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Live Review: Xiu Xiu Plays Twin Peaks @ GOMA, 18.04.15

What made Twin Peaks so great? So many minute details could be the answer to this question because the show resonates on so many different levels with such a diverse range of people.

A large part of the show’s long lasting impact has to be attributed to its highly atmospheric character and the use of music to foreground an uncanny conglomeration of mystery, intrigue, terror and just plain weirdness. There is a sense of timelessness to Twin Peaks that is strongly associated with its nostalgia-tinted gaze, in which elements of a doo-wop 1950s Americana small town are intermingled with an all too frightening present reality to create a sense of perpetually. This is reflected in the show’s soundtrack, which combines futuristic synthesisers with the ethereal dream-pop vocals of Julee Christie and its trademark sultry saxophone solos to create the intermediary fantasy space of Twin Peaks. It is this aspect that engaged its loyal audience and continues to invite new viewers into an unforgettable world that is both a terrible nightmare and a beautiful dream.

The contradictions and paradoxes that define Twin Peaks are present in David Lynch’s exhibition at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, appropriately called 'Between Two Worlds' and was likewise a major element of Xiu Xiu’s reinterpretation of the Twin Peaks soundtrack. Xiu Xiu is the reverb soaked synpoth brainchild of frontman Jamie Stewart, a fitting choice to play the music of Twin Peaks given their downbeat, dreamy soundscapes, which are punctured by a slew of jarring, dissonant synthesiser notes. Xiu Xiu fully embrace the chaos and contradictions that define everything that is great about Twin Peaks, deviating from lullaby-like xylophone solos, to ear-splitting synthesiser strokes to crashing drum beats to deliver a faithful, but imaginative interpretation. Rather than providing paint-by-numbers versions of the famous tunes, the band splice parts from different songs together to create altogether new sounds that still recalls the dark aesthetic of Twin Peaks, but this not to say that their performance was some kind of hockey medley. The show was distinctly Xiu Xiu, while also being distinctly Twin Peaks, the best kind of result possible for a project as ambitious as this.

Xiu Xiu open the show with a largely faithful interpretation of Laura’s Theme played on piano and wonderfully accented by a persistent drumbeat that manages to draw out the tension of the song. The band are backed by the infamously eerie image of the ceiling fan in the Palmer household, an image that is symbolic of Lynch’s talent for drawing the surreal out of the totally mundane. Even so, it was somewhat disappointing that no more visual aids were used by the band, apart from an image of twin trees. There is a wealth of extraordinary visuals from the series that would have nicely complimented the music, but perhaps the purpose behind the lacklustre visual aids was to enable the audience to more fully engage with the music.

While moody red lighting did a good job of recreating the visual ambience of Twin Peaks, another detraction from Xiu Xiu’s otherwise superb performance was the venue itself. Most fans would agree that the music of Twin Peaks would be best suited to a more intimate venue because its effectiveness relies on inspiring a range of conflicting emotions in the spectator. Understandably, GOMA’s cinema was probably the only place that could accommodate Xiu Xiu and their copious amount of equipment, but I couldn’t help but feel the experience would have been far more authentic in a smoky dive bar somewhere or at least in a place where people were not forced to sit down in what amounted to a school-auditorium-like scenario.

Despite the uninspiring venue and the lack of visual stimuli, Xiu Xiu did a fantastic job at recreating the dark, but playful mood of Twin Peaks, using every resource within their capacity to achieve this end; from bird whistles to a live reading from the diary of Laura Palmer. Even from a fashion perspective all three members of Xiu Xiu paid their respects, with Jaime Stewart adorning a Cooper-esque suit and slicked hair, to the gamine Audrey Horne stylings of Shayna Dunkelman and the quaint saddle shoes worn by Angela Seo. This may seem like a trivial point to make, but it really helped transform the band’s show into a work of performance art true to the heart of Twin Peaks.

While it was great to see so much of the show’s character reflected in the performance of the band, it was also refreshing to hear alternative takes on some of the key elements of the show’s music. One primary difference was Jaime Stewart’s interpretation of the ethereal vocal-led tracks by Julee Christie, such as the band’s second tune Into the Night and their closing song Falling. Stewart’s voice was appropriately idiosyncratic, as was his emotive facial expressions in alignment with the wackiness of Twin Peaks. Both Stewart’s physical exertion and pained vocal style made you feel somewhat like a voyeur watching a deeply personal moment, which is exactly the way I would describe the viewing experience of Twin Peaks.  This was best exhibited during Stewart’s ambitious version of Sycamore Trees, originally sung by the late Jimmy Scott on the show’s finale. This was a very tough song for Stewart to take on, not only because Scott’s vocal style is vastly different because he falls within the highly rare contralto range as a result of a genetic disorder, but also because for the majority of the song there are no backing instrumentals for support. Nevertheless, Stewart managed to evoke all of the melancholy of the original version, while also making his own mark on the song.

One definitive factor Xiu Xiu brought to the Twin Peaks score was an impressive amplification of many of its most noteworthy elements, possibly because of the advantage of playing live and Jamie Stewart’s incredible guitar playing. Where there is a sense of holding back somewhat in many of the original songs, relying on a few simple but memorable notes, Xiu Xiu really did not hold back at all, drawing out as much emotion as they could from the music in as many ways possible. While this could be perceived as an unnecessary indulgence from many diehard fans that enjoy the minimalistic quality of the original songs, I found it to be an interesting exploration of the songs’ potential and a means of highlighting their strengths. This approach worked better on some songs than others, notably on Xiu Xiu’s version of the hot club number from Fire Walk With Me, The Pink Room, which had an astonishing drum part added. 

Another highlight was the band’s protracted interpretation of Audrey’s Dance, which really heightened the tension underscoring the original song, rendering it all the more affecting and sinister. The band’s finale involved a live reading from Laura Palmer’s diary, which seemed like a great idea, but could have been executed much better. Understandably, Xiu Xiu are not actors and I would have preferred if they had simply ended with Falling. I did, however, thoroughly enjoy Xiu Xiu’s final touch of Twin Peaks homage with Stewart singing the Mairzy oats song, which Leland Palmer sings a couple of times on the show during his somewhat manic song and dance episodes. Even though Bob’s image was the one that haunted viewers during the show’s original run, nobody can deny that the creepiest part of the show has to be Ray Wise’s portrayal of Leland and his random songs and dances, which is a testament to the importance of music on the show to portray the characters’ moods and development, as well as exemplifying its diversity.

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