Dry Cleaning Proves Their Concept in “Stumpwork”

The British punk rockers’ follow up to New Long Leg brings a new twist to a highly addictive formula.

Album cover for Stumpwork, 4AD

Lead singer Florence Shaw opens Dry Cleaning’s sophomore album with a simple proposition: “should I propose friendship?” Her signature monotone delivery is supported by horns and synths on “Anna Calls From the Arctic,” an opening track that marks a departure from the roaring guitars that defined their debut New Long Leg. Stumpwork is a new representation of the fundamentals that put Dry Cleaning in a realm of their own, and it proves the idea that an amalgamation of spoken word and alt-rock can have broad appeal.

Dry Cleaning
Dry Cleaning, promotional photo by Ben Rayner

Returning fans of Dry Cleaning’s work will be pleased to hear that Shaw’s writing––characterized by her witty regurgitations of conversations and observations in passing––remains strong on Stumpwork. On the track “Gary Ashby,” Shaw makes a plea for a tortoise named ‘Gary Ashby’ to come back home after escaping her flat during lockdown. The slight inflection in her voice as she sings “Gary Ashby/Have you seen Gary?/Family tortoise” sounds like a genuine cry for a lost pet that has gone missing. Shaw’s dedication to realism is alive in this track; she came up with the idea for the song after seeing a flier in her neighborhood seeking help to find an escaped tortoise named Gary Ashby. 

Despite being written in tandem with the release of their debut record, Dry Cleaning’s sound on Stumpwork is more experimental, wavering, and unafraid. Their catchy and politically apt performance on “Conservative Hell” takes the ending of their last album, “Every Day Carry”, and puts a new spin on its extended outro. The title track presents a different tune, one that is more restrained as Shaw contemplates how she is “not in charge of what I do”. She goes on to say (quite literally, as newcomers to the band will quickly understand that Shaw rarely ‘sings’) “What I really love is to not use something to its full capacity/Not full power/Half its potential”. There is something to be said about how the exhaustion of our current moment has caused some to operate with this mindset of not wanting to do anything, let alone go above and beyond expectations. Shaw’s proclamation of content complacency is comforting and reassuring. 

On “Don’t Press Me”, one of the record’s more engaging tracks but shortest tracks, the talent of guitarist Tom Dowse and bassist Lewis Maynard is on full display. Their riffs complement each other beautifully as Shaw makes it clear to never, ever touch her gaming mouse. 

The record’s closer “Icebergs” ends the project with a sly ballad that is cathartic as it is melodic. Shaw opens the track with a memory: “Whilst traveling a parasite buried itself in my head/It took me over and it had to be removed by a specialist/It can happen to anyone at anytime.” She extends this metaphor to describe the pain of moving on from deeply personal relationships, the ones where certain songs or artifacts can longer be enjoyed because of their association with that person. It is interesting that “Icebergs,” which is easily the most confrontational track among its more playful counterparts, is the closer for Stumpwork. The brass that fills the outro of the track reminds the listener that Dry Cleaning is not done with their experiment, one that has been impossible for others to replicate. While the debut of New Long Leg set the bar high for the band, it is clear that Dry Cleaning is unafraid to take risks on their already unconventional sound. The combination makes for music that is fun, unique, and deceptively addicting.

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