album covers for Uno Lady's Alaska is a long stretch of ocean, and Waxfed's self-titled album is the artist's name on a white rocky surface
Uno Lady's "Alaska" (released in March, 2023) and Waxfed's self-titled album (released in April, 2023)
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The subtitle to Susan Rogers and Ogi Ogas’ new book is provocative: “What the music you love says about you.” Yikes. Don’t worry, though. “This Is What It Sounds Like” doesn’t proclaim you a simpleton for enjoying Top 40 music or scold you for your Blue Öyster Cult addiction. Instead, it offers a way of understanding just why you absolutely had to have that limited release Taylor Swift LP this past Record Store Day. 

Rogers is one of the foremost academics studying the way humans consume music, with street cred that’s virtually unassailable: She was Prince’s studio engineer. What she’s done here with Ogas is create a methodology for understanding what it is you like about music, along seven axes — authenticity, realism, novelty, melody, lyrics, rhythm and timbre — based on how our brains react to musical stimuli (it reads a bit like an extension of Daniel Levitan’s “This Is Your Brain on Music,” as she studied with him). 

As you might predict, not everyone’s brain reacts the same. Which means what one person considers “good,” another person considers “shit” — and both of them are right. I recommend it highly to anyone who considers themselves a “music fan.” While there will be any number of explanations that feel like Music 101, just about every chapter offers a legitimate “oh, wow,” moment. 

Particularly, the music world seems to be grappling most right now with this idea of authenticity. As recorded music has gone from the capture of live performance to the meticulous layered construction of digital creations, some subset of people have been repelled: Is anyone actually playing an instrument? Now, given things like the artificial-intelligence-created “hit” that passably mimicked a Drake-Weeknd collaboration, it’s fair to question whether new songs you’re hearing are any more than soulless digital creations. 

If you’re the sort of person with a brain that wants to picture each instrument being played, wants to have an idea of the performer in the room, music could quickly lose your interest entirely. A couple of new releases, though, offer a middle ground between the all-digital possible future and the all-analog past. 

Take Uno Lady, for example, and her newly released “Alaska,” the result of a residency at the off-the-grid solar-powered Chulitna Lodge, a wilderness retreat in Lake Clark National Park & Preserve. Here, Cleveland transplant Christa Ebert has captured field recordings of herself doing things like banging on a log out in the forest, or birds swooping past her tent at night, and remixed them digitally into background atmospheres, over which she layers what sometimes sounds like dozens of her own vocal tracks. Maybe there’s a bit of keyboard once in a while. 

Christa Ebert, who makes music as Uno Lady, in a photo in Alaska. Ebert recorded her new album at an off-the-grid solar-powered arts fellowship at Chulitna Wilderness Lodge in Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, Alaska. (Photo courtesy of the artist)
Christa Ebert, who makes music as Uno Lady, in a photo in Alaska. Ebert recorded her new album at an off-the-grid solar-powered arts fellowship at Chulitna Wilderness Lodge in Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, Alaska. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

The results are warm and organic, sometimes even catchy, as on “Today’s the Day,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Magnetic Fields album. Ebert’s lead vocal is lower register and resonant — “I’ll conjure up some urgency and mend all of the emergencies” — while a chorus of angelic vocals shimmer in the background, accompanied by bugs and birdsong, like Snow White wending her way slowly through the forest. Her vocal range is sorta bonkers. 

Her “Venn Diagram,” too, from the “Osmosis” album three years ago, is a delicious bit of indie pop, and she even covered Tom Petty in her early releases. But there’s always something subversive, something new and interesting in the way she constructs her recordings and releases. Her previous release, “Le Flux,” recorded largely in Switzerland and then edited here in Maine, features vocals that are lyricless, and more found sounds turned into beats. Only possible, really, with today’s digital recording techniques, it still manages to transmit an intimacy that should tickle that desire for authenticity.

The new Waxfed collaboration between veteran underground hip-hop producers DJ Mayonnaise and Mat Young works similarly, even if there’s hardly an organic sound to be found and only a single song features much by way of lyrics, thanks to a guest turn from Jesse the Tree. Mayo and Young were only even in the same room together once during what was something of a covid dalliance. 

Dedicated to the memories of DJ Stef, a renowned San Francisco warehouse DJ, and Alias, a fellow producer in the anticon set here in Maine, it’s hard not to hear their reverence for friends and colleagues past in the delicate beats and thoughtful sampling that infuses Waxfed’s self-titled debut — Mayo reports he had essentially retired from music until putting his home studio back together as a “sort of unconscious therapy for myself.”

The distorted guitar sound at the open of “The Button” is the lament of continuation, the melodic loop in the right channel like the joys you sometimes feel you don’t have the right to experience. “Clappers” offers an almost military beat, like a forced march, before a repeating windchime introduces half a vocal sample: “come on.” You can make it. 

Bits of bombast infuse the record as a whole, but they are often muted, pulled back, offered in contrast to something more meditative and thoughtful. This is a work that doesn’t need to impress you anymore — “ain’t no time for the dilly-dally,” as one sample in the finish insists. Like bop-style jazz, the intimacy here is supplied often by what’s left out, the spaces between, the measures that force you to supply your own emotions to fill in the blanks. 

Maybe you can’t picture them in the room, but you can understand what they’re feeling, and that’s something no machine will ever authentically do. 

Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].

2 Weeks, 5 Songs

Spose – “15 Years” | To celebrate 15 years since the release of his debut “Preposterously Dank,” Spose collaborates with GOD.DAMN.CHAN, who supplies a throaty and bottomed-out beat, to highlight the hits and look to the future. 

Borderlines – “How Many Hours” | The pop-punk four-piece preview their upcoming full-length debut this summer with a classic rave-up, with not just a melodic guitar solo, but a bit of bass interlude to boot. 

The Side Chick Syndicate – “The Truth” | It’s been out a few months, but don’t sleep on this song or the “Freak Mystique” EP it comes from, a super interesting mix of contemporary pop, heavy rap and disco that’s built for the dancefloor. 

Wilson Banjo Co. – “Holler” | In a revelation that might make some locals feel old, this is the video debut of the new project from banjo legend Carter Logan’s daughter Sarah, who fiddles and sings on this dark bluegrass number. 

J.Spin – “Sorry I’m Late” | Opening with “lemme shake the rust off,” this piece acknowledges it’s been too long since one of Maine’s most talented rappers has released new material, but he doesn’t disappoint, with a rolling delivery and a video directed by Sarah Violette as a bonus. 

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