Sometimes funny, sometimes disgusting, but always unabashed, Dry Cleaning’s music articulates observations of modern life with exacting one liners and a stone-cold delivery. Freya Martin examines how their debut record spins the everyday into a new and intriguing reflection.
Not to be confused with the process of cleaning garments with organic solvent instead of water, Dry Cleaning had already created a name for themselves as an unconventional and slightly eccentric outfit before the release of their bizarrely-named debut album, New Long Leg. The South London four-piece consists of Tom Dowse on guitar, bassist Lewis Maynard, Nick Buxton on drums and is fronted by visual artist Florence Shaw as their enigmatic poet-cum-vocalist. The band, first created by the three instrumentalists as an informal musical project among friends, evolved into the form we know today by the addition of Shaw’s distinctively laconic and jaded spoken word.
The album opens with Scratchcard Lanyard, the first single released from the record. The track is well positioned, with its instrumental funk immediately piquing your attention even before Shaw starts to speak. Her deadpan lyrics are introduced alongside throbbing, grooving instruments that seem to encircle her words. Almost akin to a magpie, Shaw collects and retrieves phrases from across many aspects of life, both banal and serious, that you have no idea where her words will transport you next, or what they really mean. “Pat Dad on the head / Alright you big loud mouth / And thanks very much for the / Twix,” she drawls, never breaking from her monotone delivery in a way that makes a little smile start to curl at the edges of your mouth – as though you know you shouldn’t be laughing, but you are. Throughout the album, there is no obvious narrative to each track; the words are surreal and apparently unrelated. Nonetheless, the fact they tend to make absolutely no sense just adds to the appeal.
‘Verbal eye rolls and shrugs are abundant across each track, coupled with unexpected vulgarity or terseness.’
It is this articulation of mundane aspects of everyday life and the unacknowledged thought that make Shaw’s lyrics so perceptive and intriguing, as she darts from awkward sunburn to Antiques Roadshow to cleaning out the kitchen cupboards. “What are the things that you have to clear out? / Baking powder / Big jar of mayonnaise / What about all the uneaten sausages?”. The dreary, difficult and desperate existence of the British millennial is given a new lease of life in Shaw’s mouth; her lyrics simultaneously serious, introspective and fastidiously tongue-in-cheek. Verbal eye rolls and shrugs are abundant across each track, coupled with unexpected vulgarity or terseness, as in John Wick (“Someone pissed on my leg in the big Sainsbury’s”) or Unsmart Lady (“If you like a girl, be nice / It’s not rocket science”).
However, the other band members should not be ignored, with their careful and delicate instrumentation upholding and magnifying her words. The relentless undertones of their instruments weave under Shaw’s lyrics, sometimes complicit in her movement and sounds, but at other times, as two competing forces - guitar and vocals subtly threatening to submerge the other. In leaving gaps and unexpected pauses between words and sentences, Shaw carefully and accurately drops every single syllable within the music, so that the words themselves become part of the rhythm and fabric of the song. This is perfectly demonstrated in Leafy, perhaps one of the standout tracks of the album. Alliteration and repetition are utilised to create precise rhythm with her words (“Simple pimple / Stomach stab”), so that her words simply sink into the track itself; “Never talk about your ex / never, never, never, never / never slag them off because then they know / then they know.”
It cannot be denied that the main attraction of Dry Cleaning’s music are these complex, grimy but often poetic lyricisms, captivatingly emerging from the mouth of a small and unassuming woman. Shaw’s words summon a myriad of images that flit through your mind with each song, like a fever dream or words spoken in your sleep, as in title track New Long Leg, where sights and catchphrases are transformed into contextless verse in Shaw’s delivery: “That silly woman’s done a too-straight fringe / A baby’s appearance / More espresso less depresso / Solutions for damp since 1971.”
Unfortunately, while Dry Cleaning’s distinctive monotony may be the band’s greatest strength, it is also their downfall. Each song on the record is, in itself, a little work of genius. Yet, as a cohesive whole, the album lacks that level of variation needed to captive for a full and undistracted listen. Hypnotic and undulating, New Long Leg is a sensory and conceptual overload of words and ideas; and a forty-minute stream of consciousness accompanied by repetitive, trance-inducing instrumentation is at times quite overwhelming.
‘Perhaps Dry Cleaning could be described as the intellectuals of the music world, with sharp quips and ambiguous one-liners.’
Dry Cleaning are a band that demands a readjustment in expectation from the listener. At a time when many of us are sick to death of hearing about ‘British values’, and are despairing at the insular, blinkered view of our regressive government, Dry Cleaning manage to bring some small joy to the reality of modern Britain. The combined feelings of frustration and apathy of our generation may be summed up in the perfect line of final track Every Day Carry, “I just want to put something positive into the world / but it’s hard because I’m so full of poisonous rage.” Indeed, perhaps Dry Cleaning could be described as the intellectuals of the music world, with sharp quips and ambiguous one-liners refreshingly provoking a smirk or an understanding nod, yet still somehow of such a high calibre and always addictively unexpected.
Written By: Freya Martin
Edited by: Louise Dugan