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Strange Fruit: The Beatle’s Apple Records

Strange Fruit: The Beatles’ Apple Records (Sexy Intellectuals)

As record companies become less and less relevant in today’s digital age, the story of The Beatles’ own foray into the record business stands to risk its own extinction. While it is exciting to watch the industry transform back into a singles-based culture with the gap between musician and audience shortening, it’s easy to forget that record labels at one time were a vital chain in the music industry.

The Beatles were one of the first bands who were keenly aware of this power, watching themselves become delegated to the sidelines when it came to matters of their label, Parlophone in the U.K. and Capitol here in the States.

The discord was so great that the band not only set about creating their own label as soon as their existing contracts ran out, they also set about changing the very idea of what a record company could be. From their perspective, most of the bigger labels of the day were filled with tenured music folks who had no real reason to change. But to the younger artists, they were seen as roadblocks to creative will, challenging everything including the very manner in which their music was recorded.

There would be none of that within Apple Records.

The Beatles invested themselves into this new record label that would change all of this. Not only would the new venture find certain success with any Beatles related product that was released, it would also find a curious pattern to the band member’s personal stamp of approval to any project that they brought to fruition. They resembled their own tastes, for sure, but the releases also mirrored the member’s own worldview.

Strange Fruit: The Beatles’ Apple Records documents the life cycle of the Fab 4’s project. From Apple Records’  Utopian beginnings to its obligatory legal scavenging in the mid-70s, this documentary–made without the band’s consent–details the curious story of the label that turned out to be so much more than the boutique created by ego and fame. Instead, it was a label created with more good intention than business acumen.

As a kid, I associated Apple Records with the Beatles, or their solo counterparts. I remember Ringo’s “Back Off Boogaloo” had a blue apple while my copy of Let It Be came with a Red Delicious label.

It wasn’t until I got Badfinger’s Straight Up album that I became aware of other artists besides the Beatles that were also housed on the Apple label. Years later when I became fully enthralled with Beatlemania I discovered the full lengths of what the label actually was, and even then I’m sure I didn’t have a full appreciation of what they were trying to achieve.

Strange Fruit gives novices and even well read fans a comprehensive overview of their initial forays into the record industry with personal antidotes from some of the label’s first signings.

As expected, John’s first projects involved Yoko Ono, including their infamous Two Virgins release as well as their subsequent Wedding Album complete with a copy of John and Yoko’s marriage certificate, a booklet, and even a photo of the couple’s wedding cake.

Lennon was also responsible for signing David Peel, as well as coordinating a release for Elephant Memory, his backing band for Sometime In New York City release. It’s obvious that Lennon’s choices were music of the street and an aural diary of his new home, New York City.

However, he deferred much of his focus on Apple to making sure Yoko Ono was provided the best of everything when it came time for her annual releases. The label executives, placed at the behest of the band, were very aware that they were to spare no expense when it came to a new Yoko Ono record, even when the accountants couldn’t help notice that she was one of the lowest selling artists on the roster.

Strange Fruit hints at this and to this day, even the artists that may have suffered from the lack of budget tread quietly on the Yoko word. Listening to some of these less notable artists, you begin to formulate your own opinion if an extra advertising budget would even make much of an impact on sales.

You also get the sense that these bands were at the mercy of the Beatles themselves, whose flight of fancy could spell the end of other artists careers whenever the novelty of being an A&R executive ran out.

Ringo’s attention was the most brief, kicking off the label’s first release: a one copy only release of “The Lady Is A Champ” re-titled “Maureen Is A Champ,” a birthday present from Ringo to his wife for her 21st birthday. The record was never officially released to the public and aside from a few singles the Beatle drummer coaxed along the way early on, his true passion seemed to be with films, both behind and in front of the camera.

If one were to gauge the commercial success of the Beatles’ own stable, you’d have to acknowledge McCartney’s out of the gate smash of Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were The Days.” McCartney found the song, an old Russian standard, being used in a film, fell in love with it. He paired a young Welsh girl with the song that kept circling his head, and the result was the second release in Apple’s catalog and a worldwide smash.

