Gene Clark Sings for You/The Rose Garden – A Trip Through The Garden. Omnivore Recordings

clark-sings-for-you-ov-280The past couple of years have been a bit of a bonanza for fans of Gene Clark as previously unheard recordings have crept out of hiding, songs which have been discussed and analysed in print and on the net but always tantalisingly out of reach unless one was connected. Sings for You, an acetate of eight songs recorded in 1967, is described in the liner notes (by Clark’s biographer John Einarson) as the holy grail of lost Clark songs and they are accompanied here by a further five songs from the same year which Clark wrote for an LA combo, The Rose Garden, along with one other song he offered to them.

So 14 Gene Clark songs, recorded at the height of his post Byrds fame and none of them released elsewhere or refashioned on any of his albums. Whew! However it’s important to emphasise that these songs are sketches which were never polished for general release. The eight song acetate was recorded by Clark after he was let go by Columbia Records after his album with the Gosdin Brothers failed to sell as well as they expected and seemingly was intended to be sent to various labels as Clark looked for a new recording contract. He’s joined in the studio by bass and drums and occasional keyboards including a chamberlin (which was somewhat akin to a mellotron). Stripped of the baroque folk embellishments which embroidered the album with the Gosdins, Clark is in fine fettle here with the songs pointing in several future directions. On Her Own, Yesterday Am I Right and That’s Alright with Me are prime Clark melancholia, one can imagine them gracing White Light a few years later if one strips out the somewhat overenthusiastic drummer who is somewhat obtrusive. There’s a more balanced band sound on the other songs. Down on the Pier is a fantastic song which is only let down by its similarity to Dylan’s 4th Time Around (which of course was influenced by The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood) but the addition of calliope  makes it one of the more realised songs here. Past My Door and One Way Road meanwhile offer a glimpse into Clark’s next venture with the Dillards as they venture into early country rock territory.

It’s hard to believe but the next five songs, all recorded by Clark to offer to The Rose Garden, are even better than the fabled Sings For You songs. On Tenth Street and A Long Time are just Clark and his guitar in true 60’s troubadour mode, slightly Dylanish but totally Gene and totally brilliant while Understand Me Too would have made a brilliant Byrds song in the manner of Here Without You. The addition of a band on the Jimmy Reed like Big City Girl is great fun and the band also appear on the excellent Doctor Doctor which finds Clark in proto psychedelic mode sounding like a cross between the early Jefferson Airplane and indeed the Younger Than Yesterday Byrds. The band wig out as if they were shimmying in the background of a Roger Corman film scene and the guitar solo is pure Nuggets.

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It goes without saying that Sings For You is essential for any Gene Clark fan but Omnivore Records have a neat tie in which is The Rose Garden’s album, the band for whom Gene offered several of the songs above. Despite his interest they didn’t set the charts ablaze although they had some minor hits. A typical 60’s psychedelic pop sound, the album does have a period charm as the band channel Byrds’ like jangled guitar, folk rock and Mamas and Papas vocal harmonies on various songs. They do a great version of the traditional CC Rider (here just called Rider) with glorious harmonies and Flower Town just drips with psychedelic whimsy. The original 10 song album is enhanced by the addition of a further 16 songs culled from single releases and live cuts with some of them eclipsing the album songs as on If My World Falls Through, a song which approaches Brill building pop brilliance. It’s a curio but one which, for anyone who digs the more harmonic side of 60s psychedelia, is well worth getting.

Omnivore Recordings webpage

 

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Starry Eyed & Laughing. To Try For The Sun. Aurora Records

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Back in January  2015 Blabber’n’Smoke indulged in a bout of reminiscence courtesy of Starry Eyed & Laughing when Forever Young, a fantastic scrapbook of previously unreleased songs and radio sessions compiled by the band’s guitarist and singer Tony Poole was released. Rather than repeat their story you can read the review here. Poole had previously gathered together the band’s two albums and single releases on That Was Then, This Is Now (also on Aurora Records) and that was that, the two releases a comprehensive history of a great band who flamed and burned for a few short years in the seventies. But Poole has continued to delve into the archives and amazingly enough has come up with another album’s worth of songs, 20 to be precise, 14 alternate recordings of songs we know and six previously unreleased. More to the point there’s no sense here of barrels being scraped as the album more than holds its own in comparison to the previous releases. It’s apparent from the glorious Byrds’ like opening song, a cover of Donovan’s To Try For The Sun which does for the Maryhill pixie what McGuinn did for Dylan.

