23 Jan 2017

10 Records of 2016: Xiu Xiu's Plays the Music of Twin Peaks

I.

A note is struck and
carried on a nightsea wind
for twenty-five years.

II.

A year ago, I posted an essay about Twin Peaks and Xiu Xiu’s live performance of its soundtrack. It’s a piece of writing of which I’m still very proud. A few months later, the band announced that they would release a recorded version of the project on Record Store Day. The resulting album, Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, follows the structure and texture of the live show very closely, and certainly my inclusion of it in this list is testament to my enjoyment of and subsequent engagement with that performance. Still, what more could I have to say about Xiu Xiu and Twin Peaks?

In the earlier essay, I described the music of Twin Peaks as somehow vacant, suggestive of empty rooms and empty stages, but also of characters as empty vessels: like Laura and Audrey, ideas or images of girls, waiting to be filled with meaning, desire and blame. I described Jamie Stewart—along with Sheryl Lee in Fire Walk With Me—as an uncomfortably real body, materialising at the centre of that dreamy vacancy. But that was an essay about live performance, and this is an album review, and one that reminds me of the fact that, for those familiar with it, the Twin Peaks soundtrack will never be totally vacant. Each track is replete with iconic scenes and indelible images from your favourite TV show. The soundtrack contains the images, in a very literal sense, in that the ‘frame’ of the television sits within a space vibrating to the rhythm of those famous themes. Of course, in many of the scenes, the images also contain the soundtrack: via jukebox, record player, rock band, etc.

On stage, this subtraction of Twin Peaks (as set of images/icons) from Badalamenti’s soundtrack is offset by the interpolation of the band in the centre of the frame, imposing a liveness that is anathema to David Lynch’s approach to music. By creating a studio record on the basis of this live show, the already vacant soundtrack is doubly emptied-out of the precise mental images that accompany the original tracks. Since it is a recording, the bodies of the musicians are also necessarily absent; moreover, only four of the twelve tracks feature discernible sonic bodies in the form of vocals.

Even so, all studio recordings re-create a fantasy space within which their various elements can cohere. On this twice-erased canvas—a palimpsest on which the soundtrack’s iconic locations are legible only in ghostly form—Xiu Xiu mark out boundaries and horizons with a crude grid of thick drones and thin drum machines, and populate it with a new set of protagonists: vibraphone, piano, voice, heavy guitar. And just as Xiu Xiu the live act were exposed in their irreducibility to Badalamenti’s and Laura Palmer’s unreal perfection, so this record exposes a great deal about Xiu Xiu the studio act, or the modes and motifs of their musical fantasies.

III.

Xiu Xiu’s live Twin Peaks show begins with two long projected video sequences.

One: a shot looking up the Palmers’ stairs towards the first-floor landing, centred on the incessant spinning of a ceiling fan.

Two: a slow-motion shot of Douglas firs shaking in the wind, their thick foliage rippling and seething.

The regularity of the fan’s rotations only add to the oppressive stillness of the picture. This is not a photo, time is passing, something is about to happen (or perhaps it’s already happening, right now). The invisible air is churned by the blades, but we feel nothing, no freshness, only the stifling house and the holding of breath.



The invisible air pushes through the trees with silent violence. We hear no howl and no crackle or rustle, nothing of the moan and counter-moan that should lend this relationship of domination a comforting familiarity.


The air moves and the air is moved.



Once a vibraphone bar is struck, the vibrating air travels up and down the resonator tube beneath the bar, allowing the note to sustain for several seconds. Each resonator also contains a fan attached to a motor. When the motor is turned on, the fan spins rapidly, causing regular interruptions in the flow of air and producing a ‘tremolo’ effect. Like a piano, the vibraphone is equipped with a dampener that stifles the reverberations of the metal bars, and like a piano, it is also equipped with a sustain pedal, that allows the bars to ring out through their natural decay.

IV.

