London four-piece Dry Cleaning's performance at Birmingham's The Sunflower Lounge was intriguing, captivating, and vaguely uncomfortable in the best way.
Florence Shaw looks terrified onstage. Stood behind a music stand bearing sheets of lyrics, she wears a long black dress and delivers her lines deadpan, eyes fixed on a spot somewhere in the middle distance. By the end of the set, the paper litters the stage about her feet, like so many leaves in autumn. It’s not unsurprising that she cuts a less than imposing figure – after all, she had never intended to be a frontwoman.
She was recruited to Dry Cleaning, a band formed by her longtime friends, to be their singer back in 2017. Her day job at the time was as a university lecturer, and she had no previous experience playing music, but what she did have were notebooks full of phrases. Gathered from a myriad of sources – be it comments on Aphex Twin tracks on YouTube, or advertising copy – she harnessed them into something quite unique. The sound of Dry Cleaning can’t really be found anywhere else. Driving post-rock accompanied by these strange, detached monologues, it’s a formula that holds more power than you would expect.
The sold-out room of The Sunflower Lounge, Birmingham, was an ideal cradle for Dry Cleaning’s experimental set. Shaw doesn’t exactly do crowd engagement, but the muscular nature of the post-punk backing the band give her is enough to keep you locked in and engaged. Driving bass grooves such as the one in Goodnight are entirely necessary to the effectiveness of these tracks – it means that Shaw’s nouse for strangely captivating non-sequiturs is given space to breathe.
Lines such as ‘imagine being able to stack the odds of everlasting love entirely in your favour’ and ‘after a near death experience I could not sleep, I was on edge at all times – the only thing that kept me going was Saw Two’ couldn’t hold up if they weren’t given the thorough grounding that they are by the rest of the band. It’s almost comical at times how separate the rest of them seem to Shaw, all tattoos and long hair. But the rhythm section are nothing if not impressive – always just holding back, never slipping too far into distortion, just the right side of heavy. This doesn’t mean that they don’t let loose when necessary (the crescendo of Viking Hair is particularly euphoric), rather that they’re always second fiddle to Shaw, which is exactly as it should be.
'The sound of Dry Cleaning can’t really be found anywhere else. Driving post-rock accompanied by these strange, detached monologues, it’s a formula that holds more power than you would expect'.
There’s comparisons to be drawn to other bands currently around: Squid for the taut guitar lines; Black Country, New Road for the literary nature of the lyrics; but on the whole Dry Cleaning are their own beast. Because of this, it’s difficult to know what to make of them as a live proposition. I was strangely haunted by Shaw’s performance, as it is wont to make the audience feel uncomfortable, even just by proxy. She seemed genuinely unsure of how to act around an audience, which was either really the case, or a meticulously studied act. Either way, it had the desired effect, putting the audience right on edge, far more so than many of the stranger guitar bands in circulation at the moment could manage.
Dry Cleaning have riffs aplenty too, which doesn’t hurt. But it’s strange determining how exactly their set made me feel, and whether this was intentional. On the one hand, it was strangely isolating, which is almost the polar opposite compared to their recorded output, which, despite its oddity, is strangely relatable. On the other, perhaps this is their goal; much of their music is fuelled by tension and anxiety. Whatever their intentions, Dry Cleaning are quite unlike any other act I’ve seen so far this year, and I would say that they’re not to be missed, if only to see whether you can make heads or tails of the whole affair.