Church of Betty

Tripping With Wanda

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On the collaboration Tunnel Ragas, Church of Betty leader Chris Rael and tabla player Deep Singh created an extraordinary and intoxicating dialogue, an album of authentic Hindustani duets fully grounded in the exotic climes of Indian music. Prior to that, the band's woozy and poetic Fruit on the Vine magnificently split the difference evenly between their penchant for Eastern forms and pop/rock flourishes. While it often rocked, it wasn't, strictly speaking, a rock album. On Tripping With Wanda, however, Church of Betty tipped the scales decisively toward their rock & roll impulses, and in the process brewed the most hypnotic, potent, and delicious concoction of their decade-long existence. To be sure, Rael's sitar and Singh's fiery tabla playing still stand as the indispensable anchors of the combo's sound, and a half-dozen other imported instruments figure into the sum instrumental total as well; yet Tripping With Wanda explodes with arrangements and production that are considerably more muscular and Western than on any of the group's prior outings, while the band's playing is at its most powerful and vigorous. By this point, Church of Betty could be called a veritable electric big band, an ever-evolving collective (as the breathless, galloping "Ampersand" recounts) featuring some of the finest downtown musicians in New York. The album, in fact, is a teeming, messy document of the city. The music is crammed with life and vitality. It abounds with horn charts, cello, violin, and viola; guitars alternately grimy and ornery; and a perpetually roaring rhythmic pulse (Joe Quigley and Jonathan Feinberg, with Singh, really shine here), right down to the blazing James Brown cover "Down and out in New York City" (from blaxploitation classic Black Caesar), on which the band turns almost Tower of Power-like. With Rael's most exceptional set of songs yet, the album is by turns witty, celebratory, cutting, mystical, and romantic. It is the city as a cornucopia of enticements and delights -- sweaty, surreal, multicultural, and magical. And yet, dense and electric as it is, Tripping With Wanda finds Church of Betty as blissful and transcendent as ever. It conjures and cleanses, swoons and seduces. If otherworldly rock exists, surely this is as lofty as it gets. A rich, brimming, brilliant record.

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