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|Main Category:||Prog Rock|
|Also applicable:||Lush Pop, Medieval Style, Jazz Rock|
|Starting Period:||The Artsy/Rootsy Years|
|Also active in:||The Interim Years, The Punk/New Wave Years, The Divided Eighties, From Grunge To The Present Day|
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Caravan were one of the leading acts on the so-called 'Canterbury scene', although even if you're familiar with the very notion of the 'Canterbury scene', this phrase alone won't tell you anything. See, the "Canterbury scene" is usually known for having jump-started the careers of quite a few notorious 'elite' art-rock bands, such as the Soft Machine, Gong, Caravan, and still later on, Camel and Henry Cow, yet all these bands have little in common besides usually having their music as 'inaccessible' as possible. The Soft Machine went into the avantgarde direction, Gong goofed out in a special complex psychedelic way, Henry Cow revelled in artsy dissonance... in other words, the hundred flowers of Canterbury were blossoming, yet it doesn't exactly ring a bell about what the music of Caravan should sound like to the actual listener.It should sound good - much of it. Out of all the Canterbury bands, Caravan were easily the most 'accessible'. Their music almost defiantly neglected the complex avantgarde jazz stylistics of their brethren, instead going for a majestic, organ-and-acoustic-based sound drawing on medieval influences as much as lush baroque musical tricks. In other words, while their 'compatriots' were exploring perilously dangerous depths of unlimited and occasionally silly experimentation, Caravan opted for a more 'normal' sound that was fully within the usual progressive rock limits. More than that, band leader Pye Hastings was notable for bringing in an almost dangerously (heretically, I mean) smelling 'pop' scent into the procedures, which eventually culminated in Caravan completely transferring to a 'baroque pop' image by the mid-Seventies. Yet what with all that, the band certainly had a clearly identifiable sound of their own. More meditative and relaxed rather than aggressive, more romantic and 'gorgeous' rather than dirty'n'heavy; the closest band they could be compared to would be Procol Harum, but with added medieval and folk overtones that Procol Harum lacked in their stately approach. It's too strange that Caravan never really found a mass audience - they hit their artistic peak in the early Seventies, right at a time when the popular interest in prog was at its peak as well, and their music, though complex and not that easily accessible, lacked all those "this passage may be effective but it's too simple, let us fuck it up some more" conceptions of the 'braver' prog-rock bands of the underground. My personal guess is that all of this is due to lack of gloss and gimmickry - Caravan never had a Genesis-like 'rock theatre' approach, nor the sturm und drang schtick of Jethro Tull. Nor, by the way, were they that good at creating solid poppy hooks the way Yes liked to do it - enticing audiences by offering them something light and catchy dressed up in ultra-serious clothes. Then again, to be honest, I don't really find Caravan's music to be ideal as far as artsy stylistics goes, either. Unique, yes, and even seriously influential - after all, there can hardly be any doubt that a band as popular as Camel were spurred into action by Caravan's first albums (and Camel actually found commercial success where Caravan never really achieved it). But there are a lot of problems to be found as well. Caravan's lengthy pieces, their main link with the prog world, are hardly as effective as the better lengthy pieces of Yes or Genesis - too often, the band simply went for intentional bombast and pomposity, with the same nice-sounding but not really all that memorable theme repeated over and over again. A lot of their early music can simply be qualified as 'atmospheric passages', which is not a good thing for a band that pretends to write dynamic prog stuff. It is pretty easy to get bored by a Caravan epic, indeed, especially if you first fall on lacklustre albums like If I Could Do It All Over Again... . Besides, the band always lacked virtuoso players - as is the typical situation with 'second-row' prog-rock bands, all the players were merely professional, and when you deal with the whole swarm of progressive rock bands, mere professionalism is a serious boredom-inducing factor when the player in question thinks that if he's professional, he can showcase his chops and get away with it. He can't. If I wanna hear chops, I'll put on some Steve Howe. (Steve Hackett was a great guy who actually realised that if you're not the absolute best at chops, then mere chops don't suffice - Pye Hastings didn't always seem to be grasping that moment of truth. Sorry for the endless comparisons, but that's the only way for us to get along). That said, Caravan members usually did have a strong feel for melody: on their best albums there's always plenty of excellently written stuff it's easy to go wild about. In other words, when the band wasn't just trying to prove to the world how they can compete with Bach and Beethoven, they were putting down some of the prettiest 'prog-pop' melodies to be ever heard - nice, gentle, emphasized by Pye Hastings' loving tender voice. This 'prog-pop' nature eventually led to the band slowly discarding their 'prog' roots and turning into a more straightforward 'symph-pop' outfit, much to the loyal fans' sorrow - yet those who aren't crazy about complexity and 'progressiveness' can find a lot to laud in Caravan's late period albums as well. All in all, the band's well worth getting to know - all prog bands are divided into those who have and who don't have a fantasy world of their own, and Caravan's definitely got one. A BIG one, too. Line-up: Pye Hastings - guitar, vocals; Richard Coughlan - drums; David Sinclair - organ, vocals; Richard Sinclair - bass, vocals. David Sinclair left, 1972, replaced by Steve Miller; Miller left a year later, temporarily replaced by David again, Richard Sinclair left, replaced by John Perry, bass; Peter Geoffrey Richardson added on viola. Perry left in 1974 or 1975, replaced by Mike Wedgwood on bass. The band collapsed in the early Eighties, but came together in the Nineties and is still moderately active from time to time, flooding the market with archive live releases and occasionally putting out a new studio album, too.
Listenability: 4/5. Lengthy
periods of boredom guaranteed, but Caravan have never really released anything
vomit-inducing. Besides, Mr Hastings eventually grew into a MAJOR hookwriter.
