so most of my listening takes place in the car or at home, cranked loud on the stereo system. Also, I'm very fastidious about listening to the album as an *album* -- no listening to tracks out of sequence, no repeated listening to favorite tracks (unless the album as a whole is a dog). And I try to listen to the entire thing in one sitting as much as I'm able.

If it's an artist I really like, invariably, I'll start playing other albums by the same artist -- it's like reliving the good times with an old friend. Because I'm easily distractable, though, the experience of a new album is never a completely isolated event -- I'm juggling at least 10 to 15 other pieces of music while getting acquainted with the new album. So it might take a couple of weeks before I really feel comfortable with the new acquisition.

Sent by Max | 8:50 PM | 7-24-2008

i giddily open the package, pop it into my laptop, and listen to it using earphones. then after listening to the entire album, i download it to my ipod, and start listening to it the second time while doing the laundry or cleaning the house. i love having the physical cd myself. it's not the same getting it on the internet.

Sent by sue | 9:56 PM | 7-24-2008

if its an album im truly anticipating, i like to go to everyday music and pick it up at midnight. i prefer to do this on my bike, then i can listen as i bike home.

i have to admit, i havent done this in a while though. i think my last midnight-everyday music excursion was to pick up the woods.

Sent by anon | 10:24 PM | 7-24-2008

Oh how I love the new album listening ritual! My wife and I often argue over this because because listening to a new album for the first time is such a personal thing for me. I'll buy the cd at the music store, we'll get in the car to drive home and she'll say, "Let's here it." I'm instantly pissed off because I've already planned out the perfect moment to listen to the disc and she's trying (unconsciously) about ruin it!

The first step to the ritual is checking to see if the lyrics are printed in the booklet. If so, I can't listen to the music until I've read the lyrics. Often times a song that would have slipped by me is the one I can't wait to here if the lyrics and story move me. I love to hear an old sentiment presented in a new way.

It's not uncommon if the music on the album I've purchased doesn't hit my ears until the next day. I don't want anyone else around when I here a new album for the first time so I'll put it off until I can be alone. Luckily for me, my job involves excessive driving so most of my listening is done in the car.

I've tried to embrace the i-pod culture and download albums instead of buying the discs but there seems to be something missing. I feel like I'm getting ripped off if I don't have the packaging to read. It's like buying a book that's missing a chapter.

Sent by Zak R. | 10:44 PM | 7-24-2008

i too, as a few others in this thread have pointed out, love to read lyrics along w/ an album after a first purchase.

Sent by graham | 10:53 PM | 7-24-2008

I mostly listen to music 3 ways: headphones hooked up to my computer while I'm doing things (working, chatting, reading), out of a small radio in my room when I'm going to sleep, and on my MP3 player when I'm going somewhere. I usually have to listen to an album in all three of these settings to really get into it. There's something about different settings that make me notice different aspects of the music.

I can usually tell if I like an album on first listen, but it'll take 3-4 to get me hooked. I often kind of force myself to get through an entire album. Some albums I never finish, but others I have to trudge through once and then every other listen involves me awaiting each track.

I've had bad experiences with buying a few albums at once and really loving one right away. The others get neglected and sometimes forgotten. Occasionally I'll put on one of these albums and fall in love with it, which is always a nice surprise.

Sent by Adam | 11:33 PM | 7-24-2008

As I'm typing this I'm listening to David Bowie's new live album, "Live Santa Monica '72". I'm loving every minute of it. Speaking of rituals, I really would like to make listening to music more of a social thing. Like have a listening party with a bunch of fellow friends/fans. That would be cool. Maybe I'll start that new ritual now.

Sent by Jack | 1:58 AM | 7-25-2008

You've pretty much summed up why I prefer to buy the album instead of downloading. I shudder when I think of all those kids sitting in the university common rooms downloading music freely onto their laptops. It's horrible. If I buy an album myself, I go home and listen to it in it's entirety, usually with me sitting on the floor. It's just way more comfortable. I write for a student magazine, so I get free CDs to reveiw. When that happens I listen to them in the car on the way home, but none of them have turned out very good. So far the only one I've liked is the Breeders Mountain Battles.

Sent by NC | 6:30 AM | 7-25-2008

After the first few listens of a new record I like, I purposely start the CD on the sixth or seventh song. Too often I get pulled away from hearing the last half of the record. Think about how many records you know by heart from track 1 to track 4. Sometimes you need to start from what would be side 2 on an album.

