Dry Cleaning are already one of my favorite bands, even though I’ve only known about them for five months. New Long Leg, their debut LP, which came out in April (on the mighty 4AD no less), is already one of my favorite albums. And I’m pretty sure they’re in my canon to stay. Unless they go pop-folk or something on their next album, they’re not going to blow this. They are too damn good, too much of everything I love, and I fell for them almost instantly the same way I did Stereolab or Interpol (two of the many bands they remind me of, but I’ll get to that).
More than that, they make me as excited — unreasonably, climbing-the-walls excited — as bands did when I was a kid. Despite my age I’ve never stopped getting obsessed with new bands. But Dry Cleaning do something else to me. When I got super into Courtney Barnett, I was doing things like memorizing her lyrics and looking up live performances. Dry Cleaning make me want to start a band.
Dry Cleaning are from London. They make a kind of skewed, stripped-down but highly melodic postpunk with just guitar, bass and drums, and occasional electronic accompaniment. It’s bass-heavy and has a real swing to it; it can be noisy, even explosive at times, but it’s strangely soothing. Their lead vocalist, Florence Shaw, doesn’t sing very much; she mainly does spoken word over the bassy, ringing, skittering instrumentals. Her words are very stream-of-conscious, a kind of freeform dada based on Youtube comments, ads, overheard conversations and other debris of modern life, all delivered in this wonderful, very English deadpan. They’re laugh-out-loud funny, oddly moving, and unforgettable.
Dry Cleaning is such a perfect name for this concoction, because it really is both dry (deadpan) and clean (minimalist).
It was the bass that got me when I first pressed play on the album. Intensely melodic, warm and heavy and sweet as pancake syrup. Lewis Maynard is the bassist and he drives the whole sound of the band. I always judge music by the low end; it’s a long habit from DJing but I apply it to genres outside of electronic or dance too. Maynard plays the kinds of basslines that you hum to yourself in the shower. At different times he reminds me of Peter Hook, Kim Deal or Tina Weymouth, but the most persistent comparison that springs to mind is Carlos D. from Interpol. On the other hand, the band say they were influenced by dub reggae on this album, especially Augustus Pablo, and you can also really hear that in Maynard’s bass. I seriously want to buy a bass and learn how to play because of his work here; it’s that inspiring.
Then my attention turned to Shaw’s vocals, and I had a brief moment where I was like, are you kidding? Is this album gonna be talking the whole way through? It took about 90 seconds for her marvellous poetry to charm me completely. Dry as a bone, but also somehow inviting, her cadences hypnotic, surprisingly musical in their droning way. Lines like “It’ll be okay, I just need to be weird and hide for a bit / And eat an old sandwich from my bag” and “I just want to tell you I’ve got scabs on my head” wormed themselves into my consciousness, and soon I was smiling with delight at how propulsive and cheeky and buoyant and weirdly uplifting this sound is. Four tracks in I was hooked for good.
When I first posted about Dry Cleaning on Facebook, I reeled off the names of a dozen bands they remind me of, and the thread yielded many more. Those included: Sonic Youth, Gang of Four, Talking Heads, the Raincoats, Joy Division, Liquid Liquid, Interpol, Lush, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Stereolab. Basically a short list of my favorite bands.
More abstract connections also occur to me. I hear a bit of the shimmeriness of the Cocteau Twins in Tom Dowse’s beautiful guitar work. The other day I was listening to the Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls” and the flowing bass and the deadpan verses reminded me of Dry Cleaning — perhaps improbably, but that’s how obsessive I’ve been lately.
I’ve noticed this tendency in other reviews and articles about them too. It’s not just because I’m an aging Gen Xer with a lazy habit of tying everything into the past. There’s something about Dry Cleaning’s sound that makes people want to list off references.
