Album Review: Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg

[4AD; 2021]

Forging a new path down the post-punk trail, London’s Dry Cleaning aren’t too concerned about whether their music is easy on the ears or not. The foursome use the crunchy and jagged post-punk toolbox, but instead of sounding just like the various other female-fronted acts in the genre – Ganser, or even Porridge Radio to some extent – Dry Cleaning’s foundation is built upon the spoken-word approach by Florence Shaw, an unlikely visual artist who brings some freshness to a scene that is overstuffed at the moment.

Shaw has a singing voice, she uses it sporadically on the band’s full-length debut New Long Leg, but given that she’s done some lecturing in the past, her choice to speak to her audience rather than serenade them is a bold move that only a few can pull off; Nick Cave’s built a career on it, and Kim Gordon popularized it on a select chunk of Sonic Youth songs, but the method isn’t very popular or that appealing to some. But Dry Cleaning scoff at that, and Shaw’s evidently aware of it, as she keeps her monotone delivery intact for much of the record, giving only a few “oooh”s and “doo-doo”s here and there. The rest of it she’s telling us, and not coercing us.

Make no mistake though, Dry Cleaning aren’t lecturing you on what you should be doing. Instead, they are just telling you what it is – “I’ve come here to make a ceramic shoe and I’ve come to smash what you made,” Shaw intones on album opener “Scratchcard Lanyard”. Lyrical density is Shaw’s specialty, and it could overload the senses, what with the incredible guitar work of Tom Dowse punctuating every word she shares, but instead it flows nicely.

Shaw by herself is unquestionably talented, but the fine support behind her at all times is the key to Dry Cleaning’s success on their first long player. They swirl in elemental shifts that make New Long Leg sound sunnier than its brethren. Production from John Parish sees an expansion from the sound on their EPs, which kept things fairly safe, comparatively. Nothing seems out of place here; Dowse incorporates heavy metal riffs on “Unsmart Lady” and then turns up the blues rock on “Her Hippo” with ease. Nick Buxton’s measured playing on the drums keeps the pace delightfully, like on the measured “Strong Feelings”. Lewis Maynard’s bass is subtle but necessary on “Leafy”, where it’s paired with Shaw’s escapist words that paint an unflattering picture of outer city living; “An exhausting walk in the horrible countryside / A tiresome swim in a pointless bit of sea / Knackering drinks with close friends / Thanks a lot.”

While Shaw has unfolded humor since the band’s emergence, for New Long Leg she’s upped the calamity, even if her tone hasn’t expanded. Her usage of non-sequiturs rivals Stephen Malkmus. The romp-stomp of “Unsmart Lady” is even more effective thanks to Shaw’s conversational nature on it. She’s just sharing with her audience, not yelling, not even showing much emotion at all, barely changing tone or pitch. With explosive guitars and rock-crumbling drums screeching and scratching all around her, it’s as if she’s standing at the center of a volcano – and yet nothing deters her from delivering her message. Her admission “I’ve been thinking about eating that hot dog for hours” out of the blue in “Strong Feelings” garners a chuckle and an eye brow raise, and “John Wick”’s “They’ve really changed the pace of Antiques Roadshow” tells us so much more about Shaw’s state-of-mind presently than any raw exploration of her feelings.

Dry Cleaning seem a working-class band, but they are not a political band in that same sense. This concept is mimicked across many post-punk bands past and present, but instead of trying to stay firmly between those politically-charged guardrails they have stepped outside of them and created their own scenic route.