McCartney also provided one of his songs to members of The Ivey’s, a Welsh band that Beatle roadie Mal Evans thought the world of, to the point where he approached nearly every Beatle to okay their signing. He got a receptive ear from Paul, who handed the band his demo for “Come And Get It” with firm instructions to not change a thing when re-doing it. They didn’t. And with a quick name change to Badfinger, they found “Come And Get It” as their first worldwide hit.

It was George Harrison who found the most fertile ground with Apple Records, taking every opportunity to find talent that may not have been the most commercially viable, but instead, the most spiritually satisfying. He was first tallied with the responsibility finding an outlet for Jackie Lomax, actually one of Brian Epstein’s findings who was well known locally. When Epstein committed suicide in 1967, Lomax found all of his good fortunes suddenly slipping away. Harrison put his hand in the ring and turned Lomax’s debut album into a pet project, calling up other Beatles and other famous friends to help fill out the arrangement.

The sound was not the same as Lomax’s versions, but when you’re being directed by a Beatle and he hands over your first “hit,” a strangely arranged song called “Sour Milk Sea,” you don’t refuse it even when it sounds like nothing that would make its way up the charts.

He coordinated the Radha Krishna Temple recording including the infamous “Hare Krishna Mantra” that progressively minded FM stations around the world would play on occasion in their free-format playlists.

George worked with Ravi Shankar for the Concert For Bangladesh and even released a live Shankar album shortly afterward but it wasn’t before he too lost interest, intrusting the few remaining items on his plate to be completed by longtime friend Klaus Voormann.

Not only were the funds of Apple Records’ budget becoming increasingly drained, but so were the creative forces behind it.

One of the most notable Apple Records’ releases was the solo debut effort by James Taylor. Since Peter Asher’s first chart entry as Peter and Gordon composed by his sister’s boyfriend, Paul McCartney, his ties to the band were strong enough that he became one of Apple Record’s first A&R men.

Asher’s first discovery was Taylor, and he managed to get a good size promotional budget for his debut release. It sold well, but not at the levels that Asher achieved with other labels when he took Taylor’s contract as part of his own resignation.

The producers of Strange Fruit wisely keep a wide birth between the inevitable tales of the legal wrangling that everyone faced in this experiment of making a label entirely out of the creative engine of some very talented people. But some very talented people try to work beyond their capabilities and often the results are poor.

And The Beatles were not very business-minded at all, shoring up their own deficiencies with such sharks like Alan Klein who could see nothing in the Utopian blueprint that the Beatles dreamed except a never-ending way to bleed all of those poor hippie schmucks all the way to bank.

Even without much on the label’s legal story, Strange Fruit remains a very calm, collected, and somewhat long-winded documentary. The interviews are somewhat relevant, but they contain none of the history divulging tales that would make this documentary a vital artifact.

It’s best appreciated by Beatlemaniacs who want a glimpse into the Beatles’ entrepreneurial spirit built on a wonderful platform of whimsy and good intentions.

But even inside those good intentions was a project both naïve and poorly executed. Strange Fruit does not hold back at these unflattering moments, but instead it forgives it all with the same rose colored lenses that only a true fan would use.

Everyone seems to acknowledge the folly of the whole thing with an almost youthful shrug. It suggests that it was a learning model for sure, but during the brief moment it shined, Apple Records sounded like the not only the place to work, but also just the place to be.

The Story Of Rock ‘n’ Roll Comics

I will confess to following Marvel comics in the mid-70s, a supermarket habit that I took up while my Mom took our cocker spaniel to obedience school at the local armory. I’ll even admit that I groaned a bit when I learned that she threw away all of those comics–including a first issue edition of Howard the Duck.

That money could have come in handy living in a third floor, one bedroom apartment with my girlfriend as we penny-pinched our way through our early twenties. Instead, I just supplemented my income with used record and cd sales. It became a routine ritual, particularly if I was going to see a band a club later that same day. The extra money meant we could start with an import or two before referring back to the regular Leinenkugel drafts.

It was around this same time when a younger friend of mine began diving into the maddening world of record collecting. The harder the find, the better potential for envy.

Most of our collected purchases stemmed from singles with rare b-sides, import copies with obscure bonus tracks, and the occasional bootleg where earned money was spent on cassette soundboard recordings.

