Musical identity. In some cities it’s something discernible and distinctive, filaments festooned from club to gig to rehearsal room to the record stores that feed our addiction. Manchester would be one of those places. Liverpool, perhaps; Glasgow. It’s something to do with scene, with focus, something that caresses (to recall my romanticized youth) those graceful silhouettes who circulate from town to town to erstwhile town, clutching nothing more useful than a pair of headphones and a 12” copy of Spiritualized’s ‘Any Way That You Want Me’.
And then there’s Birmingham. A not-insignificant urban vista, the type of city that frequently ends up as destination (at least if you’re me). But it’s also a city that’s kind of difficult – in terms of its aural focus – to get a grip on. As much as music scenes are disparate, often artificial and influenced by arbitrary elements such as time and the chance of location, certain cities flaunt their musical nuclei – the appreciation of a shared aesthetic, if you will. And yet I’m not sure if Birmingham has that; there’s obviously a wide spectrum of musical nuance going on, but there’s also an element of the scattered, an aversion of focus, and for a city that has a distinctive musical heritage (it could even lay claim to the origins of heavy metal), the first Brum-related track that comes to my mind is The Wonder Stuff’s sneering, clumsy lament ‘Caught In My Shadow’ – this town used to look big, this town used to look like a city, this town used to talk to me…
The flip-side to this sentiment is obvious if you’re a fan of clever, cinematic electronica. The mid-to late nineties saw an startling cross-pollination of the hip, sharp, and deceptively dark. Bands such as Broadcast and Pram released some fabulous records around this time, taking as a starting point Roy Budd’s 1971 soundtrack to Get Carter, then adding a sumptuous backdrop of analogue synth. This is music that reverbs within the confines of urban, retro imagination; critically acclaimed and mostly ignored by the public – well, that goes without saying – but these subtle and evocative statements are something I return to again and again. Postcards of a city taken in a different light, from a different angle.
I was reminded of Plone (whose début single appears below the words) thanks to Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone show on 6Music (always worth a listen; exotic, esoteric, contains treasure). A three-piece aligned to the Broadcast / Pram axis, they only released the one album; a record of dreamy and cerebral electronica, but also something defined by extraordinary implications of space – not fenced in by the concrete sweep of St Chad’s Queensway.
Plone / Press A Key