Church of Betty

Comedy of Animals

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The fifth proper Church of Betty album is not only their finest to date, but perhaps one of the most self-confident East-West fusions ever. Some of Chris Rael's work with the Hand and Johnny Society has filtered into this newly resurrected version of the band featuring Jon Feinberg on drums, Joe Quigley on bass, and tabla player Deep Singh. In fact, Johnny Society's Kenny Siegal and Gwen Snyder are prevalent contributors to the album. Rael again plays a virtual cornucopia of instruments, from the conventional guitar and keyboards to sitar, trumpet, and vibes, and his flurry of outside work seems to have reinvigorated and redefined the Church of Betty concept. The music still shimmers with an abundance of Eastern elements -- complex sitar runs with Gregor Kitzis' violin-led countermelodies, Singh's exquisite tabla work, gymnastic vocal melodies -- and songs such as "Blood and Roses" and "Ordinary Boy" amply showcase Rael's total immersion in the musical culture of India as well as other Eastern traditions. He has internalized both the techniques and the feeling of the music, and it comes out brilliantly in his songwriting in a completely individual and personal way, even in what is for the most part a conventional pop tune like "Fallen Arrow." And that is a perfect example of how Church of Betty has continued to grow and expand its own sound. There is a stronger emphasis on Western-bred motifs, from the gorgeous slide guitar (more Duane Allman than George Harrison, it's interesting to note) that closes the folksy "The Hill" to the more structured songwriting and bold underpinning of bass and drums. In a sense, the band now almost seems to be refracting Western pop through an Eastern sensibility rather than the other way around. More jazz elements have seeped into the fold: complex interlocking melodies and occasional free jazz discordance, Rael's occasional almost-scat singing, the near telepathic playing that renders songs like "I Fly Tonight" surgingly funky. And then there is the unmistakable presence of brilliant rock bands (the Beatles, particularly, whose "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" is covered, and perhaps Traffic, if their early pop and later jamming tendencies were married) hovering over the music as spiritual forefathers, not to mention Prince, in the graceful falsetto Rael pulls off on "Onion." Comedy of Animals, though, even gives the best work of those giants a run when it comes to ideas per capita. On top of that, even more exotic elements -- the aboriginal didgeridoo of the funereal "Pound Cake" -- have been added to what is already one of the most exotic stews. It is a thrilling work, overflowing with vision.

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