But one day, my friend brought in a couple of comic books. Not just the Marvel or hipster underground fare, but a comic book devoted entirely to rock and roll bands. I grabbed his copy of the Pearl Jam comic and began to skim through it.

The artwork wasn’t bad from what I recall, but the storyline presented was some glaringly fictionalized account of the beginnings of everyone’s favorite Northwestern rock band, Pearl Jam.

Being a fan of rock and roll writ, I can attest to some basic knowledge about certain rock and roll bands. While Pearl Jam is by no means a favorite of mine–I once owned Ten and now the only Pearl Jam related item in my collection is the single they did with Neil Young–I do know the basic story of their origins.

The comic book version I was reading suggested that during the band’s initial days, the members were struggling with a band name. That challenge ended when a band member presented his bandmates with a Mason jar of some of his aunt’s homemade jam that featured some hallucinogenic properties. The comic book then declares the band settled upon a name after that psychedelic spread in honor of the woman who created it.

The story is total horseshit, but I vaguely remember people suggesting it back during that time when people pondered, “I wonder how Pearl Jam came up with their name?” I stopped caring during the time they were known as Mother Love Bone, and who the fuck wants to figure out that name origin.

I wouldn’t be surprised if that quote from the comic book was completely butchered, but the point is, this is the same kind of research that the comic was working with on this full color spotlight presented in the Pearl Jam edition of Rock ‘n’ Roll Comics.

I never bothered to read another copy of Rock ‘n’ Roll Comics after that, and my friend also stopped seeking out this fictionalized accounts of other bands that were highlighted.

And the stores that carried Rock ‘n’ Roll Comics suddenly stopped carrying these serials, leaving one with the impression that the company who produced this stuff was beginning to run low on revenue. 

Twenty years later, a documentary was released that fully explains the history of that company as well as the story of its eccentric owner, Todd Loren. The Story of Rock n Roll Comics presents Loren as a very divisive man, one who is seen as some first amendment crusader almost as much as he is for financially screwing the artists and writers who helped bring his vision to the comic book page.

Before he became one of the most controversial figures in the comic world, Todd Loren began as a mail-order retailer specializing in hard to find imports and rare musical items. If you were looking for a bootleg of some Roger Waters concert during the Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking tour, then Loren’s company–Musicade–would probably be a great place to find a copy.

Dealing in bootleg records and the like can be a tough racket, but Loren was a tough cookie and he found success at a young age. Musicade adverts could be found in the back of such publications as Rolling Stone magazine at one point, but it wasn’t long after making such progress before Loren decided to pitch the mail order business and combine his own love of music with another passion: comics.

It was a parody comic of Bruce Springsteen that gave Loren the idea of mixing the two art forms, and it was through unsavory business practices that Todd collected a stable of writers and artists to come up with creative ideas at a very low price.

The end result was a cheaply made yet unquestionably enviable idea of taking rock folk lore and using it as the creative fictional spark for a comic story line. My original complaint of the series lack of accuracy is about as pointless as me arguing how there’s no way that cosmic rays are the reason how the members of the Fantastic Four got their powers.

“It’s obviously not real…it’s a cartoon!” as Mojo Nixon wisely points out during one of his interview segments on The Story of Rock ‘n’ Roll Comics. Evidently, the two worked together during Todd’s life and Nixon is used as one of Loren’s supporters, both in his business practices and in his advocacy of the first amendment.

It’s that struggle which takes up the bulk of the film, positioning Todd Loren as a true fighter of the right to free speech while the other side presents him as an opportunist, someone who used the notion of the first amendment as a thin cover for Loren’s ultimate goal: to make money.

Nothing exemplifies this more than Loren’s actions when he made the decision to fold Musicade and start Revolutionary Comics, the comic book company he started with some assistance from his father.

Not that Loren needed his old man for financial assistance, it seems, just for moral support. It makes perfect sense that he’d look to his own family for this given the fact that he effectively fired everyone from Musicade, an act that is presented to swiftly in the documentary that it almost seems callous and selfish.

Almost as soon as Loren started Revolutionary Comics, he attracted controversy. He failed to distinguish the idea that bands might want to be in control of the entire aspect of their career, even their visual image.

