Very occasionally, buzz bands prove themselves worth the hype. Such is the case of 4AD Records' Dry Cleaning, a South London quartet who formed in 2018 and three long years later found themselves headlining a nearly full Neptune Theatre. They're part of the fourth or fifth (I've lost count) wave of post-punk that continues to lap at the shores of the above-average-IQ rock ecosphere, over 40 years after the initial cauldron burst in the UK. But first, let's discuss the openers, Seattle's Dreamdecay, led by powerhouse drummer/vocalist Justin R. Cruz Gallego, aka J.R.C.G.—who, by the way, releases a crucial album titled Ajo Sunshine on John Dwyer's Castle Face Records on Nov. 19.
While the pandemic's been a demotivating slog for many, Dreamdecay have spent the last 1.7 years becoming one of the Northwest's best rock bands. I mean, they've always been tight, but this set was on another level. A septet with two drummers (Gallego, Anthony Beauchemin), two saxophonists/synthesists (Jon Schied, Jason Clackley), guitarist (Erica Miller), and bassist (Alex Gaziano), and percussionist/sound engineer (Zac Hernandez), Dreamdecay revel in surprising dynamics in which thunderous rock and eerie drones underscore their overarching vibe: apocalypse soon. Many artists strive for this effect, but few do it with the gravitas and intensity it demands, as Dreamdecay does. There are no cartoonish gestures to mar the effect.
With saxophonist Jon Schied working disorienting wonders on analog synth, Dreamdecay came across like a mad collab between early-'70s Hawkwind and mid-'80s Swans while still sounding like an urgent response to 21st-century crises. Even when multiple members thwack cowbells, the atmosphere is more end times than good times. Throughout Dreamdecay's set, it wasn't easy to discern where songs ended and began, and that's usually the sign of interesting music. After their slot, the guy next to me, seemingly a Dreamdecay n00b, told his friend, "They're incredible! Am I out of the loop? Holy shit!" Truth.
On their breakthrough record, this year's New Long Leg, Dry Cleaning struck me as a demure Annette Peacock fronting the Fall or PiL or the Banshees. Florence Shaw's droll, detached recitation of a smart person's random observations—while drummer Nick Buxton, guitarist Tom Dowse, and bassist Lewis Maynard generate twitchy clangor—distinguishes Dry Cleaning from the earnest post-punk-revivalist hordes. As with the lyrics of Fall's Mark E. Smith, Shaw's piquantly mundane non-sequiturs pile up into a fascinating tower of babble. The standout line comes from radio favorite "Scratchcard Lanyard": "Do everything and feel nothing." You'll likely spend years in vain trying to derive meaning from them, but it's not like you have anything better to do.
Onstage, Dry Cleaning's male musicians make familiar rock moves while creating music of nonchalant relentlessness. By contrast, Shaw may be the least animated presence in a high-profile, contemporary rock group. Hunched, timorous, and rooted in front of the microphone centerstage, she moved ponderously and handled maraca, tambourine, and a device that looked like a Walkman as if they were made out of priceless crystal. You will not see a more desultory tapping of a tambourine in your lifetime—nor somebody shake a maraca while holding the gourd. Even if this is shtick, it's refreshing. Shaw knows she's not Joan Jett or Janis Joplin or Amyl and the Sniffers' Amy Taylor, so why not go for the meek-librarian steez? It's an improbable, attention-grabbing approach.
Dry Cleaning delivered steady-state pleasures with few variations, but their taut and tart rock has just enough rhythmic swerves and tonal spikes to keep the doldrums at bay. (The dude in the balcony who shouted "Very good!" after one song drew much laughter.) Dry Cleaning also have the sense to end their set after 55 minutes. We got the gist, gripped the vinyl, and bought the T-shirt.
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