Xiu Xiu’s music exists on the edge of silence. This is not to associate it with the trend of investigating gradations of quietness and silentness in experimental music, and thus giving silence a kind of positive presence. Xiu Xiu’s music exists under the threat of silence, as the negation of sonic presence and the invalidation of sonic action. I have written before about Stewart’s voice and its failure to sound: the palpable effort required in bringing a musical or linguistic phrase to completion, the exhausting weight of saying or doing something, or merely appearing in the sonic space. Stewart’s version of ‘Sycamore Tree’, whose melody was originally carried by the mellifluous voice of Jimmy Scott, dramatises this same effort. Breath and tone, pitch and articulation all seem to separate like scum and silt in stagnant water, depositing in lumps that vaguely trace the edges of the song’s words and melody.

But the threat of silence also governs Xiu Xiu’s other signature noise, alongside the sound of Stewart’s voice—a noise that has appeared consistently throughout their work, across albums with disparate styles and line-ups. This is the noise of the cymbal and gong, the vibe, chime and bell: the noise characteristic of the metallic family of instruments known as ‘struck idiophones’, meaning that the sound is produced by the entire body of the instrument resonating, once it has been struck. The instrument is hit, a sudden explosion of sound corresponding to a single violent gesture—the more violent, the more sound. The moment of production is a singular point, a localisable site of impact. And then the sound reverberates, decays steadily, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly. But we can always hear the trajectory of its disintegration: its sinking towards silence and death.

Listen again (or for the first time) to Knife Play or Chapel of the Chimes. Cymbals and vibes aren’t woven into self-sustaining beats here, whose grooviness might promise a kind of safe temporal frame in which to extend and develop one’s ideas. Single notes ring out like flares, attempts to break through the encroaching gloom, keeping silence at bay for another few seconds. Listen to the beginning of ‘Muppet Face’ or ‘Chocolate Makes You Happy’. Repeated assaults on these struck instruments never blossom into a larger structure, Gamelan-style, but instead suggest the desperate expenditure of ammunition, firing the whole box of flares into the air in an attempt to set the sky on fire.


Throughout Xiu Xiu’s music, these instruments are corralled into a larger drama concerning dull sounds and resonant sounds, ineffective actions and consequential actions, the unspeakable and the dangers of remaining silent. Listen again (or for the first time) to A Promise, on which every track is charged with this drama, from ‘Sad Pony Guerilla Girl’ onwards. ‘You say that I am your secret love/You say to be quiet but I want to tell the whole world’, and this line is brilliantly reflected in the song’s two different vibe motifs: the first quavering with doubt and fragility, the second, an isolated and reckless explosion of confidence that initiates the first chorus. (To emphasise this, compare the arrangement and instrumentation on the earlier Ten in the Swear Jar version: 'Sad Girl'.)

With such delicate musical gestures, every ratio of sustain-vs.-decay is suffused with hope, disappointment and despair. Amid the jubilance of Women as Lovers‘Under Pressure’ cover, the famous two-note piano motif (heard only once, on glockenspiel) clangs emptily. In contrast, the extraordinary chime sounds punctuating the chorus of ‘The Pineapple vs. The Watermelon’ (on The Air Force) catch alight and actually grow in intensity, leaving long shimmering trails of reverb streaking that song’s insular, dark space. And what of ‘Clover’, which opens La Forêt, in which vibe ostinatos rise like Chinese lanterns, filling the spaces between the moribund verses with an ambiguous glow?

