Few bands at present can induce a heavy headbang-along to a lyric as odd as “All I could afford was a gaming mouse / So don’t touch my gaming mouse”. Yet Dry Cleaning appear to have cracked that particular nut; the current leading lights of a post-post-(and quite possibly post-) ironic era, where everything means nothing and words have lost their significance. At Camden’s Roundhouse on Friday night, the Brixton outfit proved this approach is as cathartic as any traditional psych-rock show.
For those unfamiliar with Dry Cleaning, the band is built on a foundation of frontwoman Florence Shaw’s dulcet spoken word, the lyrics of which hone-in on the mundane and subvert them into something surrealist. The gig’s opener ‘Kwenchy Kups’, for instance, pronounces “I’m gonna see the otters / There aren’t otters / There are”, before remarking “I’m pro-tidy / A lot of faff / Don’t push the door / Automatic door”. Confused? That’s kind of the point.
All of this works because such refrains sit beneath melodic, jangly arrangements that pluck away, often veering toward crashing crescendos. And sometimes — just sometimes — Shaw’s words offer something that not only makes sense, but comes across as profound. As well as a litany of non-sequiturs, ‘Kwenchy Kups’ also has such lines as “Things are shit but they’re gonna be okay” and “London grows so, so, so sad”, which when played to the Roundhouse audience amid a cost-of-living crisis, felt almost tangibly acknowledged.
Likewise, a third of the way through the set came the logical warning of ‘Leafy’, “Never talk about your ex / Never, never, never, never, never slag them off / Because then they know, then they know”; a line that has the same relatable relationship advice as SZA’s ‘Kill Bill’ or any of Taylor Swift’s break-up songs, except for thirtysomethings who probably feel themselves above such music.
Yet those sensical lines are rare. When Shaw tells the crowd “that was just a test” after the band restart ‘Hot Penny Day’ (the fourth track in the set), you’re not sure whether it’s an improv lyric or genuine announcement. Not that it matters. For the most part, a Dry Cleaning gig consists of going with the strangeness of it all, putting you in a liminal, dream-like state. If the mark of a good gig is that it shuts out the rest of the world, this one has it in spades. Why would you want to be anywhere else when trying to make sense of it all?
By placing such an emphasis on Shaw’s dulled speaking, translating it to a live show could prove problematic – especially on such a stage as Roundhouse’s. Mic volume is the obvious solution, but what can’t be calibrated is just how charismatic the vocalist is; holding her own on such restrained terms is as good a test as any that Shaw possesses it. Wearing a billowing white dress and a knitted green overall, her manner is exactly as you’d expect by the way she ‘sings’: composed, poised, barely raising an arm.
The fact she’s flanked by the more conventional rock-guitaring of bassist Lewis Maynard, with his long, black hair flicking like a inflatable figure you’d see outside a car dealership, and guitarist Tom Dowse, who was first to walk out onstage and gave a little fist pump, makes for an alluring blend of onstage personas.
It also turns out their rather decent folk. ‘Gary Ashby’, from last year’s sophomore album Stumpwork, was played second in the set, and is about a pet tortoise escaping from a family home. But before they burst into its propulsive alt-rock guitar hooks, they searched the audience for a real-life Gary Ashby (a person, not a tortoise), who they’d put on the guestlist along with some mates after he’d reached out to the band.
Another standout moment was ‘Liberty Log’, two-thirds into the set. At seven minutes runtime, it’s one of the band’s most eerie tunes, a soaring guitar giving it an end-of-days feel, with Maynard, Dowse and drummer Nick Buxton creating a track that almost breathes beyond its midpoint.
I’d half-expected the previous tune ‘Conservative Hell’ to get a more rapturous reception given the present political state of the UK, but that’s hardly the band’s fault. The subsequent two tracks ‘Driver’s Story’ and ‘Strong Feelings’, however, were the only parts where the set felt slightly more lacklustre; where Shaw’s purposefully nonchalant vocals made you in turn feel less engaged.
For those who are familiar with Dry Cleaning and had walked into Roundhouse expecting unconventional music from the get-go, would have been pleasantly surprised with the two support acts: the clanging Vermont trio Thus Love, and fellow American three-piece Dehd.
The latter, from Chicago, sound like a terrific, hazy Yeah Yeah Yeahs and have a brilliant good cop, moody cop routine with guitarist Jason Balla and bassist Emily Kempf, respectively. Although they could be elevated with a full drum kit, rather than the Roland drum pad played by Eric McGrady, their end sound ultimately overcomes this, with track ‘Loner’ being a particularly strong tune.
Such a track in fact worked as a prophetic one for the gig as a whole. Dry Cleaning’s weird and wonderful output makes you feel accepting of your own quirks; to have everyone in a room humming and moving along to the same peculiar pitter-patter – as the band returned for an encore of ‘Scratchcard Lanyard’ and ‘Anna Calls From the Arctic’ – made you feel that little bit less alone.
Still, whatever you do, just don’t touch my gaming mouse.
Featured image: Paul Hudson.