Chris Rael / Deep Singh

Tunnel Ragas

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Chris Rael and Deep Singh are both members of the acclaimed New York City band Church of Betty, which, over the course of a decade's-worth of acclaimed albums, has conceived one of the most innovative mixes of Western (although not necessarily conventional) rock and pop with Indian classical and film music and other strains of traditional folk music from nations such as Nepal and Bali. Made to sell when the two play in the New York City subways as part of the Music Under New York program, during which they simply jam on sitar and tabla, Tunnel Ragas was literally recorded in the Lower East Side ("on a block that used to be dangerous," according to the liner notes) during one of these sessions. You can hear on the recording, among other things, subway announcements and cell phones going off, and on the final song, "Now Approaching Grand Central," an admirer asking if the duo has a CD out yet. Both men play a closetful of instruments, among them sitar, tamboura, zas, spirit catcher (all Rael), tabla, ankle bells, and dumbek (all Singh), and the music, as the title indicates, is at the most classically Hindi end of Church of Betty's sound. And this is anything but an instance of a couple of rock musicians "slumming" in the otherworldly realm of Eastern music. Both are studied Eastern players with as much feel for the crowded byways of Bombay and ethereal climbs of Nepal as they have for the concrete and alleyways of the city. There are melodies ("Subway Song," "Blood and Roses," which appeared in much different form on Church of Betty's 1998 effort, Comedy of Animals) on the album that, when listened to closely, are perhaps informed a touch by American and British pop. But by and large, this is an amazingly lush and indigenous set. The duo shows off a broad range of elasticity within the seemingly restricted format of raga, whipping the music into an electric, urbanized frenzy on some songs ("S.T.P.") while exhaling gentle, opium-hazed lullabies at other times ("Phoolan Devi," "You Broke My Antlers"). Singh's percussive work is nothing short of rhythmically hypnotic while Rael shows subtlety and poise through various tricky passes and ascending scales. Overall it is a very expressive set, particularly the start and stop flourishes of "All Mixed Up," the sly underworld propulsion of "Zasapalooza," and the mournful "Thanks for Calling." Definitely not a toss-off recording, Tunnel Ragas is at once pure, devotional, improvisational, and profanely urban, a fascinating listen whether it is a one-off effort by the duo or (hopefully) the first in a series.

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