‘Clover’ has its analogue on the following album’s opener, ‘Buzz Saw’, which can be placed in a legacy of songs (from Knife Play’s ‘Tonite and Today (What Chu’ Talkin’ ’Bout)’, via ‘Walnut House’ on A Promise) that illustrate the band’s unique approach to piano writing. Just as with their chimes and cymbals, the hammers falling on the piano’s strings only mark the beginning of a process of decay; in a note’s birth, we can already hear its tendency towards death. In the obsessive use of the sustain pedal, we hear a morbid fixation: the desire to extend life in order to extend this process of decay. This isn’t 'legato pedaling', employed to join one note to another in the flourishing of a melodic line. In all these songs, as on ‘Sycamore Tree’, the recording buries the listener alive in the casket of the piano, with the sustain pedal wedged down. Each chord is struck only to rehearse that chord’s death, and the vocal on ‘Sycamore Tree’, which flows like sludge, plays chicken with the piano’s decay. Each word must be forced out into the dying light of the harmony, and Stewart only just avoids being sucked into a metre-less, key-less mire of context-free silence (of the kind that characterises much of his Nina album).

Shayna Dunkleman’s vibraphone is a near constant presence on Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks: a sonic reference to the original soundtrack, which nevertheless comes into its own as Xiu Xiu avatar. From synth string pads and reverb-drenched trumpet, to flutes and Julee Cruise’s gossamer voice, Badalamenti’s arrangements deal in sounds that float, that drift without friction, that diffuse like gas and vibrate for unreal periods of time. Sounds sustain and sustain and sustain and thus appear timeless. Xiu Xiu use the variable sustain of the vibraphone to thematise this, with the solo on ‘Packard’s Vibration’ filling the track with reverberations that cohere into an autonomous, ghostly voice. Yet in ‘Laura Palmer’s Theme’, the notes fall heavily—with the weight of vibraphone beater, the cymbal stick and piano hammer—and immediately begin to decay. As with Stewart’s voice, they perform a failure to float or drift that undermines the fundamental quality of that iconic theme.

V.

Music in Lynchian worlds is characterised by its lack of an origin, or point of production. Characters play records or lip sync, but the music is always already there. Or should we say: ‘There’s always already music in the air’? Badalamenti’s trademark synth pads are likewise characterised by a lack of attack; hence, they are the perfect accompaniment to Lynchian psychological mystery, in which personal and collective fantasies bury the traumatic origin of fear and unease (that point of, sometimes literal, ‘attack’) under an impenetrable surface of self-delusion. In contrast, Xiu Xiu’s struck idiophones demystify with every beat, reconstructing ‘Laura Palmer’s Theme’ as a musical photograph with two faces: as the product of countless violent actions and their reverberations, and as the painful, dogged reaffirmation of oneself against the void.


Yet Xiu Xiu’s music has always been prone to violent irruptions from Another Place. Along with the desire to overcome silence, it is also marked by the desire to master noise. Both are similarly prone to failure. Screaming noise, pealing drones and other cacophonous blasts explode into tracks without warning. Like the return of the repressed, they take seemingly autonomous forms, without a clear origin or point of production. As with Badalamenti (whose later Lynch soundtracks are veritably suffocated by dark drones), these are sonic presences without bodies. Perhaps they can be suppressed, but they cannot be killed: their being has no clear beginning or end point.

The drones that gather and disperse like mist in ‘Nightsea Wind’ exhibit a sonic ontology that is the total opposite of a struck vibraphone bar. They could appear anywhere, grow to any size, linger for any amount of time, disappear at any rate. And even when they're gone, how do you know that they won’t come back again?

The psychological resonances of such an ontology are deployed on the closing track, ‘Josie’s Past’, along with the ritual jingle of Sanctus bells, to conjure the demon BOB. More interestingly though, foggy swathes of noise are employed in ‘Love Theme Farewell’ (the reprise of ‘Laura Palmer’s Theme’), to weigh down the melody as it pushes desperately upwards to its major-key zenith, and collapses back down again. Instead of the wistful flute that Badalamenti uses on this track, Xiu Xiu deploy a dull, dark organ sound (in tandem with the ever-present vibraphone), whose sustain tone feels pathetically flat and small, but nevertheless remains solid throughout the wyrd squall that envelops it. The long fade-out (on a major triad) is a poignant closing gesture, pitting the organ’s dying resonances against the echo of demonic voices as both recede towards oblivion.


