The south Londoners’ wonderfully enigmatic follow-up to New Long Leg feels more collage than essay, the poetic cheek by jowl with the preposterous
Mixing a Dry Cleaning gig must be a nightmare. The south London band creates such a dense sound, interlocking riffs twining thornily, that a declamatory vocal would be the instinctive choice, but Florence Shaw’s delivery is always muted, pastel-toned, and dispassionate, as if a dentist surgery’s automated receptionist had started offering existential commentary. Press 1 for appointments, press 2 for a wry encapsulation of the human condition.
But simply burying the vocals in the mix, shoegaze style, won’t work because Shaw has a huge library of micro-inflections that give unexpected depth to the often disjointed lyrics: the line “If you’re rich you look good, that’s not news” on opener Anna Calls From The Arctic is pitch perfect, and the tossed off plea “Can you not?” on Kwenchy Kups is like a whole character study in three syllables. Luckily, that’s some venue engineer’s dilemma for another day, and on Stumpwork we can revel in every subtle vocal intonation, as they play against the knotty rhythms.
Although Shaw has stated that the lyrics on this album have moved away from the found texts of their debut New Long Leg, it definitely feels more collage than essay, lines rubbing unexpectedly against each other, the poetic cheek by jowl with the preposterous. But themes swim out over repeated listens even where individual songs remain oblique. A major concern on Stumpwork would appear to be finance and the impulsive consumer, with different tracks noting “I’m bored, but I get a kick out of buying things”, “That’s what money’s for, isn’t it? For spending”, and the hilarious “Nothing works, everything’s expensive, opaque, and privatised. My shoe-organising thing arrived, thank God”. Press 3 for sales and self-justification under late capitalism.
The album also features a roster of tiny instances of intimacy, such as “let me squeeze you and do your hair”, or “I’d love to hold you across the middle and be your shoulder bag”. The title track features a gloriously prosaic undercutting of the school of pop romance in which hearts flutter and nerves tingle: “I feel your approach, All the hair on my arms raise up, Because you are wearing a fleece, That has become electrified.”
Even on Gary Ashby, the only song that’s fully decodable, about the loss of the titular pet tortoise, the mundane and quotidian are deftly presented in a way that makes them feel surreal and otherworldly (Press 4 for Harold Pinter and Alan Bennett). Yet even this hides the menacing mysterious line “Dad’s got blood on his head”. And if unexplained wounds don’t surprise you, sudden moments of potty-mouthed filth just might – press fucking 5 for some shit or other – which sound doubly incongruous in Shaw’s tranquil unruffled tones. The debased handicraft of the album cover, spelling out the title in soap-adhered pubes, might have served as a warning that the odd bit of smut might pop up. Most inexplicable is the claim “I’ve see your arse but not your mouth, that’s normal now”, though perhaps Naked Attraction gets heavy rotation on the Dry Cleaning tour bus TV.
Mesmerising as the words and delivery are, the album is also musically excellent. Like the debut, there are clear nods to classic alt rock, especially in the fleet-footed but anchoring basslines – press 6 for Peter Hook and Kim Deal – but the sonic range is broader this time, from the warm jangle of Gary Ashby which nods towards The Blue Aeroplanes, to the sludgy unfunk groove of Liberty Log, replete with woozy tape wobbles. The last few tracks are the most exploratory, with dubbier textures and the intense hypnotic guitar sounds of post-rock (or even post-metal).
But the biggest surprise is at the other end of the album, where Anna Calls From The Arctic swoons in a humid, sun-sleepy synth and clarinet bliss-out, as if Penguin Café Orchestra were trying to imitate 808 State’s Pacific. By the time the goth hypnotism of Icebergs fades away, with a quietly dawdling sax that sounds like hip-hop banger The 900 Number dropping off to sleep, you’ll be ready to flip this wonderfully enigmatic record over and return to track one. Press 0 to hear these options again and again.