Cleanliness is Next to Godliness
Just who is Florence Shaw? With their new, debut album, London quartet Dry Cleaning craft a sound as harsh and sleek as industrial machinery, but it’s Shaw’s experimental lyrics, arranged like crossed-wires over the motorik frequencies of her bandmates, that prove utterly hypnotic. With little prior musical experience, she brings a dry deadpan to her spoken-word sceneries that encapsulates the detached, curious approach taken to her role as frontwoman. Through her South-London monotone, post-punk ennui finds new resonance on a fantastic LP that weds the mundane with the utterly surreal, in imagistic glimpses from the debris and plasticity of life amidst the concrete.
Don’t let the addictive, high-energy riffs fool you— on lead single 'Scratchcard Lanyard', Shaw is withdrawing inwards as much as she’s stepping out into the party, ice-cool charisma inseparable from unapologetic awkwardness:
"I’ve come here to make a ceramic shoe
and I’ve come to smash what you’ve made
I’ve come to learn how to mingle
I’ve come to learn how to dance
I’ve come to join the knitting circle" ('Scratchcard Lanyard')
Her raised eyebrow is practically audible through her poker-faced delivery, as she goes through the motions of social conversation and what a rock song should sound like, all the while doubling-down on her own madcap instincts. It’s an eclectic disco-ball of non-sequiturs that plays like an elaborate ruse, a performance that highlights its own falsity— just look at the track’s music video, in which Shaw’s head speaks, drinks and frowns upon the mini-stage of a shoebox bar full of dancing figurines. It’s from this vantage that she twists the labels and expectations that end up being directed at women in particular, like on the jarring reverbs of 'Unsmart Lady'. "Fat podgy / non-make-up" she intones, chewing over the words until they wither.
Newly signed to indie label 4AD, alongside acts like Big Thief, U.S. Girls and Aldous Harding, Dry Cleaning's vibrating instrumentals flesh out these moody landscapes, like on the misanthropic 'Leafy', or polish the narrative sheen that lies behind Shaw’s mumblecore lyrics. On 'Her Hippo', the outlines of a toxic relationship form amidst numb descriptions of real-estate renovations, while an escapist romance daydreams in the background. There’s a dollhouse quality to these scenes, empty rooms of memory that provide a glimpse behind her emotionless veneer as she narrates "I’m smiling constantly / and people constantly step on me".
Clothes, haircuts, wigs— these crop up as means of change and disguise, while leaving a question mark over the mannequins at their centre. Individual body parts are odd, lewd and useless— where the album’s title track ‘New Long Leg’ charts an absurd itinerary of travelling by boat, humming around any sense of clarity until Shaw cuts off to describe "this new bloody big problem / no more shared sundae / this absolutely huge fuck up". The sudden turn of her voice makes it feel like the song’s meaning was on the tip of your tongue the whole time— whether about Brexit, a souring relationship, the difficulty of musicians touring Europe after Brexit, is for your own doom and gloom to decide.
Monosyllabic texts, throwing shade at acquaintances, getting pissed on in the Sainsbury’s, commenting on the weather— this is the familiar wasteland that Dry Cleaning inhabit - but above all, it’s a sprawl of things: items, products, a mash-up of kitchens, garage-sales and advertisements that crowd Shaw’s narcotised delivery. On the curiously titled ‘John Wick’, set to lush licks of guitar as if Keanu Reeves is busy murdering gangsters on the next channel over, Shaw’s armchair commentary sighs over the decline of Antiques Roadshow— "More antiques, more price reveals / less background information".
On this album Shaw seems intent on turning things opaque and inscrutable, weird parts of our lives and bodies that tell vivid, if perplexing, stories. An Elmo costume, hair remover, a dentist’s messy garden, "raincoat sweat", "pop rocks in the mouth of your cab driver"— all these everyday details become glimpses into other people’s lives and the question— why do people do things? What’s going on in their funny heads?
It all adds up to a daunting topography of urban life— emotions, bodies and materials paved-over into one flat, inanimate mass. ‘Just an emo dead stuff collector’ Shaw declares on 'Strong Feelings', as continents, groceries and ceramic flower-holders blur into overcast landscapes with lost figures at their centres. Combining her profession as a picture-researcher by day with the impression of a land surveyor looking at fine-art, she goes on to mention a painting in the National Gallery in which an anamorphic skull becomes visible when looked at from a sidelong angle, turning 2-D space into a sudden site of depth and death. Like stepping back from an impressionist painting and watching all the brush strokes come together.
"Don’t look at me / I’m just the medium" she murmurs on the LP’s final track, amidst a cavalcade of random objects and guitars whirring like helicopter-rotors. But just like the painting’s materialising skull, it is the interior of Shaw’s head that emerges from all the unintelligible clutter across this album. From mental shopping-lists to spaces scrubbed blank by surface-cleaner and pills, the line between Florence Shaw and all that numbs and confines her becomes another distorted reflection, a performance that muddles the artificial and the real, delivered by a recluse who has retreated inside, turned on the TV and drawn all the curtains.
But from all the changes that Shaw pictures of the outside world, of Europe, closed-down cafés and highways where forests once were— the biggest change being processed is that of a band messing around in a garage, now finding themselves on an international stage, and a lead vocalist who’s life and career might just never be the same again.
- 8.5 -
'Scratchcard Lanyard', 'Strong Feelings', 'Her Hippo'
Sam Harding is a student at York and an enthusiast of mosh pits. He is trying to marry music with writing but is running out of onomatopoeia. Life soundtrack includes underground rap and electronic bleep bloops.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based at the University of Oxford. He edited this article and he is also a Fleet Foxes shill.
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