Bearing in mind that the band were in thrall to the American West Coast sound (The Byrds and Dylan, Buffalo Springfield, Moby Grape, CSN&Y) the album is replete with reflections of their forebears and the transition from cover versions to their own songs mirrors that of Forever Young. Thus we get the aforementioned jangle fest of the title song, a lively take on Jackie DeShannon’s When You Walk In The Room as done by The Searchers and a moody For What It’s Worth, performed in a live session with some scorching guitar recalling Clarence White’s work on the live sides of The Byrds’ Untitled album. There’s a nice surprise as they cast their sights on Al Stewart, back then a UK bedsit folkie (way before Year Of The Cat), and subject his Old Compton Street Blues with its Jacques Brel like romanticism to a full on Byrds jingle jangle treatment, Brel replaced by the romanticism of Gene Clark. Clark himself is covered as the band abandon the 1967 string arrangements of Echoes transforming it with an Eastern styled psychedelic fuzz as if Clark was still on board for Younger Than Yesterday and Crosby was in charge of the droning guitars. It’s a fabulous version and proof that Starry Eyed & Laughing were deep into their influences as back then Clark was barely on the horizon and copies of his sixties albums were as rare as hen’s teeth.

The first sessions for the first album offer up a sparkling Going Down, still a rush after all these years, a brisk 50/50 Better Stop Now and a very fine version of Money Is No Friend Of Mine. To my mind this tops the version that ended up on the album, it’s less jaunty and more akin to the spirit of Woody Guthrie’s Do Re Mi with some fine twang guitar thrown in. Alternate takes or radio sessions of songs such as Closer To You Now, Nobody Home,  Down The Street and Oh What are welcome additions to the canon and the album closes with the previously unheard Sea Comes At Its Edges, an elegiac sweep of spangled guitars, folk song and modern technology which captures the visions of McGuinn and Crosby perfectly.

On a sad note, as Tony Poole was readying this album for release it was announced that Starry Eyed & Laughing drummer Michael Wackford had died and the album is dedicated to his memory.

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The Dreaming Spires/Various Artists. Paisley Overground. At the Helm Records

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Oxford’s Dreaming Spires are well known for their jangled take on classic sixties California bands with their last album Searching For The Supertruth one of the nominees for the inaugural UK Americana Awards. For their debut release on At The Helm Records they’ve come up with a concept of sorts, another nod to the past for sure, Paisley Overground being an obvious tribute to the 80’s Paisley Underground, the LA based combustion of ex punks and garage bands who dug The Byrds as much as the Sex Pistols. There’s the album (or mini album, eight songs and under 30 minutes) which is released on plum coloured vinyl and which features four songs from the Spires and an additional four from friends who share their passions and there was even a mini package tour which took in four dates down south last week to coincide with the release.

Side one (and it’s really nice to write that) features The Spires and three of the four songs here were recorded in the legendary Ardent studios in Memphis which they visited when they played Americana Fest last year.  They open with the title track, a glorious smorgasbord of 12 stringed chiming guitars, soaring organ and harmonies galore as Robin Bennett waxes in autobiographical mode as he sings about finding a new kind of sound and his love of  Paisley shirts and 12 string guitars. Harberton Mead hymns an Oxford street with a Stax like propulsive beat coloured by sitar like guitar breaks and a brief organ led freakout at the end. The Road Less Travelled eases up on the clutch as it glides into sight. A ballad that’s imbued with the spirit of Big Star, stately piano, keening pedal steel and soaring vocals remind one that Chris Bell was as integral to Big Star as Alex Chilton and the band here are just magnificent. Silverlake Sky, the final part of their four piece jigsaw is the one song recorded in Oxford but it fits perfectly with The Road Less Travelled as it again recalls Big Star.

