Review: Dry Cleaning take a voyage of sonic discovery on Stumpwork

South London’s finest collection of oddities fight against stagnancy and embrace variety on their sophomore album

Introducing a friend to South-London ‘post-punk’ quartet Dry Cleaning is a game with a predestined ending. The group’s music, characterised by a punishingly tight rhythm section and dynamic, jangly guitar is quite normal, expected even, within the constraints of modern rock. This illusion of ‘normalcy’ is utterly bulldozed however, as soon as enigmatic frontwoman Florence Shaw is added to the equation. At that point, that friend you’ve been experimenting on may start to give you a look of utter confusion.

“What on earth is she talking about sorry?”

Yet, Dry Cleaning, a band who teeter on the intersection of predictable and unpredictable, have a unique magic. They almost always win people over. Cutting , driving rock instrumentation is merely a sonic canvas for Shaw to launch into sprechgesang epigrams, aphorisms and observations. Topics range from unmitigated isolation to doomed electricians and phone scammers, delivered with a particular garnish of the blackest comedy.

Dry Cleaning have soared in popularity due to the beautiful pairing. Shows have sold out across multiple tours, they have landed spots on KEXP and featured on the Tonight Show. ‘Meteoric rise’ barely does justice, for a band with two excellent eps and one highly respected debut, New Long Leg, the big question has ultimately shifted to ‘how the hell do they follow this up?’

Stumpwork is the answer, and its answer is total. What could easily have been a formulaic display- a New Long Leg 2 if you will- sees the band dialling back the tempo, reaching for introspection, and exploring new sonic horizons. Of course, to some it is likely unexpected. New Long Leg is a remarkably cohesive beast after all, providing few hints as to where the group could go. After all, it sounded like they already had it all nailed down.

Being met with the opener Anna Calls From The Arctic should immediately dispel any idea that the band had already reached some form of status quo. Gone are the pounding drums, grinding bass and aggressive edge that made their live set so domineering. Instead, we are met with a slower, hushed track, evoking early-Broadcast and Stereolab. Subtle and hypnotic, the track is a meditation and a tone-setter that seems to stand in utter contrast to the rest of the bands work. Or was this the plan all along, ever since EP closer Conversation? Dry Cleaning keeps us perpetually guessing.

The trend towards more varied instrumentation on Stumpwork extends across the record and affects Shaw’s vocals too. The Single Gary Ashby, a short melancholic jaunt about an escaped tortoise, is singularly catchy and features a quite profound moment, as Shaw vocalises with the chorus, almost singing. It sounds innocuous but any alteration to her iconic delivery is instantly surprising!

The groove driven Hot Penny Day utilises her delivery to huge effect, with the addition of a wah-wah bassline and horn on the track, Shaw sounds like the morose frontwoman of the world’s saddest funk quartet. It’s imagery that fits the band well on this record.

Shaw’s lyricism is as biting as ever on Stumpwork. There exists a tangible political edge to it, further creating that introspective aspect of this album. Sure, the humour remains. Shaw sings about “disco pickles”, orders you to not touch her gaming mouse on the earwormy Don’t press me and unleashes what feels like hundreds of collected words.

Lyrics resembling out of context newspaper clippings (“It’s a strange premise for a show but I like it”) act as meta comedic moments. Of course, this is not new for Shaw’s specific brand of spoken word lyricism.

What is, are songs about “conservative hells”, Shaw asking if she “is part of the meal deal” and shattered excerpts from conversations about modern Britain (“We are in the middle of three financial eclipses”). Stumpwork frequently feels like a jostle with the permacrisis of modern Britain. If not bluntly, then thematically. Soundscapes carry a nostalgic aspect to them, melancholic to a fault.

It feels clear the passage of time between the pandemic- encompassing New Long Leg, with its anthemic “Do everything and feel nothing” and themes of modern isolation have given way to something less confrontational and more mellow. It’s the sound of thought, not defeat.

The album’s climax, the methodically soundscaped Icebergs, feels like an appeal for reason from Shaw. “For a happy life…stay interested in the world around you,” she advises. The icy track feels almost anticlimactic, there are no blaring sounds, the album simply leaves you here.

It’s not something many could have expected from this act, a genuinely deeply poignant album closer, a super unison of the bands instrumental skill and Shaw’s altered style. It’s the most tremendous sign of progression on the whole album.

So sure, maybe Dry Cleaning fans will be back to square one, once more in that unwilling friend position, deeply confused about what they are hearing. It’s something to be embraced. As soon as we’ve become comfortable, the game has changed and Dry Cleaning remain as unpredictable as ever, as enigmatic as ever. Their magic remains utterly unmitigated, and I still believe they can win you over, if you are willing to voyage across their icy seas in good humour.

Those little human moments of humour make the melancholy worth it, and given this album’s tone, that’s as blunt a statement as Dry Cleaning can give.

Purchase Dry Cleaning’s Stumpwork on Bandcamp or resort to a streaming platform

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