British quartet Dry Cleaning extract the profound from the mundane and the meaningful from the nonsensical. On “Viking Hair” from the band’s 2019 EP Boundary Road Snacks and Drinks, frontperson Florence Shaw’s everyday sexual fantasies stood in for the arbitrary guidelines determining acceptable and shameful desires; as she surreally rattled off “traditional fish bar, chicken and ribs, bus pass” and more on “Traditional Fish” from the band’s other 2019 EP, Sweet Princess, she scorned the very idea of commerce. And she did it all in a bone-dry, comical sing-speak set to rollicking, if not straightforward, post-punk courtesy of guitarist Tom Dowse, bassist Lewis Maynard and drummer Nick Buxton.
New Long Leg, Dry Cleaning’s debut album (and first release for 4AD), is all of that and none of that. Shaw’s semi-accidental revelations about the ridiculousness of being alive when we live in a society are sharper than ever, and her voice newly takes the tone of a psychic waking up from a 70-year nap. Dowse, Maynard and Buxton have massively upped their game, too: The EPs’ post-punk foundation remains, but atop it come stomping glam riffs, dream-pop arpeggios and razor-sharp melodies that loosen Dry Cleaning’s prior tension without entirely taming the mania.
The most obvious comparison for Dry Cleaning is one-album greats Life Without Buildings (who have recently enjoyed surprise TikTok success). Both bands make a distinct style of melodically and rhythmically complex rock; both bands’ frontpeople prefer speaking to singing and near-accidentally found their way into their bands from other artistic disciplines. Even this comparison, though, sells Dry Cleaning short; few bands have melded fiery chords with Cure-like jangle as seamlessly as on New Long Leg’s “Her Hippo.” As Shaw intones, “Got my shorts on in preparation for the hot / These idiots in trousers who don’t know what they’re doing / Feel like I’m going to send you 20 texts / Let me know when you’re inside the plane,” she at once raises an eyebrow at the flabbergasting yet unending tradition of men wearing pants in scorched-earth weather and reminds us all that airports remain dreadful. We’ve all been there, but few render societal stupor and then roll their eyes at it as deftly as Shaw.
This kind of ever-lingering sigh permeates New Long Leg. “It’s a Tokyo bouncy ball / It’s an Oslo bouncy ball / It’s a Rio de Janeiro bouncy ball,” Shaw muses atop the turbocharged, shiny rattle of “Scratchcard Lanyard,” equally flummoxed by and fascinated with how one object can take on so many different meanings while also being a nearly useless human invention. “Would you choose a dentist with a messy back garden like that? I don’t think so,” she mutters on “New Long Leg” as undistorted arpeggios circle her like plastic horses on a carousel. There’s seemingly no connection between backyards and the quality of medical care, and with this nonsense, Shaw dismantles and scoffs at the asinine ways that we jump to judgments.
The other folks in Dry Cleaning are just as potent as Shaw. “Unsmart Lady” opens with a quadruple-time feel even though the song is literally just starting thanks to Buxton’s bonkers drumming, and Maynard thereafter gives Dowse exactly the bassline he needs to propel his squelchy guitar bends and phaser-soaked chords. Their work culminates in—and this all comes after Shaw’s most dumbfoundingly obvious non-sequitur, “If you like a girl, be nice / It’s not rocket science”—a Marc Bolan-like mega-riff that’s over almost as soon as it starts, a tease that only amplifies the return to the main motif thereafter.
“A.L.C.” is just as acid-fried, a slow-moving dirge full of frayed, incisive edges even as Dowse’s guitars go entirely silent, and only Manyard and Buxton guide Shaw’s observations about changing cities, low-wage jobs and general driftlessness. The band balances this frizzy harshness with clearer air on the ominous “John Wick,” one of Shaw’s more antagonistic moments. “I like your wardrobe / I never know if it’s okay to take the clothes / Hold on to your behind,” she says dryly, at once issuing a threat and implying that there’s really nothing to worry about. New Long Leg is full of moments like these, ones where Shaw is equally powerful and powerless, controlling and lacking control, vaguely fascinated with it all. “I’m smiling constantly and people constantly step on me,” she says on “Her Hippo.” Some grin in the face of the absurd and rotten, and others reflect all the hot air back outward. Dry Cleaning make an art of doing both.
Sometimes, Max Freedman sits and writes about music, and sometimes he just sits. Follow him on Twitter, where he has been hailed as “an incredible person with an incredibly bad internet connection.”