The Return by Kamaal Williams; Bandcamp Page: The Return
Number 35 in the Wire Magazine (@thewiremagazine) Top 50 Releases of 2018.
The Return is sort of like Herbie Hancock’s 1973 band from The Head Hunters album were practicing. They decided to put down their instruments and take a break.
They retired to a nearby closet to smoke a joint.
It turned out that closet was a TARDIS.
During the course of several mind bending intergalactic and interdimensional adventures, on a remote planet, with a particularly smoking native population, the horn players decided to stay, and pass on their legacy of love and woodwinds.
When the remaining players finally re-opened that door again into their practice space, they discovered it was 2019.
They picked up their instruments and started playing again.
Number 34 in the Wire Magazine (@thewiremagazine) Top 50 Releases of 2018.
I had no real idea what to expect when I put this album on. Initially, from the name, I had a vague idea it might be some sort of South American Prog Rock, but then the song names made me think it might be Greek Prog Rock.
It turns out it is a Glaswegian vocalist, Maria Rossi, who originally is from Finland.
The music is primarily multi-tracked vocal harmonies with various loops and field recordings, frequently percussive, playing beneath them. Beyond the rich textures of the vocals, the music is fairly spare. Most of the vocal melodies are based from the classical/folk vein and they are sung in several languages, even one in English.
I had been enjoying John King’s Instagram feed when he posted the following summary of a new tea, a wild tree tea from the Bulang region in Menghai county.
“Regarding these wild tree, we still don’t know how old they are. What it attracts me was the unique bitterness and soon coming Huigan (sweetness from aftertaste) and fell in love with it when I first tried it accidentally in Menghai. Always hard to find accurate description words on this bitterness. It is a wild, naughty flavor.”
I do really enjoy the way John describes his teas. It is slightly poetic, yet at the same time highly specific and descriptive.
As someone who enjoyed bitterness, (Broccoli Raab is one of my favorite vegetables, when I was drinking I imbibed copiously of the Amaro…) I almost felt like he was daring me to try this tea!
Who wouldn’t want to try a tea with, “a wild, naughty flavor”?
When I finally got around to ordering a cake of the tea he was describing, he said he would include some samples of others he thought I might like, given my interest in his Bitterly Wild and Naughty Tea.
I suppose I should have considered myself warned.
This tea is a blend of tea leaves from Wild trees and Old trees from the BanPen (班盆 which belongs to BanZhang tea area).
The opening flavors are quite bitter, they lead to middle flavors that are OK, but not amazing. Tobacco, Leather. Where this tea shines is in its outstanding and lengthy finish, camphor like flavors which seems to almost evaporate from your tongue. Oh, and it is one of those teas where you’re a couple cups in, and realize that it is zippy. Very Zippy. Or as John says, “Strong ChaQi makes mind clear and breath smooth and clear.”
Isn’t something like that the Mental Mantra from Frank Herbert’s “Dune”?
Another sample which came along with an order from King Tea Mall.
As I mentioned before the Chinese region of Yunnan borders Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar in a sort of indistinct mountainous area. Tea trees grow naturally in the neighboring areas of of all three countries.
As I understand it, John King, the proprietor of King Tea Mall tried some teas in small villages of Laos near Burma and became entranced with the potential of the tea trees there.
Usually, when we say “tea trees”, calling them “trees” is being generous. Most are kind of bushy and spindly, not getting much taller than a man. In commercial tea producing areas, it doesn’t make much sense to let them get too big, it just makes them harder to harvest.
In these areas of Laos, some of these tea trees have been growing wild, apparently for years or decades.
John has some great pictures of the workers climbing trees like squirrels to harvest the tender shoots and leaves of these enormous tea trees.
I’ll let him describe the tea.
“That is a flavor I have never tasted before. Though there is near the south border of YI WU tea region in China, but the taste is far different. Also different from teas from other regions in Yunnan.
“Ever the bitterness turns out in the beginning or sweetness which comes from aftertaste are obvious like a weather I experienced these days in that tea sourcing trip. The sun was shining brightly. Soon a group of cloud dropped by and brought a sudden rainfall. Meanwhile, the sun was still shining from higher sky. When the cloud passed by minutes later, sky turned back to normal as before.
“Rich taste with complex. The mouth feeling varies when tea liquid passes into throat.”
I can’t do any better than that, but I will say the later steeps of this tea exhibit some great fruit flavors that I believe will only be enhanced as it ages.
Usually, the term “Puerh” is reserved solely for tea made in Yunnan, China. Others can be called “Dark Tea”, but they aren’t Puerh.
John brought in tea harvesters and processors from Yunnan, did the early stages of tea processing in Laos. Then moved the tea to Menhai, Yunnan, where the processing was completed. So, at the very least it is Laotian Tea processed in Puerh Style.
Number 33 in the Wire Magazine (@thewiremagazine) Top 50 Releases of 2018.