Sent by BB | 7:44 AM | 7-25-2008

i try to get a chance to sit down with it, put it on while reading the liner notes, lyrics, play a few minutes of each track get an idea of what each song sounds like.

then, to get the full experience, i'll take a nap with it on and soak in the sounds.

Sent by -b | 10:50 AM | 7-25-2008

I will often come here with 2 or 3 CD's at a time (more if I can buy used) and I linger over all them, wondering which one will make first cut. I prefer the feeling of opening a CD with the paper packaging, jewel cases still annoy me. I linger over the art work, the lyrics and then finally put the CD on.

I try to give the whole thing one listen before engaging in something else. I usually upload the CD into iTunes on the first listen and If I am instantly hooked on the CD, I will bring into my car.

I do miss the grand artwork of records "back in the day". There was something even more fantastic about the packaging. I don't think the vinyl of today can match that.

Next CD on the list? The PDX Pop Now Compilation!!

Sent by setya | 11:25 AM | 7-25-2008

My only rule: NEVER SKIP A TRACK.

I find that if I listen to a song for 10 seconds and then jump to the next one, I'm more likely to skip that track every time I listen to the album.

Even if the track is horrible, I'll at least have listened to it once.

Sent by scott | 12:18 PM | 7-25-2008

I have a few that stand out for me...

The first time I put on Pearl Jams "Riot Act" the first song went by without much listening, as I had already heard a solo version EdVed had done of "Cant Keep" Then came track 2... "Save You" instantly became my all time fav track and still is to this day. I listened to it 5 times in the parking lot of Best Buy before moving on, and heading home...

I normally will listen to an album straight through before listening to a song again... but that time... i just couldnt help it.

I actually dislike knowing any of the songs before hand... I believe I knew 3 songs off of "Riot Act" before I had bought it...

Another thing I really like to do, is listen to the album in my room, lights off, nothing on but the album... to fully listen to it...

But sometimes, I just cant wait, and will have to listen to the new album at work... full of distractions...

When I recieved Blackfires albums in the mail, I enjoyed those in my room... lights off, and the sounds filling my room... thats the only way to truely enjoy an album...

And my last lil album experience Id like to share... I, much like EdVed of Pearl Jam, and many others im sure, made the mistake of popping Sleater-Kinney's "The Woods" into my car after buying the album at the local music store... My speakers and stearing wheel suffered a major beating, to one of the greatest albums of all time (IMO)
"The Fox" although not one of my fav Sleater-Kinney songs, may just be the greatest side one track one on any album... and the "Lets Call It Love" to "Night Light" may only be toped by the doors, "The End" for best closing song ever... And even better... I hit play when I got in the car... the album ended when I pulled back into my drive way...

My top 5 Albums...
Pearl Jam - Binaural
Sleater-Kinney - The Woods
Blackfire - One Nation Under
The doors - The doors
Leah Andreone - Veiled

Sent by Kramer | 4:08 PM | 7-25-2008

I totaly agree with the ceremonious 'unwraping' of the album, cd's in 99% of cases for me these days.

Having somewhat trawled my collection lately (some spare time) It's amazing how many first two albums I have by bands. Loved the first, bought the second, then thought Hmmmm!!
I'm pretty strict on 'the play the album as a whole' though and take it as one piece of work, I'm old fasioned I guess.

Sent by Tim | 6:53 PM | 7-25-2008

i like to listen to a new cd all the way through on my headphones. also i've noticed that time and again on different albums i'll really like track #4. i've started wondering whether the #4 place on an album is typically used for a certain kind of song. i imagine the first song on most albums is reserved for a certain kind of song, to kick it all off and pull you in. is #4 used in a similar way?

Sent by ld | 3:10 PM | 7-26-2008

I lie on my back on the floor. For the really good ones.

Sent by CJ | 5:17 PM | 7-26-2008

I prefer having the physical artifact of an album, as I always have historically, so I am one of those who still buys CDs.

The ritual of listening to a new album is different from the days of vinyl, when there was a side one, and a side two. At home, I tend to listen to music more at my computer, even though the better sounding system is in another room.