Side two cements the Paisley Overground concept by the clever trick of having one of the Paisley underground movers and shakers, Sid Griffin opening. Griffin here teams up with Tony Poole from the 70’s UK band Starry Eyed and Laughing (a living link between the 60’s jangle and the later revivals) for Tell Her All The Time, a song that recalls the earlier and folkier Byrds. The remaining three songs are from friends of The Spires. Co-Pilgrim have a shimmery sixties feel on the languid Save The Queen Blazer, The Hanging Stars have a Topanga canyon easy feeling vibe on their free flowing Crippled Shining Blues, twin guitars offering memories of Manassas. Finally The Raving Beauties, a band that grew out of a fictional account of a sixties Byrds inspired band offer up Arrows, a song that reminds one that the jingle jangle pop sound wasn’t confined to LA as they summon up memories of Merseybeat and The Searchers.

The album arrived just too late for our recent spell of Mediterranean weather but when the sun comes back out this would be the perfect accompaniment to a lazy sun speckled afternoon. In the meantime you can dig out the sun lamp and pretend, the songs will transport you.

There’s a fine interview with Joe Bennett on the disc here and you can buy it here. The Dreaming Spires will be coming to Scotland for a show at Southern Fried Festival at Perth on the Sunday Outdoor Stage.

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Starry Eyed And Laughing. Forever Young. Aurora.

It seems to be general wisdom that in 1974 rock was heading for the doldrums, caught in a downward spiral that was only ended when punk exploded in 1976. Some folk will have that all that was available was pompous prog rock or the ragged tail end of glam and that music listeners were a sorry lot of loon panted hippies wishing the sixties had never ended. Mick Farren’s infamous diatribe in the NME in ’76, The Titanic Sails At Dawn catches the mood of the time. I remember those years before punk as exciting times, albums I bought in ’74 included Grievous Angel, It’s Too Late To Stop Now, On The Beach, Pretzel Logic, Natty Dread, No Other and Veedon Fleece. All have stood the test of time. I’d read about most of the music I bought back then via Zigzag magazine and it was thanks to them that I heard about an English band who sounded like The Byrds and who were named after a line in a Dylan song. For someone grabbed by then by country rock (another album I bought that year was the superb Burritos compilation, Close Up The Honky Tonks) Starry Eyed And Laughing seemed like a no brainer and there was even an opportunity to see them live one night at the Queen Margaret Union in Glasgow. Their debut album was a stormer, seesawing between Byrds jangle and CSN&Y harmonies and seeing them live and up close (as opposed to Mr Young at the Apollo) was sheer heaven, one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately after a second album, Thought Talk in 1975, the band disappeared, consigned to the dustbin of history although I’ve continually listened to them particularly their debut which still thrills.

Forever Young, a collection of studio and radio sessions (14 of the 18 previously unreleased) is something of a treasure trove for anyone who has happy memories of Starry Eyed And Laughing. It also serves as a fascinating nugget for anyone interested in the evolution of country rock in the UK, a form that did go into hiding for a while but eventually re emerged with folk such as Elvis Costello, Robyn Hitchcock and Nick Lowe admitting to a fondness for some twang and jangling guitars. It captures early attempts by producer Dan Loggins to have the band perform covers of songs by Roger McGuinn, Steve Stills and Mike Nesmith and others, a plan that was nixed when the band demanded their album would be all their own work. In addition there are previously unheard originals along with radio sessions (sadly some of these only came to light following the death of their first manager).

The cover versions are an intriguing lot. There’s a Byrds’ type cover of Dylan’s Forever Young, a new song back then but delivered as if it were a 1965 follow up to Mr. Tambourine Man. The chiming guitars and McGuinn like vocals are spot on and a delight to listen to. McGuinn’s own I’m So Restless (from his solo debut) is more cosmic country than the original which had a folk base, here it sounds like The Byrds circa the Dr. Byrds and Mr Hyde album with a wee bit of cosmic rocking going on, similarly Steve Stills’ 4+20 has a psychedelic sheen to it. Listening to their version of Mike Nesmith’s Propinquity has the ability to transport the listener into an alternative reality where McGuinn and gang take over the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s mantle of champions of Papa Nez as the twelve string corkscrews thorough this magnificent song.

