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The Lead Review

Steamed & (Im)Pressed: New Long Leg By Dry Cleaning
Nancy Collinge , April 1st, 2021 08:20

The debut album by Dry Cleaning is as oblique and unsettling as Hans Holbein's skull, finds Nancy Collinge

Photo by Steve Gullick

A couple of months ago during a bout of lockdown malaise, I was in my mum’s living room eating pie and chips and peas in front of the telly. The Flog It credits rolled and shortly afterwards, an unremarkable looking middle-aged contestant on Pointless professed his undying love for a South London band called Dry Cleaning. “Bravo sir” my internal monologue drawled, “The reincarnated John Peel is among us… I hope they do a question on flags today.”

Since (but probably not due to) that prime-time shout-out, the oh-so self-aware Dry Cleaning have quickly become the spoken-word darlings of BBC 6 Music; taking on that coveted mantle from the barely-sentient soy-boys of Idles and the litter of snotty upstarts known as Black Country, New Road. After releasing two refreshingly good EPs in 2019, the band have signed with 4AD and all eyes have been on what’s coming next from idiosyncratic vocalist Florence Shaw and her heavily-tattooed coterie of merry men: guitarist Tom Dowse, bassist Lewis Maynard and drummer Nick Buxton.

And what’s come next is a superb, tightly packed 40-minute album produced by PJ Harvey’s BFF John Parish, New Long Leg.

Usual suspects Sonic Youth, The Fall, Magazine, even a hint of Neu! carry through the ten tracks as musical influences, providing a mise-en-scène for Shaw who acts as performance artist meets poet. And whilst Dry Cleaning’s debut predictably incorporates ruminations on the detritus of modern life with the refined, almost arrogantly accomplished musicianship of Dowse and co., there’s something more considered here than what we’ve seen in their previous efforts. Tentatively mature thoughts on materiality and ageing are made public in place of the brilliantly crass lyrics of days gone by. Try and wave ta-ra to the likes of “Have you ever spat cum on the carpet of a Travelodge?” (from 2019’s Sweet Princess EP) if, like me, it’s still rattling round your head.

With New Long Leg, I think Dry Cleaning have put away childish things, and as for the production, the imagery, the craft on display: they’re all the better for it. To start, there’s certainly more time to fill here. Shaw’s formerly rapid delivery now allows for instrumental breaks, encouraging Maynard and Buxton to build loftier soundscapes. A two-minute pause in ‘Every Day Carry’ envelops the listener in the band’s own biosphere, completed by Shaw’s references to the flora, fauna, fatbergs, and firearms that have all been accumulating in her lyrical repertoire since the heady-days of 2019.

It’s the mix of the mundane and the transcendent that makes the spliced together monologues and overheard conversations of Dry Cleaning’s lyrics so listenable. This unfettered style is an extension of Shaw’s artistic practice. She uses found-prose as opposed to found-objects to weave an absurd tableau of half-formed things. This kind of practice can be traced back to Life Without Buildings, to Laurie Anderson, to the performance-art happenings of the 70s, the Beat poets, Dada, Beckett, Jarry… The legacies and contexts of these writers are fused with Shaw’s thinking, enabling her to convey the bizarre climate of life in the UK right now with appropriately unnavigable lyrics.

The cycle of waking, eating, working, cleaning, etc. of the last year will hopefully sound familiar, and this hasn’t escaped the band. On bouncy four-minute track ‘More Big Birds’, Shaw muses on domesticity between sanguine interludes of near-melodies:

“In control in the kitchen area
Spatula pot and crumb tray
A greaseproof type of thing"

These lines put me in mind of Martha Rosler’s 1975 video and performance piece Semiotics of the Kitchen, in which the artist stands in a kitchen reeling off the names of the cooking accoutrement that surround her. On this parody of TV cooking demos, Rosler has said that she was “concerned with the notion of language speaking the subject” – a concern clearly shared with Shaw’s eclectic use of syntax and meanings formed.

The artistic allusions don’t end here. Stand-out track ‘Strong Feelings’ serves as a make-shift art history lesson, misheard and misremembered – much like my recollection of first year at uni. As a self-described ‘emo dead stuff collector’, Shaw recalls a Delft tin-plate flower brick that combines Flemish and Chinese landscapes. The geophys from Time Team is mentioned. Ideas around unearthing forgotten objects and exploring their layers of meaning and materiality are interspersed with some of the most poetic lyrics on the album:

“Kiss me
Letting you only when we must
Whilst someone holds the door”

Even Holbein’s Ambassadors – famous for the anamorphic skull – gets a look in. Thinking about it, that distorted skull, a memento mori only visible at an oblique angle, acts as a pleasing metaphor for the state of flux that Shaw’s lyrics exist in – open to interpretation, inviting a way of looking that is rewardingly unfamiliar. Weird spoken-word lyrics are offset against the penetrating post-punk backdrop, just as Holbein’s cranial folly acts against the backdrop of the noted double-portrait.

After a few listens, and likely due to the same lockdown malaise that found me at the house I grew up in, the motif of the memento mori rears its head again. And fittingly enough for my situation, Shaw’s lyrics read like a return to the childhood home in ‘John Wick’:

“What do you think your parents feel?
That nod that says, “I’ve seen things”
They’ve really changed the pace of The…
Antiques Roadshow”

…Can Fiona Bruce prompt a Proustian moment?

Anyway, visiting ageing parents and watching television and not talking – that’s a reminder of one’s mortality if ever there was one.

‘Leafy’ swaps madeleines for mayonnaise as Shaw’s joyless drawl lists all the things that need clearing out from a home in the “horrible countryside”. It’s the mix of tedium and dread from the last year summed up by the fat under a grill pan. The song is set to a whimsical backing (Maynard’s elastic bassline and an untroubled guitar melody from Dowse) that obscures context and meaning. The act of untangling these gordian-knot narratives is left to the listener.

Whatever you choose to take from New Long Leg, this is an album replete with a humour and proficiency rare in a musical landscape dominated by overly-earnest balding men. The band are clearly in safe hands with 4AD and are already being paraded around on the label’s 40th Anniversary covers compilation with a version of Grimes’ ‘Oblivion’ that’s worth seeking out. Ultimately though, it’s their own gleefully discordant music that’s most appealing, proving that there are worse places to get new music recommendations from than Pointless.