Depending on the time issues, I may or may not make it all the way through the album in one listen. There are certain CDs where I am much more familiar with tracks 1-5, rather than say 6-12. And the fact that I am on the computer, my complete undivided attention is not necessarily on the album. If I like what I'm hearing, I will look at the liner notes/booklet, and if I have the time will repeat it, and try to figure out just which songs I like, and will transfer to my iPod!

Sent by Glenn | 11:06 PM | 7-27-2008

the near to come oxford collapse cd is going to stay in my discman for a while...my best headphones and what stands in front of me...streets
yeah! sounds good doesn't it?
then i'll bring that stuff over the country and taste the cool mix of sound and color
can't wait
cheers
enjoy summer dear c

Sent by jules green cap | 9:13 AM | 7-28-2008

the best first listening experiences for me have been in the car, windows down, with friends. That feeling of participating in something new and fresh, especially when it's really good, is best shared, driving 45 down US1 in Melbourne, FL.

Sent by Micah | 9:20 AM | 7-28-2008

Late to the party I am, but what an intriguing post!

One of my favorite ways to listen to a new album/CD is to lay on the floor with my head between the speakers (at a safe distance of course!) and read the liner notes and stuff. This worked better back when I was getting stuff on vinyl, but CD's aren't so bad now that I am so used to them. Downloading digital music is great when I already know what I want when i am looking for individual tunes, like for the 'Blender' series of mix CDs I have recently started putting together. But there is something a bit juiceless (sterile?) about pushing bits of invisible data from one port to another. No much opportunity for engagement. Gotta have that artifact with graphics and lyrics (preferably) in my hands, it helps me visualize the music in my head. Also, I like closing my eyes in that position. Sometimes form and content really sink in if I shut off the visual input.

Alas, with a young daughter in the house and trying to be a responsible adult, the opportunities for stereophonic floor sessions are rare these days. More often I have to settle for listening to music in the car. And that can be fun too, because I can sing and comment to my heart's content!

Sent by Kevin S. | 9:19 PM | 7-28-2008

I look at the liner notes and pictures first. The first listen will usually be in the car, and the second listen will usually be on my headphones in the dark with my eyes closed. I do not skip tracks, and I always play my albums at a high volume. Albums with a psych element are immeasurably more enjoyable using the latter method, especially if you are tired and are able to hover between wakefulness and sleep. Reading the lyrics comes last and should not be done while listening to the album. Albums should be a journey, but lyrics sheets are not maps. Trying to trace a path when you ought to be wandering only detracts from the experience.

Sent by Mike | 9:26 PM | 7-28-2008

I was actually thinking about this post as I was opening the packaging to my brand new Deerhoof and Fiona Apple cds today. It made me realise how meticulously well though out this post really was. Still think you're an awesome writer.

Sent by Kevin McCallister | 1:07 AM | 7-29-2008

breaking open the the booklet to inhale the scent of freshly printed paper. The challenge is to sit through the whole album without skipping songs, having ADD can be a bitch when it comes down to it. I'm now thinking back to all the albums with hidden gems that I skipped just to get that illustrious catchy hit song.

Sent by Kristin | 10:23 PM | 7-30-2008

I believe in respectfully giving every new, full-length album i purchase my complete attention once. I start at Track 1 and let it play through to the end. I note the tracks i like, dislike and can not decide. It usually takes 3-4 listens before i can identify the "gems" (and it's not always the popular, early released-on-the-radio hits). i prefer my stereo (SRS please), because i, too, might need to clean or do dishes while i listen, but if i can't wait, i appreciate the people who provided me with a CD player in my car.

Sent by chelle | 11:49 PM | 7-30-2008

Anything can happen. I guess that, being an old git, nothing for beats the magic of getting caught off guard by a band I've never heard before. Especially if the album is not too "easy to get". I know for sure that will be a record that will matter for me, as I find it really intriguing. And then, I tend to listen to it again and again, letting the music sink in. Until I'm really hooked. Case in point : of Montreal's "Hissing Fauna...", although it must have been something like their 12th record. Just fell under the radar until then (easy living in France). And I still need to go through that discovery process with each new Fiery Furnaces album, although they've been my favorite band since they released Blueberry Boat. Oh, and I still prefer to have vinyl over anything. Especially buying an LP at the merch table...

Sent by Thierry | 11:53 AM | 7-31-2008

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