In South Devon, there’s a tradition over 800 years old wherein a deluge of hot pennies is tossed from windows onto a procession walking the street. The tradition comes from a proposed idea to draw business to the town’s market, and the pennies (which are now merely warm for safety’s sake) used to be burning hot for the delight of the wealthy, who would watch the poor burn their fingers attempting to pick up the scattered pence.
Like many traditions, Honiton’s Hot Penny Day stems from an absurdist prospect that endures self-sufficiently, blithely, and without reason. It’s about as representative an image of Dry Cleaning’s second full-length as anything Florence Shaw conjures within it.
Stumpwork follows Dry Cleaning‘s breakthrough debut LP with another collection of angular, indie-flavored post-punk woven together via Shaw’s dispassionate musings. In both gestation and execution, it’s tied closely to its predecessor and provides the same evidence that Dry Cleaning are truly an album band, one that makes the most sense where their songs are piled on top of each other like clothes in a wardrobe.
Here, as before, Dry Cleaning essentially play songs about London. Their London, like most other cities borne of the Western plague, is one long sprawling post-capitalist nightmare where every corner reveals another sutured wound from which the magic’s been sucked dry. Scattered throughout are bare moments of levity, humor, and even uncomplicated joy, but these are raised patches on a quilt stitched in gradients of anxiety and anhedonia.
It’s all a gray-beige din nonetheless enlivened by a band whose chemistry continues to astound, from Tom Dowse’s breezy guitar windings to the way Nick Buxton’s deft percussive backbone melds with Lewis Maynard’s multifaceted bass lines. They’re not showy, but even a modicum of attention reveals a bevy of clever compositional decisions that feel both organic and shrewd. Notice Buxton’s switch up between rim clicks and snare hits on “Kwenchy Cups”, Maynard’s funky wah-wah on “Hot Penny Day”, or how Dowse bends his chords sinisterly on introductory shuffler “Anna Calls From the Arctic”. When they come together, like at the crashing conclusion of “No Decent Shoes For Rain”, they reveal their knack for drawing pathos out of their combined effort. Additions of saxophone, clarinet, and keyboard also make the record feel a touch more cinematic and more thematically dense than its older sibling.
Shaw acts as both mountain and sherpa, guiding us through her world of candid observations even as she throws us off with one non-sequitur after another. The brilliance of her approach to writing lyrics comes down to her refusal to define her subjects while simultaneously zeroing in on the subtext behind their compiled mutterings. Take “Kwenchy Kups”, which could be a conversation between a child and a guardian or an inner dialogue between two mental constructs representing such. To Shaw’s credit, the song’s underlying tug-of-war between bubbly imaginativeness and tempered frustration fits both interpretations.
Whoever the people attached to her words happen to be, they live their lives perfunctorily. They throw parties and get crumbs in their beds and go on trips and sleep together and buy things, so many things. Stumpwork‘s first moment of clarity, on “Anna”, is tellingly dispelled by the arrival of something as pitifully joyless as a shoe organizer. “Hot Penny Day” starts with an urging to live near a boot fair of all things, and on “Don’t Press Me”, far too much attachment is imposed onto a gaming mouse. Brands specific and non-specific to the UK are name-dropped as if their mere presence were meant to insinuate associated memories and feelings. When Shaw professes, “I’m bored, but I get a kick out of buying things” in “No Decent Shoes for Rain”, it almost feels tautological.
That undercurrent of purchase-addled malaise comes to a head on “Liberty Log”, Stumpwork‘s finest song and an arguable peak in Dry Cleaning’s young body of work. Under Maynard’s miasmatic bass chords and Dowse’s sickly warped strums, Shaw practices lyrical restraint by orbiting pathetically around a couple of lines about Netflix programming. She describes a house party with the enthusiasm of a company function; in lines like “feeling free, feeling mobile”, the irony practically drips off her tongue. As her enervation progresses and the band builds to a mechanical shudder, “Liberty Log” sours into a claustrophobic nightmare that captures our self-destructive tendencies to build prisons of comfort. Even if the pandemic hadn’t happened, its power would still be notable.
Like New Long Leg, Stumpwork isn’t easily decoded on the first listen. John Parish’s production work needs some getting used to, particularly in how he treats Shaw’s vocals with a certain tinny harshness even as he pushes them to the front of the mix. Even outside of that, Dry Cleaning are still playing 1980s-era indie and languors in obtuse sprechgesang. But also like New Long Leg, Stumpwork is worthy of inhabiting completely and capable of rewarding multiple listens. Its final dictate, a word of advice about retaining your curiosity, feels like both a key and a trap, goading us to realize how hard it’s become to do so.