Old Time Relijun are in many ways the anti-White-Stripes, an authentic and healthy alternative to the snake oil that Jack White is selling. Arrington de Dionysio’s got a clunkier name than Jack, sure, and I’ll be the first to admit that “Old Time Relijun” is an awful band name in at least two different ways. Yet look at the similarities: both Jack and Arrington drink deep from American musical heritage (with special emphasis on delta-of-venus blues); both are also informed by proto-punk in its various manifestations; and both put on dynamite guitar-driven live performances which are difficult to recapture in the studio. Arrington, like Jack, projects an erotic moral-mystical aura that comes from his own spiritual wanderings (as well as a fascination and obsession with sex). The fact that Jack’s growing fatter while Arrington gets leaner demonstrates the benefits of diet and grounding: whereas the White Stripes keep laying down these slick junkfood records for music critics to bicker about, Old Time Relijun offer up some of that genuine dance-slimming Kickapoo Joy Juice every time out. 2012, OTR’s latest delivery of nerve food for the benighted, is both a dance party and a leg-tug into a murky undertow.
Unlike Ted Rall’s 2024 or Wong Kar-Wai‘s 2046 or Rush’s 2112, OTR’s 2012 has an odd and uncompelling reason for citing a future year as its title: the Mayan long-count calendar ends there. This either means December 21, 2012 will be the end of the world, or it’s the date that the Mayan gods abandon their experiment and take up another. In either case, Arrington de Dionysio has certainly conjured up a post-2012 soundtrack filled with empty highways and wolf packs crowding his door. The Old Time Relijun “formula”, such as one exists, is predicated upon the hectoring, growling, and panting of Dionysio backed up by a primitive-funky rhythm section of spare means but raucous sound. Bassist Aaron Hartman has proven himself the cave-Bootsy of the upright, and new drummer Jamie Peterson clearly knows the difference between the hucklebuck and the mashed-potato (not to mention the sister-ray). None of their records (least of all the astonishing Lost Light) has dared to forget that a funky beat is the source of all life, and here, where the end of the world is at stake, we get something to shake our ass and double-blend our brain.
The album fades in with a twitchy edge-of-the-woods dream-dance in progress — all overheard bass ‘n’ drums, and Arrington whooping it up to himself — whereupon the groove to “Chemical Factory” kicks in fast. The central riff may as well have been fished out of the Velvet-Devo trash bin (where else would you cadge great riffs these days?), and while Dionysio growls and warbles to Rapunzel along on her visit to the chemical factory, you can practically taste the butane. The tune moves in like that old cobra, a riff hits you, one-two two-one, over and again, and an ominous drone starts rising up over the clatter of rhythm: suddenly we’re Rapunzel devolved, chin dripping with chemical hearts, just some ten-thousand-year-old apes shagging and shaking the branches. It’s a stunner, this opening track: put in a request to your local college radio DJ if you need proof before you buy the record.
The followup track, “Los Angeles”, leaps over that peak. It’s an ode to the stalled traffic and rear-view visage Dionysio often encountered in L.A. when driving from one lover to the next (“Traffic is at a standstill / My heart is at a standstill.”). Here, with the rhythm section pushed way out front, Dionysio conjures up joy, resolve, and frustration in his spare guitar and that unhinged voicebox. “There is only one!” sounds like an ancient desert cry, even though it’s really an urban declaration of interdependence. And yes, Arrington’s voice does move upon the waters here. Some have compared him to Captain Beefheart, but to me he’s the perfect hybrid of Tom Verlaine and “I Gotcha”-era Joe Tex. The man’s larynx is childlike intuition bleeding into calculated lust, and you can tell he’s some sorta virtuoso when the rhythm catches him right. Part of what turns an artist into a rock’n’roll genius is being totally unembarrassed from the get-go, and Dionysio’s years of trilling and growling in the wasteland have trained him well.
The rest of the album skitters like a gecko up your bedroom wall. Kiss it and watch it turn into the dance record of your smoggiest dreams. Standout tracks include the self-explanatory “Your Mama Used to Dance” (imagine the consequences), “The King of Lost Light” (where the heartbeat is a lustbeat), and this feral narrative about wolves (“Wolves and Wolverines”) whose jittery horns are predicated upon the rapid eye movements in a very hungry nightmare (“Third wolf sees you, sees me, then walks into the night ”). These songs all spin you around in a fury jig with this ghost you ain’t never met, but later, in repose, they gaze back at you.
2012 is the second part of a projected trilogy which began with Lost Light, and as such it seems to presage an alien and unpredictable conclusion (hopefully including a dance apocalypse just like Prince used to channel). But we do get some self-indulgence here. Amorphous, organic excursions into the brush (especially jazzy ones) are not normally to my taste, but I will say that tracks like “Lions and Lambs”, “The Blood and the Milk”, and the sublingual jew’s-harp extravaganza “Tundra” have the effect of making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Dionysio does take this stuff very seriously, but I like to think the trickster heritage in his adopted name will take him over, and mold the clay of improvisation into something that swings.
2012 is a record that haunts and jumps and scatters, which I suspect was the band’s intent. I want to say it’s this year’s most “important” album, but that would be giving the game away. Clear some space for Satan and chubby Jack White with his cane and his triangular beard. But first let that skinny Arrington de Dionysio rock you in them Hanes boxer briefs, with the dream-rhythm of Aaron Hartman and Jamie Peterson tumescing you, replicating your red cells in somebody’s smoky basement. Get with me Satan.