One must assume the “Dry” in the British post-punk band Dry Cleaning’s name is in part due to lead singer Florence Shaw’s deadpan delivery of oftentimes humorous lines like, “I thought I saw a young couple clinging to a round baby, but it was a bundle of trash and food.” You could easily imagine Shaw drolly doling out one-liners written by the king of American anti-humorists, Steven Wright, like, “Whenever I think of the past, it brings back so many memories.” But enough theorizing on the possibly unintentional aping of standup comedians, that’s not what we’re here to discuss. What we are here to discuss is Stumpwork, the sophomore full-length album from South London quartet Dry Cleaning.
Stumpwork was reportedly being written before Dry Cleaning’s excellent debut LP, New Long Leg, was even released, and it shows in the best ways. Although one would be hard-pressed to find a line as immediately memorable as, “Do everything and feel nothing,” from the band’s early single “Scratchcard Lanyard”, the line, “Things are shit, but they’re gonna be OK,” from Stumpwork’s second track, “Kwenchy Kups”, makes for a nearly equally indelible moment. Shaw’s consistently fine writing and continued resistance to do much more than deliver her lines in a deadpan sing-speak aside, there has been some evolutional movement on the new album in terms of the band’s instrumental work.
Guitarist Tom Dowse is still in top form here, though his playing is at times more freewheeling and upbeat than in the past. “Gary Ashby”, a cute song about the disappearance of a family’s pet tortoise, could easily pass for one of the Smiths’ more cheerful moments were it not for its charmingly frivolous subject matter. Sure, the boys lay down an atypically warped funk groove on “Hot Penny Day”, but the group’s instrumental advancements are perhaps most notable in the nearly six minute “No Decent Shoes for Rain”. Here, over an appropriately lackadaisical rhythm section, Dowse’s guitarwork is unusually warped and jazzy during the song’s first half before it shifts into a stinging lead line that gives way to a laidback, strummed ending.
The pairing of Florence Shaw’s unique vocal delivery with her bandmates’ ability to consistently match her mood is a winning formula that distinguishes Dry Cleaning’s sound when compared to that of their post-punk contemporaries. While this chemistry is clearly important, at the end of the day it’s Florence Shaw’s wittily absurd, cleverly abstract, and idiosyncratic observational writing that makes Stumpwork such a curious and oddly relatable listening experience.