A question of context
Peaking Lights - Live At XOYO, London

The “best of” lists churned out at the end of each year by music-related media have a firm foot-hold in our musical consciousness these days. So, two artists, inevitably lolling at the top of most of said lists from the past year, are Julia Holter and Peaking Lights. Scuffling for the top-spot is Holter, inexorably pipping Peaking Lights to the top spot on a few turns. However, this gig is an important lesson in how the recorded sound of two underground titans and studio list-toppers can transcend its own sound and take on new form with a dependence on the ideas of place and time.

On the studio album format, Julia Holter is a breath of mystifying, cloud-like fresh air. However, on stage, supported by her drummer and cellist, her presence seems somewhat uncomfortable. Hushed mutterings trickle past our way the following day from friends also in attendance of her sold-out Café Oto gig a few nights previous, in which a comfortable and collected Holter cracked jokes and played songs with that infinitely charming sentiment that her recorded material so evokes.

Perhaps there is something about the cavernous, darkened basement of tonight’s Shoreditch club that crushes a particular aspect of Holter’s mesmeric appeal, much in comparison to Café Oto’s unranked, bottom-up approach in which the audience plays as much a part in the performance as the artist, in terms of presence. Much like being in your own front living room, the intimacy is unparalleled, which lends itself well to warm interaction and creative spontaneity.

Holter, in comparison, seems isolated and uncomfortable on XOYO’s stage. For someone who's recorded material often touches on the electronic avant-garde whilst being deeply rooted in traditional song-writing, tonight's performance manages to strip away much of what is interesting and intriguing about Holter’s music through choice of instrumentation and sound palette. What we are instead left with iss a traditional singer/song-writer with a great voice and competent band. No bad thing you might say, but we'd hazard a guess that that isn't what initially pricked the ears of a keen and patient crowd to pack themselves into a stuffy Shoreditch basement.

Nevertheless, apart from the unfettered problems with her performance, it is impossible to deny the glacial quality of Holter’s voice. Like a finely cut porcelain it sounds almost angelic in tone and what is dually comforting is to see her lay her vocals down so nakedly in front of us. Yet, it goes without saying that the exotic pomp and subtle touches of eccentricity would have been much welcomed, much like the dreamy and surreal aspect that her voice seems imbued with on record.

Peaking Lights, meanwhile, get off on a better footing, playing songs from their deliriously great ‘936’ album and their soon-to-come ‘Lucifer’ album. New songs sound positively more dance floor focused than previous efforts, incorporating heavy 4/4 rhythms and shimmering marimba melodies. It’s a wonder that their rich tapestry of detail and distorted layers fit together, but the surprising thing is that they really do, and in particular with such a high degree of purpose.

The pair’s backing visuals project hazy memories onto the screen behind them, stereotypical scenes of American isolation, lost along the highway or contemplating the long road ahead. A good choice, as the most striking thing about Indra Dunis’ and Aaron Coyes’ music is the intense nostalgia that it evokes. No doubt buoyed on by its hazy, heard-from-the-floor-above quality and its delirious intoxicated state of consciousness. As the performance progresses they further impress with a ‘bass massage’ for the senses, heavy dub reverberating through the club and shaking the shutters that hang above the bar. The pair, and their music, seem suited to the subterranean hideaway, Dunis’ odd-ball shrieks and whoops into the echo-laden microphone are weird enough to be hidden away in the depths of the club and the weaving synthetic lines, prime for the clubby atmosphere of the basement. So, yet again, we are left with a question of context and a quest for the perfect sound in the perfect place…

Words by Laura Humphries
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