Trevor Abes: Writer

Tag: music

Culture Hawker Chronicles: John Bowker and She Said Boom!

From the Toronto Review of Books.

Photo by Ted Best.

Photo by Ted Best.

In this series, Trevor Abes gets to know the people behind the counter at Toronto’s music stores, book shops, and art galleries.

John Bowker is the owner and operator of She Said Boom! Roncesvalles. For five years he served as board director for the Review Cinema and he is the current  chair of the Beautification Committee at the Roncesvalles Village Business Improvement Area. He shares his thoughts on book selling, community involvement and the future of Toronto record stores.

T: How did you co-found She Said Boom!?

J: I had been “seeking a situation” for quite a while, having graduated from journalism at a time when the government believed it was better for Canada to have a %12 unemployment rate than a %12 inflation rate. Eventually, I ignored all the obvious risks of not ever having run a business in my life. A few months later, me and my equally inexperienced partner Randy had signed a lease.

T: Where did you grow up?

J: I was raised in Scarborough, Birchmount-Finch neighbourhood. I moved downtown in my early 20s.

T: What kind of books are Torontonians buying?

J: Contemporary literature is, and always has been, the bread and butter of the store. Non-fiction books have taken a bit of a hit lately, probably due to e-readers.

T: What are the store’s prized possessions at the moment?

J: We have a first edition Slaughterhouse Five, and some really hard-to-find Yukio Mishima and Nabokov hardcovers. I also have The Fugs’ first record and Jodorowsky’s El Topo.

T: Share with us some of your recommended reads and albums.

J: The documentary Searching for Sugar Man, about the musician Rodriguez, and his 1970 album, Cold Fact. As for books, I highly recommend  A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

T: Where do you see the record store business in Toronto going in the next decade?

J: You’ve heard of the Internet? iPods? Kobos? No book or record store owner can predict what the next 10 years will bring!

T: Has anybody at She Said Boom! ever met Fifth Column?

J: They are friends. Back in 1995, when I was trying to think of a name for my store, I was playing Fifth Column’s amazing second album, All-Time Queen of the World. The first song is called “She Said, Boom” and I loved the title’s fun and energy. I asked the band if I could use the song title for my store name, and they very graciously said, “Sure!”

T: How would you characterize Roncesvalles?

J: In my work on the Roncesvalles BIA, I have always tried to give the community a feeling of ownership of our street, so that it is a public space, not just a commercial space; I believe this philosophy is part of what makes Roncesvalles such a successful main street and neighborhood.  There is perhaps no better illustration of the strong relationship between businesses and the neighborhood than RoncyWorks, our guerrilla clean-up crew.

Visit him here.

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Never Mind The Musicians: Toronto’s Bill Wood

Photo by Sean Ryan.

Photo by Sean Ryan.

From the Toronto Review of Books

In this series, Trevor Abes sits down with local lights in the Toronto music scene. 

Since 1986’s hit album Just In Time To Be Late, former Eye Eye vocalist Bill Wood has had a family and started a successful renovation business. Yet his dedication to music has never waned. In 2007, he released a solo record called Take It; in 2012, he formed the folk rock outfit Bill Wood and the Woodies and released an EP; and on May 10, 2013, Wood and his daughter appeared on a MindCare-sponsored compilation record in support of mental health.

Trevor: What about music fulfills you?

Bill: For me, the fuel that keeps it all going is the songs. I need to have a certain amount of time in my life chipping away at writing.

Trevor: How do you approach writing songs?

Bill: I have to sit down with no idea and start doodling on the guitar with different rhythms like a painter swishing paint around until I know what to do next.

Trevor: Where does your relationship with folk and rock and roll begin?

Bill: After the first Eye Eye record, two records landed on my lap, Copperhead Road by Steve Earle and Fisherman’s Blues by The Waterboys: they established in my heart how I wanted to continue writing for the rest of my career.

Trevor: Tell me about the Woodies’ creative process.

Bill: We tighten up the music live in front of people. We play without rehearsing and pull it together organically over two or three gigs.

Trevor: How do you look back on Eye Eye?

