June 2021

Arts & Letters

More than a feeling: ‘New Long Leg’

By Anwen Crawford
The deadpan spoken-word vocals of British post-punk band Dry Cleaning are the mesmeric expression of online consciousness

Dry Cleaning, the band, are from London, which is also the city where you’ll find Blossom & Browne’s Sycamore, launderers and dry cleaners by appointment to the Queen. Dry cleaning, the process, is one of those industrial inventions grimy with mystery – unpronounceable solvents, strange steaming machines – while also being something with the patina of luxury, distinct from the unpaired socks and sad pyjamas of our ordinary laundry baskets. “Celebrities swear by Blossom & Browne’s Sycamore,” reads a testimony on the dry cleaner’s website. This is the sort of banal yet specific sentence that might end up repurposed in a song by Dry Cleaning.

The band is a four-piece, formed only a few years ago; two EPs released in 2019 precede their debut album, New Long Leg, released in April. Three of the band’s members – guitarist Tom Dowse, drummer Nick Buxton and bassist Lewis Maynard – give the strong impression of being, or having recently been, the kind of young men who frequent heavy metal gigs, and who enjoy ranking their favourite guitar riffs in order of difficulty. Dowse plays a Gibson, the guitar brand beloved of the heaviest rockers from Black Sabbath to The Who, which puts him in a lineage of style – style understood as fashion but also as method – that helps to set Dry Cleaning apart, even a little, from the post-punk pigeonhole they’re already skirting. That guitar has the weirdest tone, reads a comment from a YouTube viewer, beneath a live performance by the band. (The footage was recorded on March 10, 2020 – just before the pandemic made live shows untenable.) True, but that guitar – crisp with a hint of sour, bright yet fuzzing, not a lead instrument but an atmospheric one – isn’t the weirdest thing about Dry Cleaning.

That distinction belongs to vocalist Florence Shaw, who, with her long, straight, centre-parted hair, looks as if she might have stepped out of a painting by John William Waterhouse – The Lady of Shalott, specifically. “She’s got Viking hair / she’s a tragic heroine,” intones Shaw on one of the band’s early songs, “Viking Hair”, as if quoting a description of herself, though not her self, exactly, but her style, her patina. (Is there a difference?) She’s the Blossom & Browne’s Sycamore to her bandmates’ suburban grunge.

Shaw doesn’t sing but speaks, in a poised, BBC accent – the kind of accent that might also give you automated station announcements, or say “Thank you for holding”. And what she speaks, largely deadpan, over nervy arrangements, is a strange and fundamentally estranged monologue made up of overheard remarks, stray thoughts and stuff from the internet (or so it seems). Her words resemble comments threads, Yelp reviews, text messages: all of the humdrum that, when put into a musical context, reveals its euphony, and our sad and comic embodiment; our failure to be, like the internet, discarnate. “I just want to tell you I’ve got scabs on my head,” runs a line from the song “Strong Feelings”, which, like most of Dry Cleaning’s songs, is performed by Shaw in a manner that suggests the evacuation of any feeling. “It’s useless to live,” she goes on.

But the effect of Shaw’s lyrical and vocal technique is mesmeric rather than deadening: perversely uplifting, even. The uplift lies in one’s recognition of the psychic landscape she traverses. She reminds me of the voice that I hear in my head when thinking, comments one YouTube viewer. Another says: I just want to stand in a sweaty crowd and bop my head for an hour to this insanely hypnotic GPS-lady-come-alive-through-rock.

The album, New Long Leg, is the perfect length for an album: 10 songs, 41 minutes. That’s LP-length, and I mention it because it’s a detail – like the Gibson guitar – that conveys the band’s attachment to a long and largely analogue history of rock, even though the subject of their songs is the warp of contemporary, online consciousness. Other details: New Long Leg was recorded at Rockfield Studios, where Queen made “Bohemian Rhapsody” and where Oasis recorded their all-conquering 1995 album, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? Dry Cleaning’s album is produced by John Parish, best known for his work with PJ Harvey; Parish has produced four of Harvey’s albums, and the pair have made two records as collaborators, including the beautiful, neglected Dance Hall at Louse Point, from 1996.

