At the time of this first album, Church of Betty was essentially a Chris Rael solo project. On paper, the concept behind West of the East may seem somewhat dodgy, but in execution it is frequently successful, often with wonderful results. Rael composed many of the songs and sound collages that make up the album, using as leaping-off points and spiritual anchors the field recordings (Buddhist monk chants, singing fieldhands and fisherman, street musicians from Kathmandu, etc.) that he had recorded or obtained the previous autumn during a journey through India and Nepal. Such an unprecedented songwriting technique could conceivably be mistaken for appropriation, but Rael's muse is so true to the intent and gravitas of the original indigenous sources that his pieces could almost pass for the real things themselves, were it not for the presence of some distinctly Western touches such as trap kit drumming on the wonderfully slinky "Mountain Rain Shadow" and the electric guitar and bass flourishes that spot the production throughout. He spins exotic, fractured melodies that maintain one foot in the art-rock world of the New York downtown avant-garde scene and one in the chiming traditions of the East, mostly balancing the two with uncommon skill, whether he is singing a lovely Ladakhi folk hymn like "Autumn" or expelling the disorienting medieval psychedelia of "Annapurna." Between those two extremes, Church of Betty strikes a transcendently unconventional but oddly accessible chord, not only because the music is played on instruments like sitar and Indian horns but also because it is true to both an age-old musical wisdom and the late 20th century milieu in which it originated. While the music itself is the main appeal, Rael's words are worth noting. One of the potential pitfalls of delving into seemingly mystical music is a tendency toward a hackneyed spirituality, but the Church of Betty mastermind is able to subvert and twist new age pablum into sharply observed truth ("Everyone has a private hell/But those flames keep us warm"). The atonal sound collages are perhaps the least successful element of the album, dipping too deeply into urban-style performance art (a tendency self-deprecatingly noted on "Whiny Art Song"). The West/East, art/folk mix would balance itself out on future releases. West of the East is certainly an exploratory effort and Church of Betty has not yet found its full footing here, but the project introduced a unique and luscious musical amalgam, and it makes for a gorgeous, if uneven, first effort.
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