Bill: We were signed through CBC Rock Wars and the buzz was fantastic. We toured with Glass Tiger in the middle of their success, and it was a frenzy opening for Platinum Blonde. We were also constantly reminded that the 80s scene was going to end; the record company ordered songs like pizzas.  When Eye Eye ended, I felt a relief to not have to write songs that were products for a market.

Trevor: How did you get into the renovation business?

Bill: I went from stay-at-home dad/pop-star-guy to needing a job when the second Eye Eye album tanked. I worked as a bike courier, a driver, a dispatcher, then I went into flipping houses with a friend of mine. I learned on properties that I owned until I had enough skills to go independent. Now I do property maintenance at a community housing building.

Trevor: Did fatherhood affect your music?

Bill: Fatherhood enabled me to sit with my guitar and write more songs; it kept me home. If the phone rang from wherever, I didn’t really care because I was happy raising my kids.

Trevor: What are you listening to?

Bill: Rogue’s Gallerya compilation of sea chanteys and pirate songs, and I picked up the new Bowie; it’s a little noisy in parts, but I like the first single.

Bill plays Graffiti’s the third Friday of every month.

Never Mind The Musicians: Toronto’s R. Shelley

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From the Toronto Review of Books

In this series, Trevor Abes sits down with local lights in the Toronto music scene.

Michelle Ronchin is R. Shelley, a 22-year-old singer-songwriter whose Sink or Swim EP dropped last April. She has over five years of live performing under her belt, including a set at Hamilton’s Spring Music Festival 2012. When she isn’t writing or booking gigs, Shelley is booking bands at Oak Recording Studio where she works under industry veteran Damon de Szegheo.

T: When did music enter your life?

S: I taught myself how to play guitar in grade 10; all the boys played, so I thought I could too. I started playing piano and writing poetry many years before that.

T: Why do you make music?

S: For me, I put emotion into a song and that’s where it stays. It’s still a part of me, but it’s a song, removed from me to be presented to an audience. So I love when people relate to my songs, say they like this or that verse and there’s an emotional connection, because then I’m grounded, I’m solid.

T: How do you foster those connections?

S: It’s easy to say “I…I…I…” and sing songs about your sadness and how everything bad happens to you, but people don’t want to hear that. If you say “you,” they hear it about somebody else, and they’re included in the picture.

T: What’s the scene like in Toronto for up-and-coming musicians?

S: It’s tough. In Toronto everyone’s serious about hitting it big. That’s not to say people aren’t friendly; they’re passionate over just having fun.

T: How do you work on your craft?

S: I cross-examine myself about how I feel about a gig, how people reacted, and the energy in the room. If people tell me I did great, but I believe I did mediocre, I’ll think about what I think the most.

T: “Running” is my favorite track off Sink or Swim. Where did it come from?

S: A friend of mine in film school at York asked me to write a song for a documentary she was doing to understand her family’s past through pictures. She told me only that the theme was home. “Running” is my interpretation of home as being at your most comfortable, and it could be anywhere.

T: Who’s on your playlist right now?

S: Right now I’m listening to a lot of Sam Roberts and Serena Ryder. Then there’s the older stuff, your Beatles, The Stones, and Fleetwood Mac. It’s a whole range of things.

T: Why R. Shelley?

S: Shelley is my nickname since high school and Ronchin is my last name. Imagine you’re filling out a form online; your last name comes first, and you don’t want to give your whole identity away.

T: Do you feel ready to make yourself at home wherever you may be?

S: Definitely. I put everything into music, so I hope to get the best out of it.

Visit her here.

 

The Devolution of Nikki Yanofsky

Photo by Valerie Jodoin Keaton.

Photo by Valerie Jodoin Keaton.

