“Depressing Jog Ends Well.” A story of personal transformation told in four words; also the title of the first single from DJAO’s debut album. A song with a title like that could end up as any kind of music; DJAO translates the tale into a slow-shutter-speed beat fugue. A minimalist, staccato piano line gradually falls apace with a cascade of ride cymbals and electronic drums. Reverb ebbs and expands as if slipping between a cavernous gymnasium and sound-dampened studio apartment. Footfalls in sharp relief up close, background smudged out of focus. The song imparts enough discreet information to establish a tiny world, fully formed. And it implies even more.
All of DJAO is built on implication, suggestion, negative space. It plays like a musical allegory of wei wu wei, the Taoist principle of action without action—which requires either a beginner’s grace or master’s patience to achieve. Alex Osuch, acronymed singer/producer/musician/writer behind the music, is closer to the latter, the album developed over the course of three meticulous years. During that time it fell in beside Osuch’s other musical projects and activities in Seattle’s literary scene, and so DJAO feels authored as much as produced, the result of planning, strategizing, and edited effusing. Music like this challenges what it means to be a writer: Writer of stories? Writer of songs? Yes and yes.
Like with a good novel, your primary sense picks up what’s there and your imagination fills in what isn’t. This is the active way of listening, though DJAO is just as useful as machine music, a secondary soundtrack to some kind of activity (like ambivalent exercise?). Osuch matches soul—the vocals, the rhythms—with intellect—the unique aesthetic concept—to create a sound that’s simultaneously engaging and challenging, alien and comfortable.
Similar to fellow Seattle electronic luminary Kid SMPL, AO works with plush, user-friendly sonic textures. Drum sounds are rounded, buffed smooth, shapes on the roadside half-obscured by fog and blurred by motion. Melodies, mostly provided by keyboards and vocals, are elliptic snippets. Osuch’s voice floats through the album reverbed into abstraction, syllabic sounds suggesting what may or may not be actual words. Is that hey love, come back you’re hearing in “Tan Jacket”? The first time I ever saw you in “The Last Time”? Sometimes it scat-sings, as on upbeat album opener “Good Morning.” On gorgeous closer “Can’t Make Music Forever (Juke Blues),” it dissolves into a hazy, angelic moan.
That voice is beguiling, and it sets AO apart from a lot of electronic music. It’s the most vulnerable, naked instrument. Osuch girds himself through digital obfuscation, then allows detail in pinpoint song titles like “Kitchen” and “Basement” and “Wood Grain.” But picking apart individual songs from DJAO is like choosing a favorite chapter in a book. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.