Thomas Boyd reviews...
On their sophomore effort, the fourpiece from South London dial back the punchy post-punk of their debut LP, expanding their sonic arsenal to deliver immersive soundscapes and spoken word to poke fun at life through all its beautiful, little ups and downs.
It is always a unique experience when an artist or group chooses to begin an album with a question. Given the exasperated tone with which frontwoman, Florence Shaw, described the modern world’s overwhelming nature on Dry Cleaning’s previous effort, New Long Leg, you would be forgiven for expecting the question at the beginning of Stumpwork’s album-opener, Anna Calls From The Arctic, to epitomise an album laced with sardonic wit. Instead, the listener is greeted by the disarmingly optimistic rhetorical, ‘Should I propose friendship?’, attended by hypnotic saxophones and woozy guitar. It is through this simple start-point that Dry Cleaning set the tone of the entire album, one pulsing with a newfound hope, fresh inspirations, and delight in the mundane.
As Stumpwork unfolds and Shaw’s incisive lyricism once again comes to the fore, it becomes increasingly clear that something is different. For a start, she has begun to sing. Dulcet melodies take turns with the subdued spoken word previously found in abundance on the group’s debut which in itself has been expanded and enriched by whispers and hums, constructing an expressive narration to layer over the exquisite soundscapes that make up Stumpwork. The expansion of Dry Cleaning’s sound is not limited to the vocals either. The saxophone that bursts into life on Anna Calls From The Arctic is present on subsequent tracks, Hot Penny Day and Icebergs, the guitars are breezy and drenched with effects throughout the record, and swirling synthesisers ebb and flow across the dub-influenced Conservative Hell and shimmer in the background of Liberty Log. Even the most unorthodox of sounds were given their time to shine and inspire as a stray wah pedal found in a sibling’s garage causes the bass guitar on Hot Penny Day to pulse with an otherworldly energy while there is even time for Shaw to make her debut as a recorder player on Don’t Press Me.
However, it is vital to note that Dry Cleaning’s sophomore effort is not a departure from the sound of New Long Leg, but a progression and expansion of the punchy post-punk that formed the foundation of that earlier LP. The four-piece’s rhythm section (composed of bassist, Lewis Maynard, and drummer, Nick Buxton) continues to toe the fine line between being addictively danceable and trance-inducing while Tom Dowse’s guitar maintains the crunchy dissonance on tracks like Driver’s Story and No Decent Shoes For Rain. As hinted to earlier though, it is within the sphere of Shaw’s lyricism where the shift in tone is most pervasive as she strollsfrom one witty non-sequitur to the next, touching upon every topic of the day-to-day under the sun.
Whether discussing mind-numbing consumerism or the family tortoise escaping, or even asking a former lover if ‘my disco pickle’ is an appropriate term of endearment, the irony and humour persists. Stumpwork is a record that consistently pokes fun at all of life’s little ups and downs, taking delight in the highs and mocking the lows. Even when the tone turns more negative, there is always the lingering afterthought of ‘oh well, it is what it is’. Dry Cleaning’s sophomore record is neither a celebration of daily life nor a condemnation of it, instead teaching us to approach each day as it comes with a wry smile and a knowing wink.
Words: Thomas Boyd
Photo Credits: image via Rolling Stone magazine, Steve Gullick