No sooner than did Revolutionary Comics turn away from things like conspiracy theories, erotic hell ladies, and even sports figures, Loren found a niche within the music fan base who found entertainment and collectability in these very crude publications.

Almost immediately, Loren discovered that the world of rock and roll is filled with lawyers and legal teams who have nothing more to do then look for licensing infractions copyright infringement.  

He wore this conflict like a badge of honor, devoting cover space for the motto “Unauthorized…And Proud Of It!” which probably antagonized his industry foe even more.

What killed them off for good was a court ruling that identified Rock ‘n’ Roll Comics as work that was protected from legal action. After a judge sided on Loren’s side, the company began ramping up production to include everything from New Kids on the Block to Pink Floyd to the Sex Pistols.

He burned many bridges along the way, giving aspiring artists a chance to be published for the first time while systematically disposing of other ones who began to question the financial obligation that Loren offered for their work.

He developed a rubber stamp contact. Literally. One that he used on his payment checks, thereby forcing his contributors to sign away all rights to their work in order for them to endorse their payment.

To his peers, his comics trivialized the work that they sought to legitimize. The professional competition was eager to point out his company’s shoddy layout and amateurish composition.

There’s also room to suggest that some of their complaints were fostered from sour grapes, particularly when you learn about some projects where the rock and roll artists themselves gave Loren verbal permission to proceed with his unauthorized accounts while granting other publications authorized status, for a fee.

Both Jerry Garcia and, surprisingly, Gene Simmons overlooked their own organization’s litigious history and allowed Loren to continue his serialized accounts of their bands. For Jerry, the decision was probably based on some hippie idealism while Gene understood that any minor publication like Rock ‘n’ Roll Comics would do more to help Kiss’ exposure than impact their bottom line.

The Story of Rock ‘n’ Roll Comics does little to draw much attention to Loren’s unfavorable image as an explanation for the violent manner in which he died. As the documentary draws closer to its conclusion, it announces how a father who became concerned at his son’s absence from work suddenly turns into a homicide investigation.

Todd seldom missed work, so when he failed to show up one morning, his father went over to his apartment only to discover his son’s body brutally stabbed to death.

The gruesome discovery also provided his friends and family with another shock: Loren was homosexual. His personal life was extremely private, to the point where none of his friends and coworkers knew that he was gay. 

The case remains unsolved, but the killer’s pattern and location match that of serial killer Andrew Cunanan, murderer of fashion designer Gianni Versace. It’s widely believed that Todd was one of Cunanan’s first victims, but with the killer’s suicide in 1997, it became impossible to question him about his involvement with Loren’s 1992 murder.

With this strange twist, the story of Todd Loren and Rock ‘n’ Roll Comics ends almost as immediately as it began. The series continued under the leadership of Todd’s father for a few years after his murder, but the comics failed to find direction without Loren’s unwavering drive and the business folded.

The absence of Rock ‘n’ Roll Comics only made them that much more collectible. As someone who remembers the comic’s past and can attest to their questionable worth, I can’t say that I fully appreciate the higher cost these comics command.

What I can appreciate is how The Story Of Rock ‘n’ Roll Comics successfully explores the behind-the-scenes account of this niche business and becomes a more fascinating topic than any of the storylines of their rock and roll inspiration.

From Straight To Bizarre: Zappa, Beefheart, Alice Cooper and L.A.’s Lunatic Fringe

Going back to the first time I ever heard Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, I remember wondering, “What is going on here?”

The second thought immediately following this was “Who on Earth would release this?”

Even today, Trout Mask Replica stands out as a left-field landmark, an impressive opus that may not sound like a masterpiece upon first listen, but its creative seeds begin to plant themselves immediately afterwards causing each subsequent listen to reveal an additional layer of complete brilliance.

So it goes without saying that the record company that had the impossible foresight to allow such a document to grow to fruition must most certainly be run by a special person.

The label was originally called Bizarre and it eventually transformed into Straight Records. The men responsible for these forward-looking labels were Frank Zappa and his manager Herb Cohen. Together, they drew up a contract with Warner Brothers for Zappa’s material, and they secured a vanity label with the company so that Frank and Herb could offer artists an outlet for their creativity.