If the cover versions were all that’s here then it might be safe to relegate the album into the curio cabinet. However the band’s own songs, while undoubtedly indebted to The Byrds sound and in particular the 12 string eclectic guitar jangle, stand proud after all these years and one can see the time line from them to the likes of The Long Ryders, carrying a banner for sure but no mere copyists. With three writers on board (Tony Poole, Ross McGeeney and Iain Whitmore) they offered up some treasures of their own. Miles Away is a yearning dreamlike swoon, more Gene Clark than McGuinn here. Giving You The Blues visits another Byrd’s territory, this time David Crosby with its hypnotic scales and time changes, superbly sung it’s spine tingling. Jet Plane Rider has obvious links to Eight Miles High but it’s an exhilarating listen in its own right; it’s almost spooky mind you at how well the band were able to channel their influences. Their blossoming into their own right is portrayed on the barnstorming (Just Like) A Weepy Movie, the keening ballad So Tired, adorned by marvellous harmonies and well able to pass muster with contemporary songs by the likes of Poco and even the Eagles. Finally, the alternative version of In The Madness, a song on their first album, shows that by then they had transcended their influences and were able to mark their territory with a song that soared high on vinyl way back then.

On a personal level it’s been a joy to listen to this album. If you’re not familiar with the band but enjoy The Byrds, McGuinn, Crosby, Poco or early seventies country rock in general then you really should check it out.

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The Dreaming Spires. Darkest Before The Dawn EP. Clubhouse Records.

Oxford’s The Dreaming Spires are based around brothers, Robin and Joe Bennett who together have a quite a history toiling at the Americana coalface. Their previous band Goldrush had a good pop at making it big and for a period they were in an early incarnation of Danny & The Champions Of The World while in their spare time they were prime movers in setting up Truck Festival. Darkest Before The Dawn is a three song curtain raiser for their second album due early next year. As with their debut album, Brothers in Brooklyn which related some of their adventures in the States, there’s an autobiographical element to the EP with the three songs relating to a friend of the band’s, a guy called Danny who co-wrote several songs previously with Robin Bennett. According to Bennett Danny fell on hard times and the EP is an elliptic account of their relationship and the travails of touring in America.

The EP opens with the seven minute jangled jewel that is Hype Bands (Parts I & II), a song that starts off like Big Star backed by The Memphis Horns as Bennett packs in personal experiences and name checks or alludes to classic American music icons, songs and singers. The addition of the horns and the groove that the band lock into are reminiscent of Danny & The Champs’ recent forays while the road trip element recalls some of The Wynntown Marshals’ album, The Long Haul. It’s a brave, slightly convoluted, adventure with wide-eyed wonder at being in the land of musical heroes dulled by the actual enervating experience of being part of the biz. Musically however it’s a great rollercoaster of a song which definitely benefits from repeated listens as it caroms from jangled country rock to The Band like funky horn grooviness.

The mysterious Danny (actually, with some deft Googling you can easily check out his identity and rest assured he has heard the songs and approves) was the brothers’ road manager on their first trip. House on Elsinore finds them back in LA with Danny in a dark place and the band adopt the identity of one of the classic bands who epitomise the duality of LA. There’s a mighty Byrds thunk from the off with thick 12 string jangle recalling their baroque fondness of Bach. It’s a glorious song that has some of Crosby’s medieval trappings woven throughout.

Darkest Before The Dawn ends the EP on a minor key as The Spires return to Big Star territory with a song that recalls Alex Chilton at his best. Wounded and vulnerable but eventually optimistic as the song is wafted upwards by a heavenly chorus and soaring guitars, a song to make Nick Kent cry.

We mentioned above toiling at the coalface of Americana and in the press release for the EP Robin Bennett expresses a fear that UK bands playing American influenced music has at time seemed laughable before going on to explain that The Kinks, The Beatles and The Stones were all doing this before UK Americana happened. On the evidence here it’s apparent that this is no joke. The EP is a powerful chunk of music, influenced of course by some classic American bands but in the end whether they come from Oxford, England or Oxford Mississippi is irrelevant when the result is as delicious as this. It whets the appetite for the new album and you can read more about that in an interview with Robin Bennett here. The fact that Tony Poole of the criminally underrated 70’s UK Americana rockers, Starry Eyed & Laughing is involved is proof indeed that Americana is a state of mind, not place.

