Henri Rousseau was a toll and tax collector by day, but in his free time painted lush, dark jungles populated with naked women and snarling tigers. A self-taught artist, Rousseau was unrestrained by the classic painting techniques that his contemporaries were struggling to release themselves from. His naive style was enviable—imaginative, otherworldly and moving in a way that precise perspective and chiaroscuro can miss in their sterility.
Likewise, Dry Cleaning vocalist Florence Shaw doesn’t come from a traditionally musical background—she’s a university lecturer and picture researcher—which makes her deadpan spoken delivery all the more appealing. She comes across as a spoken word artist, minus the obnoxious stilted inflection. It certainly set the group apart on their debut EP Sweet Princess (named for her dead cat), but the four-piece aren’t satisfied with just resting on their laurels.
On Boundary Road Snacks and Drinks, Shaw gets even more comfortable with singing itself. Her voice is, like Rousseau’s paintings, a touch naive, even sounding similar to that of Broadcast’s Trish Keenan. Sure, we hear her singing voice occasionally on Sweet Princess, but for most of the EP, Shaw has a one-sided conversation with the listener. This latest effort, though, sees her oohing on opener “Dog Proposal,” the “oohs” turning into sharp yelps on “Viking Hair.” By the finale, “Sit Down Meal,” she croons the beautifully painful line, “You’re nothing but a fragrance to me now.”
Bandmates Lewis Maynard (bass), Tom Dowse (guitar) and Nick Buxton (drums) weave a suitably arresting backdrop for Shaw’s voice, comprised of thrumming bass, nimble guitar and cymbals pummeled senselessly. As much as Shaw seems to be having a conversation with the listener, she also has a back-and-forth with the rest of the band, whose presence ebbs and flows as needed. Hooks enter effortlessly and never overstay their welcome.
The group also experiments with atmospheric outros, most notably on “Spoils,” which ends with muffled voices from some room, maybe a bar or cafe. It feels intimate, like the band are inviting us into their lives (and appropriate since these were the last songs recorded at their original rehearsal space). “Sombre One” plays with its finale in a much more avant garde way: Beginning with just Shaw’s contemplative voice and a simple, repeated guitar melody, the song builds upon muted bass and drums until her words are distorted. Her warped voice then plays over a little synth ditty and a man telling stories about his Rottweiler. While the significance of this vignette isn’t clear, it makes a striking impact; such ambiguity begs for a multiple listens.
Complemented by the rest of the band, Shaw’s voice remains the centerpiece of the EP. She repeats phrases like they’re spells: “She’s beautiful / She’s got viking hair / She’s a tragic heroine and in love,” Shaw tells us on “Viking Hair,” repeating the sentiment like she’s trying to will the subject into existence. She utters, “I’ve joined a gym,” over and over again on “Dog Proposal,” leaning into the soft g’s until the words lose all meaning. Her delivery borders on hypnotic.
Dry Cleaning may be the latest addition to the UK’s thriving post-punk scene, but they’re more than just another drop in the bucket. The four-piece distinguish themselves on their second EP of 2019 with jagged guitar riffs and Shaw’s singularly entrancing voice, showing a willingness to not just stretch outside of their comfort zone, but have a hell of a lot of fun doing it. Their first full-length can’t come soon enough.