Parish has a talent for capturing presence: sounds that sound tangible, within reach. He has set the microphone as close as possible to Shaw and placed her voice high in the mix, to emphasise that voice’s human origin – its throatiness, one might say. (The GPS lady comes alive through plosives.) “Are there llama plushies here?” Shaw asks on “Leafy” – who knows who she’s asking, or why, but the sonics are rich as a soufflé.

The rest of the band falls back from the spotlight, but still, there is much to recommend them and the production that Parish has given them. The blend of drum machine and drum kit on “Leafy”, for instance, which is also underpinned by a subtle, humming keyboard that evokes the open spaces Shaw’s lyric scorns. (“An exhausting walk in the horrible countryside,” she deadpans. “Tiresome swim in a pointless bit of sea.”)

My pick is the album’s midpoint, “Her Hippo”, which is coloured by Dowse’s plaintive guitar line, and shaped by the melody and weight of Maynard’s bass playing. The respective roles and distribution of these instruments in this way is not a new idea: long ago, groups like The Cure perfected the combination of melodic bass and textural guitar. But “Her Hippo” nevertheless feels very much of the present. “The house is just 12 years old,” Shaw begins, “soft landscaping in the garden”. I hear it as a song for (among other things) the bleak, bland nature of contemporary housing: bad cladding, thin walls, cold lights; the reigning bunker aesthetic. “Mostly angry, scrappy songs,” Shaw says, at one point, almost as aside, and in a way “Her Hippo” is just that. Anger is the heart of it, I think. But Shaw doesn’t rage, or doesn’t perform rage – that would be too obvious.

A vocalist who doesn’t sing, or who sings only occasionally, gives up the presumption to emotional availability that many singers want to claim: their special status as a conduit of feeling. One can speak lyrics expressively, with careful attention to scansion and timbre – Shaw pays this attention, in her low-key way – but emoting is harder, and anyway, why would you?

Think of the composure of the spoken-word vocalist: Grace Jones strolling through her version of Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing”, not breaking a sweat; Fred Schneider deconstructing surf rock on The B52s’ early slice of genius, “Rock Lobster”; Gil Scott-Heron cutting a path through the grubbiness of Watergate on his and Brian Jackson’s “H2Ogate Blues”. These performers make singers sound gauche and overwrought in comparison. “Tell us a little bit / But not too much,” instructed David Byrne on Talking Heads’ “Houses in Motion”, lines that might stand as a motto for the spoken-word style.

Scott-Heron is called “the godfather of rap”, while Talking Heads recorded during the earliest days of New York hip-hop, keenly absorbing its lessons. Rap is the spoken-word genre par excellence, but it’s worth noting that rap vocal technique over the past decade has moved far closer to singing thanks to the democratising technology of Auto-Tune, which means that even the weakest singers can be made to sound in pitch. Auto-Tune rules trap, the melancholic, slip-slide subgenre that has dominated contemporary rap – and the pop charts, too – for several years.

Which leaves rock where, exactly? If rap is singing now, do vocalists who speak find their place amid guitar bands? That seems the trend in London at least, and I’m not the first to note it: alongside Dry Cleaning there’s also Black Country, New Road (whose debut album, For the First Time, I reviewed here in March) and Black Midi, best described as a precocious blend of jazz, punk and (God forbid) prog.

Looming over all of these – and a transparent influence on Dry Cleaning – is The Fall, the Manchester post-punk band formed in 1976 and presided over for 42 years, until his death in 2018, by vocalist and lyricist Mark E. Smith. Gnomic, irascible, hilarious and accidentally-on-purposely profound: Smith’s one-of-a-kind lyrical style and his gnarled, northern voice made The Fall utterly distinct. But Smith, though occasionally deadpan, was mostly expressive, and vividly so; he used everything from grunts to squeaks to shouts to slurring in his spoken-word style. He used vocal colours that the world has yet to find a name for.

The Fall were what happened when all of Mark E. Smith’s reading and the inside of his head met the open air. Dry Cleaning are what happens when reading has shifted from a private practice to a networked one – when most of what we read each day is words onscreen, most of those written in response to other words onscreen. Both bands are readers’ bands, and writers’ bands, but the shift from autodidacts – The Fall – to smartphone addicts – Dry Cleaning – is indicative of pop’s changed relationship to interiority, a change that reflects a larger shift at the level of our social lives. “Do everything and feel nothing,” says Shaw on “Scratchcard Lanyard”, the opening track of New Long Leg. I’m busy, I’m numb.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic. Her new book is No Document.

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