Darkest Before The Dawn is released on November 24 on Clubhouse Records

Gene Clark. The Byrd Who Flew Alone. DVD

It’s been gratifying over the past few years to see the rise of the “rockumentary” detailing the life’s and music of numerous musicians with more and more vintage footage unearthed. BBC4 may have staked its claim to be the natural home of these although honourable mentions must be given to the likes of Alan Yentob’s Imagine series. Once the province of occasional late night cultural backwaters such as Omnibus these days you can spend just about every Friday night reliving rock history. Unfortunately for every gem there’s a shed load of cheap and nasty shock docs peopled by a pool of talking heads who turn up spouting their opinions on just about anything even if their closest acquaintance with the subject was when their agent called to ask if they were interested in appearing. That said there have been some superb examples over the years. Aside from the fly on the wall type (Don’t Look Back, Cracked Actor, Dig!) there’s the historical document (No Direction Home, MC5: A True Testimonial, Oil City Confidential).

The Byrd Who Flew Alone is in the second camp, a two hour trip through time looking at the career of Gene Clark. Clark was the primary songwriter in the first incarnation of The Byrds and by all accounts was expected to be a massive solo star following his departure from them. The film documents his failure to achieve that fame as his ex bandmate David Crosby was the one who soared while his pioneering efforts in country rock were overshadowed by Gram Parsons who made the ultimate “career move” in dying young at the top of his powers.
Produced and co-directed by Paul Kendall, ex ZigZag writer, the film takes us from Clark’s humble rural beginnings in Tipton, Missouri to his untimely death at the age of 46. While there’s live footage of his brief stint with the New Christy Minstrels and The Byrds (of course) there’s a gap until the early eighties when there was a brief reunion with McGuinn and Hillman. Footage of Clark with Carla Olson however confirms that he remained a compelling performer and despite the lack of live action it’s great to have what little footage remains gathered together. While Clark is heard being interviewed there is no visual footage of him talking.

McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman are all interviewed with Hillman especially providing insights into their tumultuous relationship over the years. Taj Mahal, Carla Olson, Jerry Moss (the M in A&M) offer their recollections while Byrds biographer Johnny Rogan and standard bearer for the Clark legend, Sid Griffin, offer their explanations for the bad luck that dogged Clark as each time he was poised to leap ahead of the game he faltered. Clark is recalled almost as a Jekyll and Hyde character, a country boy with a sunny disposition when away from the bright lights of L.A. but prone to alcohol and drug abuse with a temper to match when in Sin City, a temper that proved disastrous when he tried to punch out David Geffen following Geffen’s displeasure with the No Other album. A more intimate picture of Clark is painted by interviews with family (Mendocino buddies, his brother, sister, sons and widow, Carlie) which offer us a glimpse of the man behind the rock star and a sense of the personal hurt they suffered as Clark indulged in his demons.

Above all there’s the music and the generous running time allows space for fuller discussions of his groundbreaking efforts. The first post Byrds album with the Gosdin Brothers, the pioneering country rock of the Dillard and Clark albums, The Byrds reunion, the pieced together and excellent Roadmaster, the template for the singer/songwriter era that was the “White Light” album and the pinnacle, the exotic and almost triumphant No Other are all detailed along with his last major label release, Two Sides to Every Story, released on Robert Stigwood’s label RSO (with Clark of course eventually insulting Stigwood) which featured a bearded avuncular hippie Clark on the cover just as punk was taking off. Olson, John York and Pat Robinson take us into Clark’s latter years although there’s little or no mention of their recorded output which Clarkophiles will argue was as good as the earlier work. The DVD also includes over an hour of special features with extended interviews, two complete performances and a directors’ commentary. We can’t comment on these at present as the review copy was of the film alone, one reason why Santa will be bringing a fully fledged Byrd related package come the day.
Gene Clark fans have been salivating ever since this film was mentioned however even if you have never heard Clark before it’s an important document in the development of Americana type music and best of all you will be amazed by the quality of his music. His voice, his writing haunts and will continue to do so.