From Straight To Bizarre: Zappa, Beefheart, Alice Cooper and LA’s Lunatic Fringe chronicles the origins of Zappa and Cohen’s record company all the way to its ultimate collapse amid bad feelings and obligatory lawsuits. It’s recommended to any fan of Zappa or Beefheart that’s interested in learning more about this very creative time for both of them and the strange business plan that Zappa hatched in turning documents of L.A.’s self-described freaks into recording stars.

What’s striking is how patient Zappa seems to be with these people, some of whom have clear mental issues that far outweigh any attempt at assisting their artistic endeavors. Others are just plain opportunistic, part of the scene because they invited themselves and invented a second-life persona that was either hiding their real history because of how awful it was or how bland it looked on paper.

For some reason not explained on film, (none of the interviews presented in this feature Zappa) Frank felt these enigmatic characters deserved documenting. He began on a quest to transform a paranoid schizophrenic named Wild Man Fischer who spent his days selling his stream-of-questionable-consciousness songs for a dime, essentially panhandling his lunacy for tourists and passers-by.

For most of us, these characters are minor annoyances on our way to work, but to Frank, Fischer was part of the landscape of this social freak culture he was attempting to document. Fischer thought he’d sound like the Beatles when Frank finished, but when Zappa presented an album with not only Fischer’s primitive compositions, but his crazed existence in the form of field recordings, he got mad.

The Wild Man–true to his name–flung a flower pot too close for comfort at the head of a very young Moon Unit Zappa, trying to process how An Evening With Wild Man Fischer wasn’t as big as Meet The Beatles.

After that event, Fischer was never allowed in the Zappa house again and his debut record has never been re-released to this day because of bad feelings. I verified this online where the lowest priced copy of An Evening With I found on a recent scan of eBay (VG rating) had a starting price of $20 with better quality copies ranging from $50-$100.

The GTO’s get ample screen time on From Straight To Bizarre with Pamela Des Barres and Miss Mercy spouting on about meaningless stories of getting high with the Magic Band and defining what exactly constitutes being a groupie. Out of all of the label’s releases, the GTO’s Permanent Damage may stand as the most unnecessary record ever made, but according to the film, Zappa tolerated their limit talents and unprofessional behavior in the studio.

Thankfully, a great deal of time is spend on Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica and the power that he exerted over the band during this period. It’s clear from Magic Band members John French (Drumbo) and Bill Harkleroad (Zoot Horn Rollo) that the Captain initiated a regime of cultdom that French later referred to as “Masonesque.”

You get the sense that Zappa himself was aware of this treatment, yet gave a wide birth between being concerned with their welfare and allowing his old friend Don Van Vliet to have what he wanted most: total creative freedom. In his defense, Zappa did give the Magic Band a hot meal every so often out of pity.

During the period where they were considered a band, Alice Cooper also maneuvered into a contract with the label based on an audition that Vince Furnier misheard to take place at nine in the morning at the Zappa cabin in Laurel Canyon instead of Frank’s preferred time of nine in the evening.

Frank also caught an Alice Cooper gig that witnessed half the audience leaving in disgust, which meant that Zappa simply had to agree to sign them based on principle alone. By the time of their third album Love It To Death, the band had finally found a new producer who captured their essence into a palatable offering, led by the enormously successful “I’m Eighteen.”

With that record in 1971, the logo of Straight Records was all that was left before the Zappa/Cohen project was phased out of discussion along with Zappa’s own contract with Warners.

I haven’t even touched on signings like the a capella gospel vocal group The Persuasions, Tim Buckley’s Starsailor release, as well as Mother’s member Jeff Simmons’s solo album. They’re all included in the discussions during From Straight To Bizarre, which makes the film a bit heavy at over two-and-a-half hours in length.

You may get a bit winded by all of the talking heads throughout the feature, helping to assist in the film’s girth and you may get very sick of the original musical music they use each time the conversation focuses on Beefheart. There are samples of some of the label’s artists, but as a matter to save money, the producers must have bargained a lower number to someone familiar with Beefheart’s repertoire to come up with a cheesy facsimile.

Cheap tactics aside, the film does prove to be a good reference point for any up-and-coming Zappa fan looking to see how far his influence extended into the late sixties. It’s also a nice document of one of the most successful avant-garde record companies that ever benefited from a major record label and a reminder of how different the system was when it came to harvesting talent beyond the pool of commercial ambition.

