Dave Aju seemed to arrive pretty much fully formed with his 2008 debut album, Open Wide. It’s even more impressive considering he made the album by sequencing sounds he made with his mouth. That it wasn’t tedious or browbeating was a feat to make the likes of Matmos and Matthew Herbert, both compelled to be concrète, jealous: Guided by a formal restriction, Aju’s music didn’t stop being the point, didn’t become secondary to the fact of its being made. A lipogram in every instrument, Open Wide had its own musical voice, and frequently allowed you to forget or disregard the rules behind what you were hearing if they weren’t serving you as a listener. For Aju, the mouth-sounds-only rule wasn’t a stunt, but a kind of liberating force. Not that the San Franciscan’s easygoing, funky house needed any liberating. “Fewer options, more freedom” is a hoary cliché, especially in his tech-glutted place of residence, but few musicians can actually deliver that to the listener gracefully. Serious Concepts — novel as they once were, with their art-world aura — are often a pretext for a musician to commoditize their futzing about with their workflow, overcoming writer’s block in public.
But what about the environing circumstances that impact musical production that one can’t choose? Aju is again working with constraints on his second album, Heirlooms, but they’re of much more a personal nature. Not that you’d be able to tell just from listening that Heirlooms is a tribute to the late jazz-trumpeter father Aju never got to collaborate with. For an album literally constructed from Aju’s inheritance — using sounds from half of his father’s record collection, plus rehearsal tapes and white labels recorded by his father’s band — it dwells pretty much exclusively in the present, musically and emotionally. It’s a little disconcerting, at first anyway, to put on an album you expect to be shaped by loss and nostalgia and to have those details immediately footnoted. The movement of the music is all you can really focus on, and for an album constructed out of samples, it sounds extremely cohesive, lacking the drum machine/synth/sampler interplay that gives so much dance music its dynamism. All the sounds you hear on Heirlooms appear to come from a single source, and even the few distant recognizable snippets of his father’s trumpet playing is coated in the same dusty glow as the thick groove themselves.
The mood isn’t elegiac, but celebratory. Reflection is in there, too, albeit nested pretty deeply in the music. Lyrics run toward the silly: oddball cosmic slop musings like “Fried ice cream / is a reality” and the unimpeachably Funkadelesque “To sneeze or snot to be.” Apart from those facts, it’s generally difficult to categorize Aju’s music because he’s one of those rare personality-driven producers that can appear self-indulgent without being self-indulgent at all. His take on house music has little to do with the current balkanized landscape. The bits of the album that don’t hold up as well to repeat listens are its busiest — “Ms. Reposado” and “Caller #7” come on strong, but Aju’s tracks are more rewarding when allowed to stretch out. The album’s final track, “Revealing,” is exemplary, evoking his father’s jazz with a woozy vibes melody and a miasma of semi-resolved chords while Aju teases out a rolling smog-sunset house bump. It’s 10 minutes long, but worth an hour of in-car replays, whether or not there are palm trees in your metro area.
Dave Aju may not be a particularly sought-out artist; this album, good as it is, probably won’t change that. But whatever circumstances surround his music and our hearing it, he’s figured something out that many musicians, particularly on the Internet, haven’t. I’m not sure what that is, exactly, apart from knowing himself and not losing sight of what makes music pleasurable for him. It seems like a humble accomplishment, but it is richly rewarding.