VI.

‘Nothing is worse than to be born and live’
—‘Falkland Rd’, Dear God, I Hate Myself

One more Xiu Xiu archetype: the drum machine.

The typical Xiu Xiu drum machine is an undifferentiated pulse, or sequence of pulses. Like the repeated cymbal crash, these pulses cannot cohere into a beat or groove. A steady groove regulates time to the extent that it takes the place of time in a track: it is the materialisation of the temporal dimension. In comparison, the Xiu Xiu drum machine maintains a precarious relation to time, neurotically marking every new instant. Pacemaker-like, it cannot skip a beat for fear that time itself will stop and the track will die.

The album begins and ends with the same pulse: deep, industrial, barely pitched (although it goes on to form the bass pedal for ‘Laura Palmer’s Theme’, which also introduces the vibraphone onto the record). Like the sound of a ticking clock, every new pulse gives the comforting confirmation that we are still within time, still ‘in time’ (metre/tempo/rhythm), still alive and able to move and act and be in a musical world, and yet the sound is simultaneously tormenting, like when you notice your own breathing and forget how to forget. Our attention is drawn not only to the ineluctable passing of time, but (as a feature of a sonic world under threat from silence) to its precarity. If there’s no beat and no metre, then there may as well be no time and no world.

Listen again (or for the first time) to ‘Crank Heart’, which begins Fabulous Muscles: the tiny stub of sound and then silence, and then the end of a phrase that only retrospectively was a phrase, spanning that same silence from its initial note. And forty seconds in, the desperate, pathological thumping out of the pulse as if it might disappear again, which it nearly does. Listen to Angel Guts: Red Classroom and the obsession with marking time that fills nearly every track, culminating in ‘Cinthya’s Unisex’ where Stewart responds to the song’s frantic machine pulse with a scream-whispered ‘no no no no no no no no no no no no no’: a ‘no’ for each beat.

The Xiu Xiu drum machine, and the machine pulse that frames the Twin Peaks album, exemplify the existentialist tension between noise and silence, being and unbeing, in both the TV show and the band’s oeuvre, along with the angst resulting in their opposition: the digital pair of sound and not-sound which is the sonic dimension of pulse. This is the same pair that characterises the dialectic of the secret, in which all gradations of loudness and quietness are reduced to absolute poles of silence and noise: a secret and its revelation. Thus, every secret is full of noise, and its very silentness is itself a secret.


Imagine being full of secrets.

(Of course, noise can also be used to stifle a secret. Just think of the revving of the car in that terrifying scene when One-Armed Mike recognises the Palmers in Fire Walk With Me, as well as the inaudible, inscrutable dialogue in the Pink Room, earlier in the film.)

Silencio: a blanket of silence lies heavy over Twin Peaks. The town is also full of secrets, dancing to the same digital anti-groove—the oscillation of noise and silence, each one producing and defining the other as its other.


There are two dances on Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks. The first, ‘Audrey’s Dance’, is sustained by a spluttering, rasping drum machine, sturdy enough to drag along those iconic bass and vibraphone parts, with which all manner of bizarre woodland spirits gather to join in. In contrast, the second, ‘Dance of the Dream Man’, lacks any determinant beat or pulse. Isolated elements of the original are hurled into the mix, but they fail to cohere until the final minute. Rather, there is a sense that these motifs are being chucked into the reverberant space in order to cover up that distant whistling-ringing noise, which sounds like it’s entering from some tiny mouldering puncture in the dream fabric: an alarm clock, or a muffled cry, leaking in from the waking world.

VII.

Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks is characterised by one further sound: a sound that is very un-Xiu Xiu. This is the thick, tremulous guitar noise that tears through ‘Blue Frank/Pink Room’ and ‘Falling’. Screaming with distortion and leaving a thick streak of reverb in its wake, it only faintly recalls the rippling rockabilly guitar on Badalamenti tracks like ‘The Nightingale’, and on Lynch’s own gothic country music (or that of Fire Walk With Me star Chris Isaak). Instead, Stewart’s guitar sound recalls such key visual motifs as motorbikes, sawmills and waterfalls.


Significantly, the character of the sound can be positioned midway between the attack-and-decay of vibraphones and piano, and the amorphous drift of drones and noise. The guitar draws a line in the air. It can neither be localised in a single moment of attack, nor can it be felt as an undifferentiated mass without beginning or end. The thickness of the reverb allows the rapid strumming of a single note to achieve the consistency of a solid bank of sound, and the sound envelope can thus be shaped and developed as it resonates. As such, the quality of this guitar sound could be compared to string or wind instruments. Incidentally, I always find something comforting about the presence of strings and horns on Xiu Xiu records. While such sounds are usually left quite cold and reedy, they nevertheless provide a moment of repose from the threat of silence (see, for example, the end of ‘Sad Redux-O-Grapher’ on A Promise, ‘Wig Master’ on The Air Force, or ‘Ale’ on La Forêt).

On the album’s two resolute ‘songs’—‘Into the Night’ and ‘Falling’—the guitar arcs through the track in a way that is both erratic and somehow liberating amidst all the failure and fatalism. Remarkably, these two songs also feature some of the least fragile Stewart vocals in a long time. He croons through both with striking sweetness, only occasionally choking and gurning when the melody slips down into the lower octave. By the apex of the slow ascent that pulls the chorus of ‘Falling’ upwards towards its titular refrain—‘Falling, falling in love’—the vocal has disintegrated into fragmented syllables, and yet the guitar buoys it up and carries it to that final note, after which the guitar soars free on its own, in a breathtaking countermelody that transforms the structural balance of the original track.


Most of all, in this guitar sound I hear the influence of ’80s gothic rock. Twin Peaks was first aired between 1990 and 1992, ten years after Bauhaus and the Birthday Party, five years after the Cocteau Twins’ Treasure. Nevertheless, 1989 was the year of Disintegration and Pretty Hate Machine, and 1991, the year of This Mortal Coil’s Blood. At its most ethereal, Badalamenti’s soundtrack clearly fits onto a gothic–dreampop continuum, and it made its mark just as the gothic subculture was diffusing into the mainstream: into bedrooms, shopping malls and behind bicycle sheds worldwide (Marilyn Manson would appear on the scene two years later).

If Wikipedia serves me correctly, Jamie Stewart was eleven in 1989 and playing in a Bauhaus cover band a few years later. As such, we might assume that he discovered the TV show and the gothic revival into which it was born simultaneously, at a particularly formative time in his life. Xiu Xiu’s live Twin Peaks projects was introduced to audiences through the frame of fandom, with a gushing programme note that begins, ‘The music of Twin Peaks is everything we aspire to as musicians and is everything that we want to listen to as music fans.’ Yet on record, this Twin Peaks fandom is performed via the resurrection of a teenage goth rock obsession. Xiu Xiu have never sounded as goth as they do on ‘Falling’, perhaps because they so often eschew electric guitars on their records (Stewart has called it 'the most boring instrument'), perhaps because their songs tend to preclude or undermine the kind of romanticism on display here, or perhaps just because of the deep vocal register that he accesses here. Moreover, Xiu Xiu's interpretation is an iteration of the soundtrack that re-historicises what feels like a timeless text; as the band point out, if the TV show speaks to a particular time period, it is the ’50s, and yet they read it back through '80s fin-de-siècle/end-of-history melancholy.

Xiu Xiu elegantly position Twin Peaks as a gothic text, and rightly so. With its themes of the supernatural encroaching upon a rotten and decadent civilisation, the sexual threat posed to virginal womanhood (and the subsequent abjection of the ‘despoiled’, sexualised woman), a setting that emphasises the sublimity of nature, and copious borrowing from popular genres like mystery, romance, horror and melodrama, the TV show ticks all the necessary boxes.