Raw Silk Uncut Wood starts with what sounds like Church Organ, but with some odd whistling floating above, and, eventually, the lower organ tones step down the ladder beyond what is possible for organs to play and into the range of electronic dance music.
The middle tunes, especially “Mercury” and “The Sick Mind”, are interesting and varied in their use of acoustic instruments and electronic treatments.
While I admire the arc of the album, starting in church-ey peace, losing it for a bit, and ending in major chord progressions, the last tune, is maybe a tad too Vangelis-ey and anthemic, as in Chariots of Fire, and leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. Still overall, an enjoyable journey.
Number 32 in the Wire Magazine (@thewiremagazine) Top 50 Releases of 2018.
There was an interview with frequent collaborators Eiko Ishibashi & Jim O’Rourke in the December, 2018 issue of The Wire Magazine. In it they discussed their reasons for moving their living spaces and recording studios to a remote village in Japan. Ishibashi’s new album was recorded there, inspired by her father’s time in Japan’s Puppet State, Manchukuo, Manchuria, China.
While many of the songs are instrumental, others are sung in Mandarin.
It is a very atmospheric album, with unusual elements of sound drifting in and out from time to time. It is vaguely proggy, vaguely jazzy; indistinct in a hazy, yet compelling, way.
It does remind me, at times, of the records O’Rourke worked on with Wilco, specifically “A Ghost is Born”. Another reference point for me is, somehow, the band Slapp Happy, a brief confluence of band members from the band Faust and members of the band Henry Cow.
I mentioned when I ordered a couple teas from Yin Xiang Hua Xia Tea, they sent along a few samples. One was this mysterious entity, marked only in Chinese characters.
The single serving Chicklet/Tile shape intrigued me, but I couldn’t find anything very similar on their website.
Opening the package, it seemed like a white tea of some sort.
I sent a note off the the tea company asking what it was, but went ahead and brewed it at the slightly lower temps I use for white tea.
When I tasted it, I was pretty sure it was a white tea, as it reminded me strongly of Fujianese Bai Mudan or White Peony type tea.
It was quite tasty and surprisingly zippy, with the typical tasting notes you’d give a white tea. Light body, floral, yet earthy/minty flavors. Good length of aftertaste and a bit more re-steepability than you would expect from even a Bai Mudan.
I did eventually hear back from the company and find out the tea is what they call Songya Mudan from 2012. Songya Mudan is a classification of Fujianese white tea with fewer buds than Bai Mudan.
It’s important to note that the main classifications of white tea are based mostly on the ratio of buds to leaves, Silver Needle, White Peony, etc., and that they aren’t exactly related to quality of the tea. Instead, the amount of bud in the tea will affect the character of the brewed tea. In general, the more buds, the more subtle the flavor, the more leaves, the more white tea will taste like the flavors you normally associate with tea. There can be very good (and very bad) teas in any of these classifications, so it is more important to find an importer you trust, and whose taste matches yours, than to decide based solely on Silver Needle vs White Peony vs whatever. Also, Silver Needle teas, because of the increased labor involved with picking more buds per gram of tea, will be more expensive.
There’s an interesting saying that the Chinese have about White Teas:
“一年茶、三年药、七年宝” or “First Year it’s Tea, In the Third Year it’s Medicine, after Seven Years it’s Treasure”
So, finding out Yin xiang hua xia tea, had sent me not just a sample, but an actual “treasure” was quite a surprise!
As regards the medicinal claims for white tea, I will say while drinking so much White Tea through December and January, I was rarely ill, while those around me in the office fell prey repeatedly to colds and flus.
Another point of interest, because the leafier versions of White Tea are so fragile, it actually makes sense to buy it in cakes. The last time I ordered White Tea from China, it was opened and inspected by US Customs. I think unpacking and squeezing the white tea bags was among their priorities, so my tea arrived pretty crushed. If I had, instead, ordered white tea cakes, it might not have been as damaged.
A fine St Valentine’s Day soundtrack, if there ever was one.
Keyboardist of crucial Ethio-Jazz band, Walias Band, Hailu Mergia now lives and drives a cab in the Washington DC area. In 2014 @awesometapesfromafrica re-released one of Mergia’s albums, which inspired him to get back to writing and recording music. Lala Belu is the result.
Number 27 in the wire magazine (@thewiremagazine) Top 50 releases of 2018.
From the Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting Autoharp vibe of “Soothsayer Song” to the Joan Baez fronting Sweetheart of the Rodeo era Byrds groove of “Indian Burn” Josephine Foster is anything but predictable.
Her unusually retro vocal stylings, think Meryl Streep in the Prairie Home Companion movie at best or Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins at worst, cut an unusual audio profile for a modern recording artist. On the plus side, there is no detectable auto-tune.
Unfortunately, I can’t say I really care for Sweetheart of the Rodeo era Byrds or Wednesday Night Prayer Meetings.
Having grown up going to those prayer meetings and listening to Country and Western music, Faithful Fairy Harmony cuts a little close to the bone for me.