Album Review: Yu Su – Yellow River Blue

[bié Records/Music From Memory; 2021]

As the music community at large sprints to undo decades of Western bias, not only have past masterpieces, from the likes of Susumu Yokota and Mariah been rediscovered – not to mention the recent surge in interest in City Pop – but, thankfully, dozens of new, essential Asian voices have begun to break through. Beyond K-pop, we’ve seen Korea’s vital indie pop (see Aseul and Yeseo) and indie rock (who doesn’t love Say Sue Me?) finally explode outwards, fantastic Japanese punk permeate (whether the playful pop punk of CHAI or the rip-roaring through the likes of Otoboke Beaver), Yaeji all but roost over electronic music, and even the inwardly-focused traditionalism of Japanese ambient artist Meitei reach many global ears.

Despite being entirely of her own design, Kaifeng, China-born, Vancouver-based sound artist Yu Su’s perhaps most ready comparison may lie in Meitei. Like the Japanese producer, she also engages in the traditional sounds and instruments of her native country. Yet, she isn’t focused on preserving musical traditions she sees as dead and dying. Rather, she’s intent on blending the past with an evocative, emotional present and future. It’s a bold march into the unknowable.

Near every track on her proper debut album (following 2016’s strong, independently released mini-album AI YE and 2019’s six-track Roll With The Punches) Yellow River Blue begins quietly, almost deceptively so, before venturing outwards into an intriguing mixture of sounds. Opener “Xiu” could leave a listener thinking they’re in for a journey through traditionalism in its opening moments, before she brings in a drum line that’d have Ben Gibbard and Dntel checking their mail, only to evolve once more, ultimately expanding with an electronic soundscape that nears the music to deep house’s murky waters.

“Dusty”, meanwhile, takes her sound in a more ambient direction, entwining a truly gorgeous range of unknowable keys with a techno-ready swirl of synths and lightly thudding bass, quietly enveloped by the light pattering of traditional drums. “Klein”, meanwhile is more ominous, with thudding drums combining with a distant wail of vocals to create the feeling of being lost in an unknown environment: it’s late, and you’re far from home.

Yellow River Blue takes the listener in many directions, yet it never leaves us behind. Above all, this is music of warmth, always sure to give more than it takes away as it revolves through a constantly-changing set of sounds, dashing in and out of worlds just out of reach. After all, it was recorded on several continents, following its creator on her path to understanding, or at least appreciating, the grand journey that her life has been and will be.

With its title drawing its inspiration from the basin that was her childhood home – western China’s Yellow River – it’s no surprise that the album proves a deeply evocative journey, one not quite meant to be understood. Nonetheless, Yellow River Blue is a truly intoxicating experience, akin to a spellbinding late night story told by a stranger. As outsiders, we may not have the context, but we know more than enough to realize we’re witnessing something intimate and special. This is easy listening fit for deep reflection.