Stumpwork (4AD/Remote Control)
“IT'S THOSE KINDS OF DETAILS that send out the best signals,” says Florence Shaw, four tracks into Stumpwork, the second Dry Cleaning album – or third if you got yourself the vinyl compilation of their super exciting first two EPs.
Uh-huh, that’s truth, and she may as well have that emblazoned on this album’s detail-rich, soap pubes cover, or a tour t-shirt.
(Well, the second tour T-shirt, because the first has to have this line from another new song, Hot Penny Day: “Is it still ok to call you my disco pickle?”. I can’t tell you just how much I want this to happen.)
In the first instance, most obviously, these details are what make Shaw such a compelling and hitherto wonderfully confounding, lyricist. On those EPs and the superb debut, New Long Leg, the specificity of her language and references, the minutiae of any ordinary life, was matched or maybe contrasted by the abstract/free-form flow of those lines.
The kind of lines that had you singing, though not necessarily comprehending – or, maybe for the fun of it, making up your own meanings for – sections like “Where these bin men at then?/I like your wardrobe but I never know if it’s okay/To take your clothes/Hold onto your beehive”. Or, “Weak arms can’t open the door, kung fu cancel/It’ll be okay I just need to be weird and hide for a bit/And eat an old sandwich from my bag”.
Or, in particular when delivered in Shaw’s bone-dry yet nonchalant speaking/singing, “I think of myself as a hardy banana/With that waxy surface and the small delicate flowers/A woman in aviators firing a bazooka”.
The other detail was the way bassist Lewis Maynard, guitarist Tom Dowse, and drummer Nick Buxton constructed finely calibrated, angular post-punk. Their thin wiry sound propelled with agitation as a trio, danced with irritation around the rhythm of Maynard and Buxton, and probed with aggravation through Dowse. Each piece, instruments and voice, was crucial and effective, and that didn’t change even as New Long Leg broadened the sonic perspectives that had been offered on the EPs. It wasn’t so much that this was a bigger sound, rather that it reshaped itself into something thicker without losing the origins.
What Stumpwork does musically is take that broadening further: slowing down and stretching out tempos and rhythms; playing with charm and even sometimes gracefulness; even getting wah-wah funky, in Hot Penny Day. And those details become even more important.
Take for instance the title track. The guitars shine in chords and pick out lines against that, the combination definitely more a shimmer than a shake. The drums tip-tap and lay back on the beat, secondary players in theory but actually putting us in slingbacks and crepe-soles and telling us to glide. And almost right in our faces, the bass repeats the same short-rising question until it stops being inquisitive and just feels encompassing.
Pre-album single (and unlikely hero moment for a pet tortoise), Gary Ashby, finds Dowse almost in Johnny Marr mode of melodic riff and light-footed rhythm, Buxton holds everything tight and still busy, and at 53 seconds Maynard does his best Andy Rourke singing bass. It’s a straight out pop song but doesn’t feel like they’ve given up any ground to do so. Even Don’t Press Me, an urgent hustle that might once have pricked at us, keeps us rolling and spinning, with what sounds like a flute almost mocking our expectations with its flightiness.
When Liberty Log hunkers down in scratchy soundscape, the bass is the flow to the guitar’s reverberations, but the roles are reversed in the echoing Anna Calls From The Arctic, and then a saxophone winds its way through like some passing busker walking across the stage.
More striking than the saxophone though, especially as this is the opening track of the album, is the tone of Shaw’s voice (which is partly the work of producer John Parish who throughout the record shows once again that he knows how to balance art and edge with a bruised allure) and how that begins to frame her lyrics. Although what she is saying is still reasonably opaque, Shaw feels almost intimate, certainly inviting rather than standing coolly reserved. It’s the first sign that things are different here.
From this track on, abstractions that can feel like non sequiturs still exist – “And I’m gonna see the otters/There aren’t any otters?/There are/Well we can check” – and thank God for that, because it is one of the great pleasures of Dry Cleaning. But you can begin to see patterns in the observations, real people delineated in the accumulation of material, actual narratives.
Across Stumpwork, Shaw – sometimes essentially singing, other times moving through text like a canny shopper on a limited budget picking through the bargain bin – captures consumer culture and its accompanying seemingly contradictory indifference, picks apart the lesser bits of lives (“I’m not the total package, Costa Costa cups,” she says amid the plunging, chilly guitars and leering bass of Driver’s Story. “There’s crumbs, and there’s jam in the bed”), stares at the implications of male violence and undercuts while simultaneously revelling in lust.
And she does it while maybe not doing any of that at all: interpretations are for amateurs; she’s already moved on. But we can’t ignore, she can’t deny, the details.
Dry Cleaning play Tuning Fork, Auckland, December 6; San Fran, Wellington, December 7; Brightside, Brisbane, December 9; Corner Hotel, Melbourne, December 13; Manning Bar, Sydney, December 14; Rosemount Hotel, Perth, December 16
SPOTIFY: Listen to Dry Cleaning - Stumpwork
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