“Do everything feel nothing,” Dry Cleaning repeat on the first track of their debut album ‘New Long Leg’. Though that particular song, ‘Scratchcard Lanyard’, was written before the pandemic, in our rather more “do nothing feel nothing” times the performative mania of modern life grows increasingly apparent, and the new album envisions today’s restless, often senseless mood.
Dry Cleaning have a knack for the prophetic, landing erratically on moments of significance – their Meghan Markle-themed 2019 debut single ‘Magic of Meghan’ recently acquired new relevance: “You’re just what England needs / You’re going to change us.”
The London band formed in 2017, three longtime friends and vocalist and art school lecturer Florence Shaw. Two EPs and many live shows later, they signed with 4AD and set upon recording ‘New Long Leg’ with John Parish, best known for his work with PJ Harvey and Aldous Harding.
“You don’t have to sing. You can just talk,” drummer Nick Buxton said to the reluctant Shaw when recruiting her to the band. On title track ‘New Long Leg’, she does almost break into singing, with an absent-minded “doo doo doo”. But generally she follows Buxton’s suggestion, keeping her languid, spoken-word cool. She sounds even more bored than Pet Shop Boys’ Chris Lowe, yet her off-the-cuff delivery is deceptively measured and precise.
The rest of the band build a world around Shaw, providing the perfect conditions for her vocals to flourish: a sound and mood that contrasts without clashing, layers that wriggle behind her blunt manner. The bluesy ‘Unsmart Lady’ opens with a cacophonic screech, drum machines compete with real drums on ‘Strong Feelings’, and the album closes with the psychedelic meander of ‘Every Day Carry’. Elsewhere, eighties bass notes, post-punk rhythms, and rootsy riffs take hold, sonic chaos tempered and controlled by Shaw’s voice.
Sometimes the music and vocals are deliberately oppositional. At other times, as on ‘Leafy’, they run in closer accord. The full-body-shiver drums of ‘More Big Birds’, like somebody stepped on your grave, mirror lyrics that squirm with physical discomfort, from the single-limbed awkwardness of the album’s title, to hair removal, pimples, lethargy, “a feeling of bees’ legs on my face”, sunburn, sweat, and smear tests.
“Just an emo dead stuff collector, things come to the brain,” Shaw intones on ‘Strong Feelings’, possibly describing her creative process, which pulls from “writing from my old drawings, stuff I’d written on my phone, diaries, things I’d seen in adverts and thought were funny”. She prods at life’s absurdities, and injects any escapist romance with wry realism: “I’d like to run away with you on a plane but don’t bring those loafers”. Even on weightier topics, like societal expectations of women, she’s still funny: “I’ve come to learn how to mingle / I’ve come to learn how to dance / I’ve come to join the knitting circle”.
Amid the bric-a-brac of her brain, whether banal, gross, or witty, are startling instances of deep emotion: “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do now,” Shaw remarks abruptly on ‘Leafy’, “trying not to think about all the memories.” Later she asks, “What do you think your parents feel?” And at the very end of the album, she admits, “I just want to put something positive into the world but it’s hard because I’m so full of poisonous rage.”
‘New Long Leg’ is the side of the bathroom mirror that magnifies your pore-ridden face. From the band name to the spoken delivery of either uncomfortably frank or completely random lyrics, Dry Cleaning shouldn’t really work. But they do – and for now, the band’s strong musicianship and droll outlook triumph over any one-trick ponies blotting the horizon. Dry Cleaning don’t take things too seriously – and actually end up with something to say.