There are many exquisite lyrics on New Long Leg, the debut album by the south-London post-punk band Dry Cleaning. “Would you choose a dentist with a messy back garden like that?/I don’t think so,” says Florence Shaw, ever so serenely over jangling guitars on the title track. “That seems like a lot of garlic,” she observes over a zany drum machine pulse on “Strong Feelings”, as though she’s gawking at a Nigella Lawson recipe. And then, on “Her Hippo”, as metallic-sounding guitars wrangle beneath her, there’s romance: “I’d like to run away with you on a plane/But please don’t bring those loafers.”
Pleasingly, it’s not difficult to make out these lines. Shaw’s spoken-word style isn’t ultra-sharp – she doesn’t over-enunciate for the sake of it, and chews each syllable a little – but hers is a perfectly comprehensible, no-frills delivery. She’s deadpan, droll, with more than a hint of Mark E Smith, and when she says something like, “That silly woman’s done a too-straight fringe”, seemingly out of nowhere, you aren’t left thinking: did I hear that right? You know you did. That, you realise just a couple of tracks into this barmy and brilliant record, is exactly what she said. Why shouldn’t it be?
Shaw had never sung on stage before she joined Lewis Maynard, Tom Dowse and Nick Buxton to form Dry Cleaning. She is a visual artist, picture researcher and drawing lecturer, and her lyrics feel like a collage, pieced together from surrealist books, unlikely eavesdropping occasions and fragments of conversations remembered from crazed mornings-after-the-night-before. On top of the groove-laden grunge of the three instrumentalists (on guitar, bass and drums) her words are like portals into another world – a world, it dawns on you only when you look at it in full, that is made up of all the same small, strange details as your own.
The musical intrigue here comes in the sonic tension between Shaw – who is still, calm and collected – and the relative looseness of Maynard, Dowse and Buxton, who play far more exploratively than they did on their first two EPs, Sweet Princess and Boundary Road Snacks and Drinks (both 2019). This tautness gives Dry Cleaning a frisson rarely found in the music of their peers, who include Shame, Squid and Black Country, New Road and who are playing into the spoken-word, post-punk scene that has come to dominate UK alt-rock over the last few years.
And while the band plays with rhythmically serious intent – apart from on “A.L.C”, where harmonies unspool and guitars give way to a weirder, eerier sensibility – it helps that Shaw is quietly funny, not simply in her obscure writing but also in her off-kilter performance style. “It’ll be OK, I just need to be weird and hide for a bit and eat an old sandwich from my bag,” Shaw asserts on “Scratchcard Lanyard”, putting the emphasis on “my” and “bag” and offering a slight pause between them, as though she is growing frustrated at having to explain herself. The sprawling, seven-and-a-half-minute “Every Day Carry” is shopping list-like in its lyrical bittiness, while a deconstructed guitar line cuts round and round like a windmill. “Droopy flute solo comes in now/Galump lump,” says Shaw, as if she couldn’t be more bored if she tried.
It’s difficult to say what any of these songs are about – thematically, in terms of a story. “Unsmart Lady” seems to be concerned with body image; “Her Hippo” is probably about a romantic relationship gone sour. But to read too deeply, to attempt to hang a plot on these sparse lines, is to undermine the inventiveness of their direct observational quality. And, it’s clear, Shaw doesn’t want us prodding too much either: “Things come to the brain/Too much to ask about/So don’t ask.”
“New Long Leg” is released on 4AD on 2 April