The same thing happened when the first wave of New York postpunk revival bands hit 20 years ago (I can’t believe it’s been that long but never mind). Upon hearing the Strokes or the Yeahs, you couldn’t help but tick off their influences: the Velvets, the Modern Lovers, Blondie, Television and so on. But then they made their own history, and sooner or later those comparisons stopped. The Strokes aren’t the next Ramones anymore, they’re just the Strokes. (I just read in this wonderful Rolling Stone interview that Flo Shaw was a huge Strokes fan when she was a kid, and I’m not a bit surprised.)
As much fun as the comparison game is, it’s ultimately a disservice to Dry Cleaning. Yes they have influences. But they’re not derivative. Their sound is too fresh and captivating to be retro. It’s far more organic than all those “cross betweens” suggest. The three players in the band were playing metal and psych-rock before they formed Dry Cleaning. Shaw, a visual artist and university lecturer, had never performed before. It’s not like they set out to be some postpunk pastiche. They have a very unique formula all their own.
But at the same time they deserve those comparisons. I mention the NYC postpunk revival for a reason: Dry Cleaning reminds me of the excitement of that time, and also of the Madchester era of the early 90s. It’s the miraculous feeling of new music being as good as or better than its influences. The feeling of another set wave rolling through, reminding you that great music belongs to the present and future as well as the past.
I’ve been listening to the album all this Australian winter, and I’m telling you, there’s something about this music that really moves me. “Scratchcard Lanyard,” the opening track, does it to me like some of the anthemic alt-rock openers of my youth — “Bone Machine” or “Teen Age Riot” or “Soft as Snow but Warm Inside.” It makes me want to crowd surf.
Looking around at other reviews and music blogs and live reports, it’s apparent that Dry Cleaning have this exhilarating effect on lots of people. They’ve really tapped into something and, having only formed three years ago, they’re blowing up now. They deserve it.
Because the band’s music is so stripped down, and because Shaw’s lyrics are so freewheeling and quirky, I got a real DIY feel from them at first. I mentioned being personally inspired by them: they gave me a feeling that if they can be so free and experimental and just be themselves and sound so amazing, so can anyone — so can I. Not in a demeaning sense, but in the inclusive sense of the first punk explosion.
Not to set all that aside, but I was wrong about that. Dry Cleaning are far more accomplished than those first couple of spins suggested. The three players were veterans when they got together, and as I said they all have a background in metal or psych. I find that so delightful, and I think it’s really the key to why the whole thing works (and by the way, this is something they have in common with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, which is telling.) They have fucking chops, and they could play much harder or more complex stuff, but they’ve relaxed and opened up space in the music for melody and dubby atmosphere, and for Shaw’s vocals. Their playing is so tight and funky and in the pocket. But you can still hear the metal at times too, in some of Dowse’s fiercer riffs.
That sense of these amazing players containing themselves in order to accomodate this droning, surreal poetry gives the whole thing so much depth. “Psychedelic” is a term that’s not often applied to postpunk, but it fits here. Like the best techno, despite its minimalism it’s actually quite expansive music.
Who can we compare Flo Shaw to? Patti Smith, Kim Gordon and maybe David Byrne are some reference points to start with. But the truth is I’ve never heard anything like her vocals before. As great as the players in the band are, she’s the straw that stirs the drink. In interviews, they talk about wanting to recruit her — and when she was reluctant, going to lengths to talk her into it — because they didn’t want just any vocalist. Well, they were absolutely right about her. They knocked that one out of the park.
I could fill up an entire post with my favorite lyrics by Shaw, but here are a few:
Spent seventeen pounds on mushrooms for you, cause I’m silly
Are there some kind of reverse platform shoes
That make you go into the ground more
And make you reach a lower level?
I think of myself as a hardy banana with that waxy surface and the small delicate flowers
A woman in aviators firing a bazooka
and this banger:
All the while
An exhausting walk in the horrible countryside
Tiresome swim in a pointless bit of sea
Knackering drinks with close friends
Thanks a lot
Shaw’s lyrics create their own world. The perspective shifts a lot, from one narrator to another, while her tone never changes. Sometimes it seems to be her talking, other times it’s clearly someone else — snatches of conversation overheard on public transport, perhaps. Or marketing copy, or movie dialogue, or Yelp reviews. The different voices complain, rant, paint vivid verbal pictures, and say some truly bizarre shit. The effect is like listening to a roomful of ghosts.