Even if you can’t tell John Coltrane from John McLaughlin, you’ve probably heard of Canada’s most promising jazz singer, 19-year-old Nikki Yanofsky. Hailing from Hampstead, Montreal, Yanofsky immersed herself in music as a child – her two older brothers introduced her to the Beatles and she enrolled in vocal lessons spurred on by her father Richard, also a musician. She turned out to be a natural talent blessed with perfect pitch, and the results exceeded anyone’s expectations. At 12, she became the youngest artist in history to headline the Montreal Jazz Festival, performing in front of more than 100,000 people. At 13, she recorded her debut Ella…Of Thee I Swing, a tribute to her idol Ella Fitzgerald, at a packed Place des Arts in 2007. The album features astounding renditions of “You’ve Changed,” “Flyin’ Home,” and Etta James’ “At Last,” which Yanofsky dedicated to her dog Hudson after stating that, at her tender age, it was the best way she had to emote during the song. Through the 14-song set, she sounds comfortable beyond her years with both the stage and the cadences of soul earned through hardship. She dips into lower registers like a wrong turn purposefully taken, soars for that show-stopping high note like the powerhouse greats she’s studied since primary school, and she scats with the personality of someone who’s dwelled in hell and found her way out at a snail’s pace. A teenaged hell, but hell all the same.

Two years passed before her first studio effort, the laconically titled Nikki, hit shelves in 2010. Listeners encountered a greater prevalence of pop next to the expected jazz standards, but it was clear in Yanofsky’s delivery that she had a history with every song and artist. Nikki also had experience on her side, with St. Catharines legend Ron Sexsmith and Jesse Harris of “Don’t Know Why” fame on board as co-writers for some of her first original compositions. If the production was more refined, it was all the better for it, a necessary upgrade to meet the normal vocal changes from 13 to 16 years of age. On “God Bless the Child,” Yanofsky conveys a fitting cocktail of loss and longing; she understands Billie Holiday’s personal troubles during her 1941 recording without having to live them. On the playful “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” band and singer offer insights into straight ahead jazz that root Yanofsky in the history of her craft beyond proper song choices. Gone is what a certain critic called her “canny mimicry” – referring to her 2006-07 recording of “Airmail Special” on the compilation We All Love Ella– a sense of self-assurance and ownership over the material having taken its place. Nikki is currently certified gold in Canada, having shipped over 40,000 copies.

Throughout these years, what brought people out to the concerts is sheer amazement, at least on the surface. A kid that belts them like the best of them will always draw a crowd. What brought people out to see her for a second or third time, though, carries a considerable weight, and it’s that what we were watching was, without question, the rise of the world’s next great jazz singer. Diehards will disagree, purists always will until they see the grail before their eyes, but Yanofsky was a girl apart from the singers spoiled by jazz-inflected pop. From her Converse and jeans, she slipped into Ella’s high heel pumps better than anyone on the scene since she first squeaked her way onto it, and that all changed when Nikki signed with one Quincy Jones.

Quincy

Photo by Michael Buckner.

As Yanofsky’s co-manager, Jones had a gradual effect on the young singer’s sound. Jazz played second fiddle to pop song-structures; stripped-down, acoustic accompaniment was ditched for digital overproduction; and her supple vocal runs scooted to make room for clichéd R&B acrobatics. Yanofsky’s third album, Little Secret – long delayed since its initial fall 2013 release– saw her in the studio with Rob Kleiner, a songwriter and producer experienced in club-ready beats who’s worked with Flo Rida, David Guetta, and Cee Lo Green. The songs they came up with aim for a broader appeal and for younger audiences through the dilution of Yanofsky’s musical identity. Nikki has been smoothed out, with only vestiges of the uncalculated, care-free approach to soul, classic blues, and jazz that kept her from being swallowed by the industry. From the title track “Little Secret” to “Something New” to “Enough of You,” the album almost uniformly takes heed from repetitious Top-40-esque dribble. Additionally, the backing band on her Little Secret Tour is roughly 20 years younger than her last, with previous musical director Rob Fahie being replaced by Will Wells, a laptop-reliant arranger whose touring background is limited to a stint with LMFAO.

Yet as I said at the start, Yanofsky is immersed in music. Little Secret is masterfully executed because jazz is not the limit of her repertoire and she is a better singer with each passing year. During her set on June 25, 2013 at Toronto’s Koerner Hall, she sang a jazz-medley of recent hits, including Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop” and LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It.” She wrote around her favorite verse on Louis Armstrong’s “Jeepers Creepers” and performed it as the animated throwback “Jeepers Creepers 2.0.” There is ample need for experimentation in jazz – and a need for fun in general, free from critical stuffiness about what jazz is and what it isn’t– as is the case in the career of a girl not yet 20. There are decades still to tread before Nikki’s style settles into any kind of permanence and more changes are surely to come. It’s just too bad the most recent adaptation in her evolution is the outcome of pressure, naiveté, and a desire to excel within conformity when inimitability was already there. 

