Do You Like Stumpwork? Dry Cleaning's Deadpan Fever Dreams Come to Life
Updated: Mar 1
Photos by Guy Bolongaro
When Janset, our ever-patient editor and fearless leader here at Tonitruale, emailed me with a request to review the then upcoming new Dry Cleaning album, Stumpwork, I jumped at the opportunity to review a brand new work from a big-ticket indie artist. I mean, I won't be the first or the last to tell you how good their first album was. Songs from New Long Leg are still being playlisted and recommend up and down my algorithm, and there's no doubt in my mind that if you're reading this magazine, you've probably seen "Scratchcard Lanyard" on the Ultimate Indie, Post Punk, or Best Indie Songs of 2021 playlist on Spotify. The eerie, deadbeat rhyming of frontwoman Florence Shaw is a familiar and celebrated as a symbol of what indie rock can be, weird and experimental, scary and energetic, with replay value rivaling that of the indie renaissance of the 2000's.
So, the album, what's up with the album? Well, fuck, man, I don't know. This is a strange one even by Dry Cleaning standards. We start off our dissonant journey into Stumpwork with "Anna Calls From The Arctic," a funky bass-centric track with what sounds like horns and far away synth chatter over a clap beat, all while Shaw mutters nothing for five minutes. Not a hot start for a first listen. I was so lost with this one, and Genius didn't have anything for me on the release date either. Having a month of listening time on this one, however, you can sort of draw context clues about what it could be about. The first half of the song alludes to the melting of the ice caps and the rich and ignorants hastening of climate change, but then we get on about "Sensual Steve" in the last few minutes of the song, and then into privatization? The next two songs on this album didn't really give me any more answers as to where this album was headed either. "Kwenchy Kups" reads like a schizophrenic episode without it's instrumental:
Well things are shit, but they're gonna be okay/And I'm gonna see the otters/There aren't any otters/There are/Well, we can check/And I'm gonna see the water caterpillar/There's no such thing/Hmmm/Nice idea
And yes, I did need to single out the entire chorus of that song. What does that mean?? After we get done with that song, we're only on the third track, "Gary Ashby," about a runaway family tortoise. What is going on on ?
You know how on Heaven or Las Vegas by Cocteau Twins you never know what the hell they're saying but the music is so good that you stop worrying about the lyrics and just start worrying about the everything else going on in the song? This is that kind of album. On New Long Leg, there was a similar pattern, lots of eerie south London nonsense over some fuckin' amazing crunchy, beefy riffs, and it worked! On Stumpwork, it almost jumps too far out of the New Long Leg strange-indie pocket, smack into uncharted territory. Instead of that
But this is the natural progression of indie rock! It's strange, its weird, it's slightly off-putting! They're meant to stand out in stark comparison to the mainstream, they are the undercurrent! And at face value, and potentially at its core, this is a strange, weird, and off-putting collection of songs, but damn, do some of them rip. On "Hot Penny Day," again, no idea what Shaw is talking about at any point of the song, but holy hell, Tom Dowse is destroying that six-string! Same with "Don't Press Me," what in the hell is going on?
These two songs are the closest thing to the sound Dry Cleaning had on their first album, and they are absolute jams, and so are the majority of the instrumentals, but once again, the off-putting strange lyrics can pull the unsuspecting listener out of the experience. They sound like they were pulled out of a hat and recorded- and that's because they kind of were! "Quite a lot of the lyrics were gleaned from this archive of newspaper clippings that I went to in Woolwich Arsenal," Shaw told Apple Music while explaining the writing process for the album's title track, "It’s millions and millions of newspaper clippings on different subjects." Don't believe it? Check it!
Roman remains/I am not in charge of what I do/The only thing I could think to ask was/"Do you like stumpwork?"/Doo-doo-doo-doo-doo/Doo-doo-doo-doo-doo
The instrumentals on this album are some of the best pieces of experimental rock I've ever heard. There's chords on this album that I don't know if I'll ever know how to play. Odd start, odd finish, this album is weird front to back. There's a lot of interesting things that Dry Cleaning is trying to do on this album, lot's of out of the box shit. If you've got that one friend that listens to or makes some of the most out of this world music, they'd probably like this album a lot. I liked this album a lot once I gave it the Cocteau Twins treatment, but if you're the average casual indie enjoyer, for your sanity, I'd steer clear of this one.