Crank the Treble: Yoñlu

yonlu

I’m excited to be writing for a new publication these days, the excellent (and, coincidentally, San Diego-based) Treble. This should be an eventful year over at Treble as we embark on an overly ambitious attempt to construct a list of the best tracks and best albums of the 2000s. Beyond the decade retrospective, there are plenty of other cool features and reviews to check out. For now, take a look at my review for the painful and powerful collection A Society In Which No Tear is Shed Is Inconceivably Mediocre from Brazil’s Yoñlu. The full review and a couple mp3s are available after the jump.

Music is, above all, a form of expression. A way to connect and communicate with something larger than yourself, be it some higher power, society, or even the people around you. Making music can be an expression of joy, love, faith or wonder, but often times it is a purging release of anger, sadness, frustration, pain or loneliness. Sometimes it’s enough to help someone move past a difficult period of their life or to deal with constant pain. Other times, those feelings prove to be insurmountable.

Vinicius Gageiro Marques was a young renaissance man from Porto Alegre, Brazil. Impressively intelligent and mature for his age, Vinicius was versed in three languages and reading Kafka before he was 13. As a teenager he explored photography, drawing, music criticism and wrote and recorded hundreds of songs in his makeshift home studio. However, Ernest Hemingway once remarked, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know,” and indeed, Vinicius’ brilliance burdened him with a particular sensitivity.

Unfortunately, Vinicius, understandably disconnected from his peers, retreated into his own mind for most of his life. He apparently found some solace on the Internet forums and online communities where he shared his criticism, art and music under the screen name Yoñlu. This became a sort of secret world (his family was mostly unaware of the music he made) where he seemed to flourish, his incredible recordings resonating with the many who took the time to listen. Yoñlu eventually developed small followings in numerous parts of the world, from Canada to North Africa. But, even with this warm reception and the catharsis of his prolific output of deeply emotional music, Vinicius still found life to be unbearable and sadly committed suicide in 2006 at the agonizingly young age of 16.

It’s impossible to disentangle Yoñlu’s music from the story of his short life. In fact, the totality of his compositions was directly shaped by some of its more painful realities. This is quintessential bedroom music, not recorded as such for the cool lo-fi aesthetic, but out of necessity, its method of recording also a reflection of the solitude engendered by Yoñlu’s hyper-intelligence and resulting alienation. And unsurprisingly, Vinicius’ intimate pain is the most perceptible element in many of his songs. On album opener “I Know What It’s Like,” a play on the proverbial, plaintive teenage cry of “you don’t know what it’s like!”, Yoñlu assures us that he does with dark, biting sarcasm: “I know what it’s like / to be left out when all your friends try the new hip suicide thing… I do know what it’s like / to be picked last in soccer practice and in shithole prostibules / and I know what it’s like / to have to trade a girlfriend for a muse.” The fragile “Humiliation” walks a more serious path with its heartfelt, repeating question of “Why does it always have to end with humiliation for me?“, while “Suicide,” written and recorded just a month before Yoñlu took his own life, most openly grappled with the impending act. However, lyrical content was not the sole source of his emotional outpouring. Vinicius possessed that rare ability to imbue his melodies with more than just simple melancholy. These songs, without any of their words, tug at heartstrings and manage to convey what he was feeling with stunning power and directness.

And while it’s easy to view Yoñlu’s music through a tragic lens, not all the material on A Society in Which No Tear is Shed is Inconceivably Mediocre is so grim. Other tracks here feature Mano Negra-like melding of genres (“The Boy and the Tiger”), percussive, Deskjet printer-sampling collaborations (“Deskjet Remix”), honest-cum-playful words of encouragement (“Katie Don’t Be Depressed”), and tributes to the music of his home country. Yoñlu may pull some influence from the Western folk tradition, but he pulls much more from Bossa Nova and Tropicália, his acoustic guitar stylings infused with an emotional and rhythmic depth that can be traced back through greats like Vitor Ramil, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and João Gilberto. He actually gives one of Ramil’s classics, the pensive “Estrela, Estrela”, the stripped-down cover treatment and handily does it justice. It’s a testament to Yoñlu’s original songs that it fits in perfectly with the rest of this collection.

Even through his songs Vinicius Marques was unable to overcome the pain that he felt defined his existence, although he certainly recognized and admired the expressive power of music. In the note he left for his parents he urged them to listen to music “whenever they were sad” for, as he so eloquently put it, “the right cadence and harmony at the right moments can awaken any sentiment, including happiness in the most somber moments.” He may not have realized it, but he had nearly mastered that formula in his own compositions. And though we’ll never get to hear any new music from Yoñlu ever again, at least we know that when we listen to these songs we will feel something. Yoñlu wouldn’t have it any other way.

[Originally published here (with a short list of similar albums).]

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Download: Yoñlu – I Know What It’s Like

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Download: Yoñlu – Estrela, Estrela (Vitor Ramil cover)
Buy: A Society In Which No Tear is Shed Is Inconceivably Mediocre will be available from (David Byrne’s World Music label) Luaka Bop on April 14th. Until then you can stream the record and check out the lyrics as well as some of Yoñlu’s art over at their website.

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