Culture Hawker Chronicles: Patrick Grant

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From the Toronto Review of Books

In this series, Trevor Abes gets to know the people behind the counter at Toronto’s music stores, book shops, and art galleries.

Patrick Grant has his hustles. He’s been the general manager at Kops Records going on four years and he sings lead in Patrick Grant and the FleshVignettes, an indie rock sextet with soul and funk influences. He also plays guitar at The Comedy Bar for the Sunday Night Live show. Grant’s goal is to “make music that relates to both the body and the mind, to have a really groovy ass band that lets you get down, but at the same time makes you think.”

Trevor: What does your job at Kops involve?

Patrick: I do merchandising, stocking, and ordering of new product.

Trevor: Where did you grow up?

Patrick: I grew up on the North York side of Scarborough, Ellesmere and Victoria Park area.

Trevor: What kind of musicians inform you?

Patrick: My favorite artist of all time is Bruce Springsteen. I like guys who are heavily songwriting-oriented, like a Paul Simon, or in terms of newer guys, I really like Kurt Vile.

Trevor: Where’s your fascination with music come from?

Patrick: It grew through my family. My dad dropped The Boss, The Doors and The Eagles in the car all the time. Hearing “Break On Through (To The Other Side)” when you’re seven has a pretty profound influence on a kid.

Trevor: What have you been listening to lately?

Patrick: A compilation [on Now-Again Records] called Forge Your Own Chains: Heavy Psychedelic Ballads and Dirges. Tracks on this record might have been sampled on your favorite hip hop song, thought most people wouldn’t necessarily know.

Trevor: Tell me what’s so special about vinyl.

Patrick: This is a little heady, but when you’re relating to something that is a physical object scraping against another physical object to make a sound, it reacts with your body in a way that’s not necessarily just in your ears. It’s participation. People like to have a tangible physical medium when they’re consuming art. It’s the difference between going to an art gallery and looking at Picassos on your computer.

Trevor: What do you make of all this hoopla about the death of record stores?

Patrick: I don’t really believe that record stores are dying, I believe that record stores that don’t know their position and function are dying. Everyone wants a place like [Kops]. I see some record stores close because of a lack of an ability to adapt.

Trevor: Have any interesting run-ins during your time at Kops?

Patrick: There was a day a cat came up to me with a Connie Francis record he got out of our 25 cent bin, and he said, “Can you put this on hold for me? I’ll be back tomorrow to pick it up.” I asked him who I should put it on hold for. He looked me in the eye and said, “Andrew Lloyd Webber,” and walked straight out the door.

Record Store Roundup: She Said Boom! Roncesvalles

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From the Toronto Review of Books

She Said Boom! takes its indelible name from the first song on Toronto post-punk band Fifth Column’s All-Time Queen of the World. It has two locations (393 Roncesvalles Ave and 372 College St), under separate but amicable ownership, that serve two very different communities. The College store is close to Kensington Market and the University of Toronto so it caters to younger customers, mostly college students, while the Roncesvalles store gets more young families and people from Parkdale.

The storefront sign at She Said Boom! Roncesvalles is proof that written explosions are just as eye-catching as hot ones. Open since 1999, it’s one of the first businesses in Toronto to sell both books and music. “The reason was largely accidental,” says owner John Bowker. “I wanted to open a record store, and my partner wanted to open up a book store, and neither of us were able to pay the rent on a full store by ourselves. I remember wondering whether people would be willing to shop for books in a store where loudish, non-classical music was playing. Turns out, books and music worked very well together. And so obviously Chapters and Indigo stole our idea. Now Indigo sells candles.”

Read the rest here: Portrait of a Record Store: She Said Boom! Roncesvalles.

Record Store Roundup: Kops Records

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Founded in 1976 with a focus on soul music and mod subcultureKops Records (229 Queen St. West) is Toronto’s oldest independent record store. It’s known for housing the largest selection of seven inch 45s in Canada and for an abiding dedication to musical roots. According to General Manager Patrick Grant, “[Kops] specializes in unveiling to people the roots of stuff that they like. We’re trying to provide [records] that elaborate on tastes you already have.” In this way, you can walk in listening to The Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly” (1995) and walk out – with two LPs under your arm – having learned that its memorable sitar riff is sampled from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum” (1990) which sampled it first from Rotary Connection’s “Memory Band” (1967).

