“Do everything and feel nothing.”
Of all the observations made in ‘Scratched Lanyard’, the opening track to Dry Cleaning’s debut album New Long Leg, up to and including philosophic ruminations on feeling like a “hardy banana,” this is the phrase that can most accurately sum up Dry Cleaning when you first hear them.
Do Everything: throw as many jagged rhythms and discordant riffs in a song as possible; swing dynamics wildly; add liberal amounts of effects, including phaser, chorus, and, of course, distortion; layer real and canned drum sounds; talk about any topic that comes to mind; make a line in Spanish just for the hell of it.
Feel Nothing: sing in an aggressively monotone spoken-word style; base songs around the banalities of everyday life, like cleaning kitchen equipment, gardening, and landscaping; keep everything at arm’s length.
There’s no denying that lead singer Florence Shaw is the main draw of the London-based quartet, but even calling her a lead singer is a bit of a misnomer. Through all forty minutes of New Long Leg, “singing” appears on exactly zero minutes of the run time. That doesn’t mean that Shaw’s contributions aren’t lyrical, just that they make no attempt to be melodic. It’s definitely a hurdle to get over if you aren’t used to it or expecting it, but once you buy in, it makes the listening experience completely unique. Equally suited to be a palate cleanser for the glossy production of modern chart music and the stale redundancy of bedroom pop, New Long Leg is punk rock at its most potent: disruptive, anti-corporate, challenging, and exciting.
The artists I’m about to list may or may not sound anything remotely like Dry Cleaning: Joni Mitchell, Wire, Bikini Kill, and Sonic Youth. Dry Cleaning hovers in the nebulous ether that somehow connects those four together. The common ground? Razor-sharp writing, highly emotional work disguised by a thick layer of cool indifference, and expert utilisation of noise (seriously, listen to Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog if you don’t believe me. Joni Mitchell goes full Kate Bush). Really though, the only close compatriot I can pair Florence Shaw with is Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, who also makes use of a similar brand of chic languor. But Gordon isn’t afraid to scream about her innermost turmoil. You’d be lucky if Shaw ever got above a whisper.
‘Her Hippo’ was the only time I ever heard Shaw’s voice rise above the detached boredom she wields like a deadly weapon. Even then, it’s a fleeting, mocking, unsurprised sort of rise. It doesn’t last long, and soon we’re back to the timbre we’ve gotten used to, so much so that it becomes soothing in its flatness.
Shaw has surrounded herself with a band that completely contrasts her own style. Guitarist Tom Dowse is equally adept at creating bare-bones post-punk runs as he is cranking up the gain and letting the overtones squeal. Bassist Lewis Maynard has a fat and round tone that is often mixed higher than the guitars to fantastically pulverising effect. Drummer Nick Buxton plays like a caveman whose clubs were replaced by drumsticks. That’s meant to be the highest of compliments. When he’s replaced by a drum machine, you can almost hear him gearing up for his next opportunity to crash cymbals and explode over the proceedings. That pent up energy hangs all over New Long Leg. It always has the potential to explode.
If you’re looking for a good neutral entry point to get into Dry Cleaning, you’re out of luck. There’s no halfway point to accurately connect this band to something more poppy, or even more similar. They are fully formed, unwavering in their unique musicality, and if you don’t like it, it’s doubtful that they care very much. The only option is to dive in head first.
The counts against New Long Leg aren’t hard to identify. The tracks begin to run together by the end, and the album closer ‘Every Day Carry’ languishes for nearly eight minutes, by which time the band’s schtick is far past established. A sound collage of distortion and chromatic notes is a fine way to end an album…until the band comes crashing back in for one final push. That’s right, ‘Every Day Carry’ has a fake-out outro, just as ‘Unsmart Lady’ has a fake-out intro. Dry Cleaning are a band that know how to keep your attention.
Still, it all revolves around Shaw. Her words are so plainly stated that you immediately want to read the lyric sheet and internalise the message because it seems like the message is everything. Every time Shaw punctuates her words with daggers like “Every day he’s a dick” or “This absolutely huge fuck up,” you feel it pierce your gut. That’s what will keep you coming back to Dry Cleaning: the diction and direction of Shaw’s singular lyrical style. No offence intended to the lads behind her, because they are backdropping their frontwoman with electric energy
— but they are just backdrop. Glorious, noisy, talented backdrop. It’s a potent stew that could very well move you, if you’re so inclined. Bananas not included.
New Long Leg is out now.