Although Twin Peaks opens with a murder, the show’s director, David Lynch, planned never to solve it. His intent was instead to draw characters so wonderful and a setting so strange that viewers would no longer care who had killed town darling Laura Palmer. He succeeded, in a way: Although pressure for resolution forced him eventually to name Laura’s murderer, Lynch did create a world that arrived fully formed and fascinating. Watching Twin Peaks feels like spying on an alien planet that looks like ours but definitely isn’t, and the pleasure of the uncanny is much of why the show is still obsessively beloved, two decades later.
On Saturday night at the Kitchen, Xiu Xiu covered selections from the show’s iconic score by Angelo Badalamenti, and it evoked that uncanny experience of watching an episode of Twin Peaks: The music was familiar, but the way it was played was not, and Xiu Xiu didn’t play any of their own music. Like the titular town of Twin Peaks, the stage was a bubble that we, the audience, were both privileged and perverse enough to stare into. Save for one song played so bombastically it was impossible not to applaud afterward, the only time we revealed ourselves was when the band bowed at the end. To do otherwise would have been to break a spell.
They opened with “Laura Palmer’s Theme” and played straight through their recent record Plays the Music of Twin Peaks. Shayna Dunkelman’s vibraphone anchored that first song, and many of the rest. I’ve never seen anyone perform vibraphone before, but Dunkelman made it into a dance, skimming her arms over the instrument as if she were casting spells, all the while shooting sultry glances at her bandmates (Twin Peaks character reference: Audrey Horne). As “Laura Palmer’s Theme” reached its syrupy climax, Jamie Stewart, seated behind a drum set, unleashed a single, furious pound onto his crash cymbal, and his bandmates unleashed torrents of noise. They took a piece of incidental music that sounds a little silly and made it into a real song you might want to actually listen to on your own time.
Stewart then climbed out from behind the kit and picked up a big, black Gibson to match his slicked-back hair, motorcycle boots, and cuffed jeans (character reference: James Hurley). Heavy distortion on the guitar’s already-aggressive sound made “The Pink Room” — in its original version a slinky, oozing piece of dark seduction that could soundtrack an orgy — into a postpunk blitz that all but obliterated the familiar hook Angela Seo (staring into the distance as if through reality itself; reference: Laura Palmer) tapped out on her keyboard. It was a noise banger; it was awesome. Up to this point the audience never clapped, but after this we had to. For a moment it felt like a regular Xiu Xiu show, although their shows are never quite regular.
The band has been around for nearly as long as Twin Peaks, and their music covers a lot of the same sexual perversion and existential anguish that provide the dark anchor of the show. Stewart acknowledged this perfect fit in the press release for the record: “[Badalamenti’s score] is romantic, it is terrifying, it is beautiful, it is unnervingly sexual. The idea of holding the ‘purity’ of the 1950s up to the cold light of a violent moon and exposing the skull beneath the frozen, worried smile has been a stunning influence on us.”
An almost-campy approach to darkness is pure Xiu Xiu. Its beating heart and only consistent member is Stewart, a performer of such tortured emotion that every word he sings sounds and looks as if it hurts him as he lets it escape, strangled, from a wide-open mouth. Like the characters of Twin Peaks he is painfully sincere, almost daring his listener to flinch at the dark humor he employs to communicate his angst: “This is the worst vacation ever/I am going to cut open your forehead with a roofing shingle,” he sings on an early track. To those of us who have experienced depression, acknowledging the ridiculousness of one’s own misery is a familiar experience, and that is the space where Xiu Xiu shines. But when it’s someone else’s pain, are we allowed to laugh, or are we supposed to take it deadly seriously?
Lynch gave us an out: Twin Peaks is so over the top there’s no question it was supposed to be campy sometimes. And however Stewart would answer these questions when it comes to his own band, Xiu Xiu clearly sided with Lynch on Saturday, inhabiting an exaggerated world that elevated the concert into performance art. Seo looked intentionally bored as she turned the hook from “Audrey’s Dance” into an aggressive piano arpeggio, a feat deserving of facial expressions in any other context. Dunkelman made smoldering eyes at her bandmates, and also at the camera recording the show, throughout the night. As he sang “Sycamore Trees,” Stewart contorted his body like the Man From Another Place, with such tension it seemed like it had to be a joke. The camp climaxed at the end of the show: Dunkelman read a graphic and disturbing entry from Laura Palmer’s diary, and as soon as she finished, Stewart broke out forcefully and operatically into “Mares Eat Oats.” In doing so Xiu Xiu also broke the fourth wall: The song choice, and Stewart’s overperformance of it, would seem out of place to anyone who didn’t recognize it as a direct reference to Twin Peaks. The band was winking at us as they said goodbye.
Once Xiu Xiu bowed and left the stage, the audience continued clapping, if not for an encore then at least for another bow. But nothing else came; the applause died down awkwardly, and we sat together in silence while a loud, slow, bass-heavy pulse played over a video of a ceiling fan in the Palmers’ home. This went on for almost ten minutes. A few people left; everyone else looked around and fidgeted. As with Twin Peaks, it was hard to tell if the band was trying to make a Serious Art Statement, or if they were just fucking with us. Like Lynch, Xiu Xiu knew they had us chumps at their mercy, and we were happy to stay for as long as they told us to.