Read the rest here: Record Store Roundup: Kops Records.

Big Boi’s Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors: A Review

Big Boi Vicious Lies and Dangerous RumoursA benefit of being an O.G. is that you can expand your musical horizons without fear of losing credibility. Fans are going to be willing to give your change in direction a chance and listen with an open mind, while artists in your preferred genre won’t be so quick to deride your non-traditional leap.

Antwan André Patton, A.K.A. Big Boi, A.K.A. Daddy Fat Sax, is not pained by the anxiety of influence. On his second solo album, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors  he enlists a pair of acts more used to weaving computerized dreamscapes than serving as the backdrop for someone’s rhymes.

The first, indie psych pop duo Phantogram, prevents “Objectum Sexuality” from devolving into a futile ladies’ jam by crafting a self-reflexive hook (It’s all you want these days cause you feel nothing inside / You know there’s nothing wrong, but you’ve been wondering why) that works in opposition to Patton’s explicit confessions. The duo also produced the track, opting for a multilayered, synthesized approach that stays as true to the funk of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik as it does to personalizing Southern Hip Hop, a subgenre known for its posing and the at times numbing similarity of its beats and lyrics.

Little-DragonThe second, Swedish electro quartet Little Dragon, feature on “Descending” and “Thom Pettie,” a dirty ditty produced by long-time Outkast collaborator and Grammy-winning producer Chris Carmouche (Album of the Year, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, 2004). Dragon vocalist Yukimi Nagano’s short and sweet contribution lends a gospel edge to this otherwise formulaic flossing platform.

Compared to “Pettie,” the regurgitated “In The A” feels conservative and out of place because Vicious isn’t about going hard (definition number 3), it’s about looking inward. Despite T.I. and Luda’s strong cameos, the track falls flat for not eschewing the braggadocio and bombastic production that is their comfort zone, even though Patton and his cohorts have earned the right to let their guards down whenever they please. Luckily, deviations from Vicious’ meditative, unrushed aesthetic (including “Mama Told Me”) are both minimal and forgettable; and forgivable as well, as we’ll see later on.

Phantogram“CPU,” featuring Phantogram, is a love song whose chimes and buzzy synths dial in on a vulnerable sense of longing born from always being on the road. It starts out like a hipster 80’s reimagining, one that’ll reach out and tap your feet til they learn what’s good for them; then, it morphs into an expression of weakness (against black stereotypes), the purest I’ve ever heard from Patton, whether alongside his virtual brother, André Benjamin, or not. A question “CPU” leaves us with is whether, after however long, we are able to differentiate between a loved one and his or her internet trail.

Phantogram equals Patton’s lyrical depth through straight hook mastery. On “Lines,” Sarah Barthel wails “I’ve wondered how / I’m happier when I lose what I’ve needed all my life,” successfully daring to make an important point about the value of indecision, of letting go of what was once thought as the nearest path to becoming somebody in hip-hop: It may seem like a small achievement, but Barthel is talking about losing interest in material things, and so is Patton. When the princess cut diamonds, fur coats and Escalades no longer matter, he says, one’s mind spends all its energy on identifying “the dangers in the circle of angels,” a circle the battle-worn rapper now frequents with caution, having once thought, like many newcomers to the game, that it contained friends loyal beyond questioning.

I’m not exactly displeased about the “contractual obligations” that prevented André Benjamin, A.K.A. André 3000, from appearing on this album. Let’s face it, if Benjamin is the strange half of Outkast that drops the commendable “Prototype” as a single, Patton is the time-honored half happy to excel within hip-hop’s established parameters: After Benjamin’s “Hey Ya!,” his “The Way You Move” was the second song to hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in ‘04 (and both songs can take some credit for all the number one’s on that chart until the end of the year coming from African-American artists); its accessibility and elaborateness surpass your average spitta’s crossover club anthem, but it’s still a club anthem, doomed to not have survived in the public consciousness a mere eight years since dropping.

However, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors feels immune to such a fate. The principle that informs it, broader than genre or an experienced ear, is a willingness to collaborate with an indie music scene Outkast never really had to find a place in after signing with LaFace as teenagers in ’92. And such a collaboration required of Patton that he make room for sharing his personal imperfections, which only became more arresting themes once conveyed through uneven, remarkably concrete, form-mimics-content song structures: this is why any review that faults Vicious for lack of cohesion fails to understand that the album sounds like the cautious self-actualization that pervades it.

In a way, Big Boi is a new artist, risking emotional openness for the first time, hoping for a response that’ll have little to do with platinum certifications or his decorated professional past.

Listen to: “Descending,” “Tremendous Damage” and  “C.P.U.

Record Store Roundup: Viva La Vortex

From The Toronto Review of Books

Vortex RecordsNestled in the heart of Midtown (2309 Yonge Street, 2nd floor),Vortex Records and its owner, Bert Myers, have been supplying Torontonians with second-hand CDs and vinyl for almost 30 years.The store carries all kinds of music but specializes in rock and pop and is currently building up its jazz and country stock. They carry an ample A-Z soul section and rows of DVDs and Blu-Rays line the walls overhead.

The space is refreshingly free of impulse buys. Racks of already faded T-shirts, lunch boxes and additional novelty items are absent, leaving room for music, other people, and you, rendering the browsing experience a reprieve from what Myers playfully calls the “isolated beings and tall towers” of Yonge Street and Eglinton.

Read the full review here: Viva La Vortex.

Toronto Trio Heater Girl Releases Debut Album

Heater Girl’s first L.P., Nouveau, is a punk/indie pop adventure hosted by two poets, Darren Hutz and Aaron Florendo, with Stewart Byfield’s joyous ruckus on drums (particularly on “The Archfiend’s Haven”).

Hutz starts things off with “The Love I Was Waiting For,” an enlightening and side-splitting song about what concupiscence can do to one’s worldview. His delivery is clear, tragicomic, and Johnny Cash rich as he declares, “I found my Holy Grail, rubbernecking and chasing tail/ And there’re a few fine arts that I’m mastering/ Grab-assing and finger-blasting in the women’s bathroom.”

Then, a shift in diction. As if in response to Hutz’s libido-driven aspirations, Florendo takes the mic on the heart wrenching “What’s So God Damned Scary About Being Loved For The Rest Of Your Life,” a grungy look at losing his band-mate’s tardy ideal without expecting it.

The two vocalists operate on different wavelengths that intersect and maintain their essential features. Florendo’s verses, constrained by form, offer confessional narratives metaphorically bent, and his raspy tone has a tendency to transpose harmonies, tying them together much like a trombone in a brass band. Meanwhile, Hutz’s preference for explosive riffs and earnest aggression guards an emotional depth his intonations are quick to imply; it’s depth, or the feeling of being young and ahead on mistakes, that runs through Nouveau’s 10 song set.

On “The Archfiend’s Haven” (which opens like an R-rated version of The Lion King), Florendo is poised and contemplative. Over a pointillist battlefield dotted with drumsticks, he describes how “the illusion of endless joy” (as of today a pretty multifaceted commodity) is best applied to someone you can argue with. On “Sleep Is For The Weak,” Hutz argues with himself; whether he wins or not depends more on how he sounds than what he says.

Turning to clairvoyance for a moment, I foresee that some people might call the album disjointed and conclude that what we’re really listening to is a collaboration between two solo artists and a bad ass drummer. Maybe we are. The same people might raise a similar point about Lou Reed and Metallica’s recent effort, Lulu; and while Nouveau isn’t nearly as abstract, the avant-garde is definitely a core value by number of tackled genres alone: punk, pop, rock, grunge, country, indie and an acoustic ballad all find their places on the polycarbonate. Disjointed or not, the album’s alternating structure allows Florendo and Hutz (a great name for a cop drama) to 1) show off their personalities, and 2) embody Wilde’s gem of a notion that you have to be yourself, because everyone else is taken.

Nouveau is available on Itunes and Amazon.

For a lengthy and detailed history of Heater Girl, penned by Florendo himself, please visit www.heatergirl.com

Here they are performing “Aches and Pains,” a fan favorite.

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