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Spotlight on: 2012 by Old Time Relijun

Cover of 2012 by Old Time Relijun Old Time Relijun, 2012

Old Time Relijun have definitely been an acquired taste for me. I first heard of them when I was doing research on Phil Elverum (Mount Eerie) and found out he was their drummer for a time. Though Elverum's (then "Elvrum") signature pounding was a draw, leader Arrington de Dionyso's raucous song delivery took some getting used to. (He occasionally indulges in Tuvan throat singing, which is a bit of a shock for the uninitiated.)

Experimental by nature, each of Old Time Relijun's albums are a little different than the last, but the identifying influence is always de Dionyso and his frantic musicianship -- too wild for these ears, as often as not. Someone must have given Arrington a chill pill because, two drummers later, things have calmed down a good bit. In addition, there is evidence of considerably more focus on 2012, a concept album of sorts which owes its title to the Mayan Long Count calendar's designation of the end of the world (on December 21st, to be exact).

The band has developed musically to the point where they now sound occasionally like other bands. (Before, they never sound like any other band, which can be a little disconcerting even to experimental listeners. A little assimilation is refreshing now and then.) For example, if I didn't know better, I would think that the opening of the first song, "Chemical Factory," was by labelmates C.O.C.O.. Old Time Relijun's rhythm section, long-time bassist Aaron Hartman and new drummer Jamie Peterson (ex- The Curtains) is a unified force in a way unseen in most music. In these days where most every individual wants to stand out, this duo is satisfied to lend stellar support in a way that ties all the disparate songs together.

A sequel of sorts to Lost Light (which gave some sign of things to come, with longer songs and more approachable subject matter -- and, apparently, began a trilogy of which 2012 is the second entry), that theme crops up in this album with the appearance of the King of Lost Light character in "Burial Ground," continuing three tracks later in "The King of Lost Light (reprise)." Both songs are tied together by the inclusion of another of de Dionyso's signature infectious biological refrains: "one red heart still beating." By the time you've listened to the album three or four times, I defy you to get that rhythmic hook dislodged from your brain.

Sometimes when de Dionyso brings out his saxophone (like on "Los Angeles"), you would swear you were listening to the reincarnation of Morphine until he makes it do strange things like squeaking -- although there's no doubt that he is in complete control of his instrument. On the album's closer, "The Blood and the Milk," he makes it sound like a digeridoo surrounded by an acid instrumental that sounds like something off one of my Iron Butterfly LPs. Another highlight (given that it, too, does not include the singer's mostly grating vocal stylings) is "Lions and Lambs," an improvisational piano jazz that producer Calvin Johnson has made sound like an old Art Tatum recording. If OTR ever released a fully instrumental album, they would have an instant fan in me. The music on 2012 is cohesive in a way that they've never produced before.

But don't think that this is a complete departure for the band. There's still plenty of weirdness on display lyrically and vocally to placate long-time listeners on songs like "Wolves and Wolverines" and "Reptilians." As usual, that album cover is not from this world and they're still a great dance band. "Your Mama Used to Dance" will make you want to do that kicking, head-turning thing Molly Ringwald does in The Breakfast Club, and it could be their ticket to mainstream success. 2012 has all the right qualities to please old fans and to garner plenty of new ones.

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