Buy it here

Gene Clark. Here Tonight: The White Light Demos


Gene Clark was the first Byrd to fly the coop, long before the band became a byword for ever-changing line ups. Back then he was considered the primary songwriter and front man of the band by many eclipsing the ringing Rickenbacker and nasal tones of Roger McGuinn and the caped (eventual super star) Davis Crosby. He was well placed to take pole position in the late sixties singer songwriter grand prix and got off to a flying start on his collaboration with the Gosdin Brothers and then revved up a pace with The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark, perhaps the best of the early country rock albums. Critically acclaimed the albums were commercial failures and Clark never again troubled the headlines despite the spectacular albums he released in the seventies, White Light (aka Gene Clark) and No Other. Even a much anticipated Byrds reunion album turned out to be a damp squib although general opinion is that Clark once again overshadowed his companions with his contributions. Although he continued to record (with and without fellow ex Byrds) Clark’s hard drinking took its toll and he died of a heart attacked aged only 46 in 1991.
Clark’s first album as a solo artist was White Light, released in 1971. A printing error left the title off of the cover art, another example of the bad luck that dogged his career. Composed after he left the pressure pot of L.A. for the serenity of Mendocino it featured another significant pairing (following that with Doug Dillard), this time with guitarist Jesse Ed Davis who produced the album. An introspective, poetic singer songwriter styled album it is perhaps the highlight of Clark’s work but once again it sank almost without a trace (apart from in Holland where it was voted album of the year). To listen to White Light today it has one failing, that it is firmly rooted in its time with the burbling bass of Chris Ethridge in particular sounding somewhat dated on the more upbeat songs such as the title track. However some of it is timeless with the soul tinged organ ballad Because of You standing out while the simple acoustic guitar arrangements of With Tomorrow and For a Spanish Guitar allow Clark to do what he does best as his mournful voice rings clear and uncluttered and his lyrics rival Dylan, stripped of symbols and allusion.
News that Omnnivore recordings were releasing Here Tonight, a collection of demos for the White Light album created a frisson of delight amongst the myriad Gene Clark sites on the old interweb thing and now that it’s arrived we can confidently state that the anticipation is matched by the delivery. Naked and unadorned, Clark sings and accompanies himself on guitar and harmonica allowing the essential beauty of the songs to shine through. Six of these songs appeared on the original release of White Light while two others turned up as bonus tracks on the 2002 CD reissue. The title song eventually saw the light of day with Clark backed by The Flying Burrito Brothers on the Dutch Roadmaster album and three of the songs are previously unreleased in any form. While the guitar work is fairly rudimentary, the harmonica Dylanesque, the voice and lyrics are mesmerising. Those steeped in Clark lore will spend hours comparing these songs to the final versions but anyone with an ear for good music should be able to engage with and be bewitched by Clark’s intimate version of Cosmic American music.
Of the songs that made it on to the album Because of You is the only one to suffer in comparison missing the superb arrangement of the official release. For a Spanish Guitar stands up on its own two feet and remains one of Clark’s masterpieces while The Virgin is stripped of its poppy arrangement allowing the Dylan like lyrics to come to the fore. White Light itself is taken at a brisk pace but again benefits from the stripped down sound. Here Tonight remains a beautiful song, proof, if needed, that solo or with a band he was up there in the pantheon and here one is reminded of his authorship of the magnificent Train Leaves Here This Morning which was covered so successfully by the Eagles.
Of the unreleased songs Please Mr. Freud is a (very) Dylan like dream song, Jimmy Christ is a short vignette that recalls Townes Van Zandt and Clark’s own The American Dreamer. For No One is the major find however as Clark picks gently at his guitar on what is presumably an unfinished song and his melancholic voice rises eventually with a brief two verses that encapsulate his poetic style, somewhat like a Zen version of Tennyson or Byron. Lovely.
Overall this album is a must have for any Gene Clark completist but it does stand up on its own. After listening to it several times there was a thought that if Clark had gone on the road and continued in this vein he would have rivalled Townes Van Zandt as the last doomed troubadour and be mentioned as such as opposed to being known as the Byrd who couldn’t fly.

Omnivore Recordings