Her lyrics are a bit like the best meme pages or Weird Twitter accounts: a stream of random and hilarious cutup absurdity regurgitating the humour and anxieties of our society. It’s tempting at first to think it’s all a pisstake, that if you start to take the words too seriously the joke’s on you.
But the more you listen, the more meaning there is. You realize that real emotion and humanism looms inside all the randomness, like a whale beneath the surface of the sea, surfacing regularly to breathe. In that Rolling Stone article, Shaw talks candidly about depression being a motivating factor in her writing, and you can hear that in lines like, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do now, trying not to think about all the memories” and “I just want to put something positive into the world, but I can’t because I’m so full of poisonous rage.” Juxtaposed with all the dada, those bursts of clarity are electrifying.
Many of the lyrics seem to be about alienation. They often have the tone of the nattering conversation of English people — it’s all very English, in the best way, in its tone and rhythm and sarcasm. “Your haircut’s changed,” “It was chucking it down when I stepped out, it’s not now.” “Why don’t you want oven chips now?” The sound of people cheerfully or sardonically or desperately finding meaning in this chaotic life. They’re filled with references to everyday things like snack food and clothes and John Wick movies. There’s a very domestic, internalized feel to it, like someone alone at home with her own thoughts. This is probably why Dry Cleaning have been such crucial lockdown listening for me, and I imagine for many around the world.
There’s also a feminist edge to some of the lyrics: Shaw says that songs like “Unsmart Lady” and “Scratchcard Lanyard” are about women resisting society’s expectations of beauty and motherhood. I think that helps explain the underlying emotion that makes Dry Cleaning’s music feel so powerful and anthemic despite the “dryness.”
Considering she’s only been doing this for three years, Shaw already has so much control over her voice and her craft. Dry Cleaning’s first two EP’s are brilliant (2019’s Sweet Princess got a lot of traction because of “The Magic of Meghan,” Shaw’s surprisingly sincere ode to Meghan Markle). But, like the rest of the band, she’s settled more into a groove on New Long Leg. Whereas she tended to speak more rapidly and raise her voice over the band in a typically punk manner before, she’s learned to space the words out and project a more placid tone. It makes her sound both disarmingly conversational and eerily commanding, like the narrator of a surreal documentary. It’s a huge difference. Her voice resonates, both on the recording and in the sense of staying with you.
Despite how deadpan her vocals are, there’s surprising range and precision. I love how she purrs “You arrrrrre” at the start of the title track; how she becomes more gutteral or hisses sharply when she curses or issues a threat; how subtly in tune with the melody she is, like when she intones “Brain replaced by something” on the gorgeous “More Big Birds.” Then occasionally she’ll actually hum a melody, or actually sing, and the effect is like sunshine breaking through the English overcast.
It helps that the production of New Long Leg (by longtime PJ Harvey producer David Harvey) is so good: it’s perfectly balanced, and all the instruments pop. It has the balance and swing and roominess of great electronic music. Shaw’s vocals float over the instrumentals, while at the same time locked into their groove, and it feels like listening to a dream.
I don’t want to underrate the work she puts into this, but at the same time there’s the sense that, as with other great, eccentric lead vocalists like David Byrne and Ian Curtis, she’s just being herself. According to Dowse, she really talks like this. Reading interviews with her, she tells about filling up notebooks and scraps of paper with her musings all her life. Someone with her genius would have found an outlet no matter what. It happens to be this band, and so we get to hear her voice.
I’m grateful for that. This music just makes me feel good. Dry Cleaning smile in publicity photos a lot — I love that they’re not too cool for that. They make me smile too.
Feature image photo credit: Connor Baxter