At the same time though, both the gothic subculture and Twin Peaks are exemplary fandoms. Twin Peaks is the archetypal cult TV show, while there is no subculture more aesthetically distinct, widespread yet niche, and weirdly enduring than goth. Following the dilution and recuperation of the early punk aesthetic, goths are now iconic of subculture itself, and in some ways, they are also emblematic of subculture as pure positionality vis-à-vis the ‘mainstream’ (outside vs. inside, abnormal vs. normal, dead vs. alive). Meanwhile, Twin Peaks has risen to a unique position in popular culture (as illustrated by that Simpsons reference, which was my—and probably many other people’s—first introduction to the show) in which it’s famous for being weird, for being something that you either ‘get’ or you don’t—you’re either a fanatical insider or an equally vocal outsider.


VIII.

Don't let yourself be hurt this time
—'Falling'

Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks concludes with ‘Josie’s Past’: a lengthy passage from spin-off text The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer (by Jennifer Lynch), read by Angela Seo. When I saw the live show, I found this ending frustrating, partly because ‘Love Theme Farewell’ seemed like such an obvious final number, and partly because the Secret Diary exudes a superfan’s need to explain everything, to exhaustively reconstruct Laura’s timeline in order to master the meaning of the text. For me, this disregards the crucial irrationality at the heart of Twin Peaks, which is the irrationality of Laura as a character: the impossible girl who is as much torn apart by Lynch and Frost as she is by the men and the demons in her life.

However, dwelling on the album and its relationship to fandom—to Twin Peaks as a cultural object and to the value of such objects in people’s lives—my view of this track has changed. For one thing, Xiu Xiu are a cult band with an obsessive following (of which I am, clearly, a member), and they are cognisant of this. Not only does Stewart correspond with fans via email, his music reaches out with an uncompromising emotional honesty, in the hope that this will resonate with people who might otherwise feel alone and isolated (check out this lovely interview). Their 2012 album Always was a kind of meta-album about Xiu Xiu fandom, with a lead single addressed directly to their listeners (‘Hi’) and album art featuring fans’ tattoos. I hear ‘Josie’s Past’ as a comparable celebration of fandom, and the opportunities that a dark and troubled text like Twin Peaks (and Xiu Xiu’s music) presents for working through and taking ownership of troubling experiences.


This is, after all, the theme of the Secret Diary passage: Laura longs to take ownership of her own sexuality—and particularly, her ‘darker’ BDSM fetishes—and to separate it from her experiences of abuse:
I can’t let BOB be the one who taught me to wish to be tied up sometimes. BOB is not who puts these ideas in my head. I won’t let him be the one. These are my private thoughts.
This is exactly the tension that animates so much of Xiu Xiu’s music, which is full of sad and angry thoughts that are worked through sexually. Xiu Xiu affirm the validity (and even the necessity) of a sexual fantasy life that can process and transform negative thoughts into an erotic release. As such, their music is frequently sexy in a way that no other music is, and yet there is a constant awareness of the very real dangers involved with such an erotic mechanism: of being exploited and abused, of losing hold of yourself and your own self-worth.

To take something negative and, by affirming the negative, make it into a positive: at its most empowering, fandom is all about taking possession of a text, and that means writing one’s own fan-fiction, not just mastering a canon of given facts. Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks is a perfect example of musical fan-fiction. It resonates with the vibrations of a cultural event that, twenty-five years ago, struck a powerful chord for many people, both personally and collectively. But at the same time, it is preoccupied by the silent vibrations of the secret at the heart of Twin Peaks—the violent act and its reverberations, the repression and irruption of terrible truths, and the attack-sustain-decay-release of unhappy or traumatic moments as they resonate through our private and collective worlds.