Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has got to be the single most ignored region in the United States. I can’t tell you how disheartening it was as a child to be presented with a map of the country that had a gaping hole where my town should be. It’s been of some consolation that my childhood home has served as inspiration for two excellent recent albums: Sufjan Stevens’ 2003 masterpiece Greetings From Michigan and now Joshua Abrams’s after.
Abrams, a veteran of Chicago’s avant-jazz scene (most notably Town & Country) began this project by taking field recordings on the 4th of July in the U.P. towns of Copper Harbor and Escanaba. He then used these pieces to hang his minimalist experimental arrangements. The title track is built around the soft and steady flow of a creek bed, navigating crooked bass rapids and elliptical bells, before swelling mossy dissonance swallows all the natural sounds.
The true star of the disc is the follow-up, “Copper Harbor 3am.” It fulfills the liner notes’ promise to evoke “impending war and protest.” Abrams uses the erratic, rhythm-less percussion provided by a fireworks display as the backbone for a song cycle that sees a broken music box melody married to sustained, high tension notes, low wooden clattering and metallic insect mandibles gnawing. He manages to create a decent sense of foreboding as the various sounds exit and re-enter at increasing intensities. The song’s pinnacle comes when Abrams drops himself completely out of the mix and allows for a firework explosion “solo.” In the end, low key electronics and bells surrender to the second barrage of thundering fury. The ensuing cheers and honking horns of an approving crowd end the piece — one of disorientingly beautiful music — on a surprising note of optimism.
As with Greetings From Michigan before it, after does a better job of recalling the mood and ambiance that define Michigan’s Upper Peninsula than the crude ink boundaries drawn by an ignorant mapmaker ever could. Take that Rand McNally!
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