Trailer: Frank Zappa – Straight To Bizarre

Note: Amazon pulled its listing for some reason (Google cache) but you can still order it from MVD or Chrome Dreams UK.

Eric Clapton – The 1960’s Review

Eric Clapton - The 1960's ReviewEric ClaptonThe 1960’s Review (Sexy Intellectual)

When I was growing up, Eric Clapton was always held in high esteem by my father, and he instilled in me an almost immediate respect for the guitarist. He taught me that bands like Cream and Blind Faith were more than just rock bands, they were “super groups.”

In terms of Clapton’s own legacy, the sole record Clapton did with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers became Dad’s ultimate go-to record as proof of Eric’s dexterity.

“You know that someone spray painted ‘Clapton is God’ on a wall because of his playing on ‘Beano,'” he’d tell me, before explaining the meaning of “Beano.” For years, I thought the Mayall/Clapton Bluesbreakers was actually called “Beano” and became dismayed when I could never find the album of the same name.

Since I was prewired to appreciate Clapton, there was almost an instinctual attraction toward a new documentary on his early years. The unauthorized dvd, The 1960’s Review, focuses on the guitarist’s formative years, when his talent was untarnished by later career decisions that undermined the man’s credibility.

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Leonard Cohen – Bird On A Wire

Leonard Cohen - Bird On A WireLeonard CohenBird On A Wire (TMC)

The story goes that Leonard Cohen’s manager, Marty Machat, commissioned director Tony Palmer to follow Leonard around on a 20-date European tour with the intention of capturing a bit of the creative muse on celluloid.

The film Bird On A Wire sat in Machat’s storage until he passed away, at which time Cohen took over possession and kept the film in hiding. Recently, Cohen returned the footage to the son of his former manager, who immediately set about tracking down Tony Palmer to complete the project that had started four decades earlier.

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The Who, The Mods and the Quadrophenia Connection

The Who, The Mods and the Quadrophenia ConnectionThe Who, The Mods and the Quadrophenia Connection (Sexy Intellectual)

Like most youth movements, Mod fashion and culture is cyclical. What started as a response to traditionalist jazzboes has been hashed and rehashed again and re-imagined every ten years or so. While some of the music and fashion designers change from one wave to the next, the one thing that doesn’t is the pure Britishness of it all.

As an artist, Pete Townshend has a particular eye for revision. He also has a particular eye for trends and the Mod movements have been critical to The Who‘s development and legacy over the years. The band’s initial rise in England can be traced to its adoption of Mod clothing and attitudes. It’s ability to not simply wash out to sea like so many of its British Invasion contemporaries in the early 70s can be traced to it’s masterful recording of the era in another Townshend “rock opera” that helped spawn another Mod wave in 1973.

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Wesley Willis’s Joy Rides

Wesley Willis's Joy RidesNewly released on DVD, Wesley Willis’s Joy Rides is a beautifully assembled biographical documentary of one of Chicago’s most unique artists. Wesley Willis was a diagnosed chronic schizophrenic who found a way to turn both his art and his music into a reliable source of income over his tragically shortened life; he died at 40 of leukemia in 2003. Willis’s twin careers as both an artist and musician fascinated some, offended others, and were marginalized by still others.

His career as a visual art is sometimes even further obscured by the same subset of fans who loved his music. While it is easy to dismiss his ballpoint-pen artwork of cityscapes, to do so is to do Wesley a huge disservice. I wasn’t aware that to a degree, Wesley had formal architectural drawing experience. The amount of detail in his drawings is staggering, and the fact that years after he’d visited a certain city he could draw a building or a subway tunnel from memory is an astounding ability. The movie shows Wesley in the latter part of his life while drawing, and it’s fascinating to see the artist in action.

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Nirvana Reading Appearance on DVD

The NME reports that Nirvana‘s notorious 1992 Reading Festival appearance will be released on DVD this May. Titled Life Takes No Prisoners, the disc features 27 songs, including covers of Boston‘s “More Than a Feeling” and “The Star Spangled Banner.” There’s no US release date nor a listing on Amazon as yet.

Track listing after the jump…

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