Resonance: 3/5. I have a hard time getting a cathartic feeling about Caravan's music. It often reeks of sterility, even if it IS pleasant.
Originality: 2/5. Caravan's uniqueness is a fact, but somehow when you keep thinking of what they actually DID introduce in this world...
Adequacy: 3/5. Pomposity killed the cat.
Diversity: 1/5. A Caravan song is immediately recognizable - even the difference between the band's 'proggy' and 'poppy' period is really blurred.
Overall: 2.6 = C on the rating scale.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1968
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11
Stern and solemn, drenched in oceans of stately organ sound, and hardly any melodies in sight! Chic.Best song: POLICEMAN or CECIL RONS
Track listing: 1) Place Of My Own; 2) Ride; 3) Policeman; 4) Love Song With Flute; 5) Cecil Rons; 6) Magic Man; 7) Grandma's Lawn; 8) Where But For Caravan Would I.
Well, whaddaya know. Caravan's first album effectively dismantles the very essence of the term 'Canterbury scene' - now that it unites Soft Machine, Gong and Caravan, there's no meaning to the term but strictly geographical. Where the Soft Machine, from the very beginning, headed for avantgarde and jazzy/modernistic experimentation, and Gong went straight away for fairy-tale funny trippy psychedelia, Caravan took an entirely different way, even if most of the members of the band had actually played together with Soft Machine just a year before.Simply put, Caravan's debut is a magnificent record if we speak in purely atmospheric terms. At this point, at least, the band members (most notably guitarist Pye Hastings, who wrote most of the stuff) didn't care much about distinctive melodies or hooks. Instead, they go for a most monotonous, slow, sludgy sound that never seems to proceed from point A to point B - it just flows on missing all the possible points. In other words, it's not the results that are interesting, master, it's the process. And certainly I could just dismiss the record as a bunch of useless stuff if all this wanking wasn't so hypnotic. It's a stately medievalistic/folksy groove that seems to borrow equally from Traffic and Procol Harum, and yet it's different. It's not as quirky or lightweight as the stuff by Traffic: all the instruments are so dang HEAVY on the move, with crashing drums, fat, thick rhythm chords, metallic bass, and, of course, layers of glossy organs that the guys really end up sounding like a caravan, and a caravan of elephants and mammoths, I dare say, rather than your normal camel thingie. On the other hand, it's denser and darker than the sound of Procol Harum - dunno why, but most psychologic associations I get out of this thing are real unhappy ones. Must be the leaden basslines. And yeah, the organ, of course. There are simply no guitar solos on the whole thing; Hastings sticks strictly to rhythm. All the other work is done by organist David Sinclair, and oh does he pack a whallop. Overdubbed, double-tracked, in the background, in the foreground, these organ patterns are truly excellent, and David isn't even a speed technician a la Keith Emerson - he's more of a stately economic player like Matthew Fischer, but a bit more experimental in nature. You may not remember these actual songs, but sometimes it's just a bit of pure joy to take a listen to all this soloing stuff. That's not to say that the record consists exclusively of organ wankery - there's only one lengthy track, the concluding 'Where But For Caravan Would I'. All the other songs are quite reasonable in length, and some are moderately catchy. There's no concept or general philosophy to the album, and Hastings' and others' lyrics aren't supposed to be tremendously meaningful, but they're okay, ranging from mildly nonsensic to mildly melancholic to optimistic ('Place Of My Own', for instance, according to Pye himself, deals with his finally finding a new flat). One thing I'm not pleased with is Pye's voice: there's a funny excerpt in the liner notes about how Caravan wanted to sign a contract with Island Records, and the guy out there listened to their demo tape and said something like 'I like the band but who is the crap singer'. Well, er, ahem, I can't say I agree with him completely, but I sure understand him. When Pye is slightly drowned out by other instruments, it's not a problem, but when he's mixed clearly upfront and moreover tries to achieve extra expressivity ('Ride'), the results can be totally disastrous. Still, never mind all the problems, just concentrate on the grooves. Two songs stand out for me from all the pleasant, but monotonous atmosphere: 'Policeman' is a funny little pop ode to law enforcers which uses a wonderful Beatlesque vocal melody twist ('we can see you creeping Mr Poli-i-i-i-iceman'), and 'Cecil Rons', which begins as a particularly scary little nursery rhyme, develops into a glorious celebration of nonsense, replete with horrifying screams and a totally nutty organ part the likes of which you ain't never heard. 'Love Song With Flute' is definitely a highlight as well, not because it's particularly memorable, but mainly because it milks the 'stately' vibe to an even higher effect. There is a gentle, gentle, gentlest of the gentle of solo flutes on there indeed. The rest of the songs I won't be discussing in particular - like I said, take a steady, easy-flowing fat-sounding rhythm track, throw on moody organ lines and funny vocals, and that's it. One thing's for certain: in 1968, at least, this was a unique sound, a sound that managed to be even more majestic and 'heavyweight' than the one developed by Procol Harum but equally unpretentious and adequate. Adequate, because these guys really knew their stuff - you can easily tell by listening to, say, the ominous jam on 'Where But For Caravan Would I' that these guys were no slouches and knew their bag of folksy and jazzy tricks quite well. The fact that they simply refuse to be flashy and show-off-ey (like Procol Harum) certainly adds to the general monotonousness, but on the other hand, guess what? It saves them possible accusations of flashiness and showoffiness. Unlike, say, ELP. The bad news, then, is that this LP has been long out of print and as far as I know, was re-issued only recently; in fact, legend has it that the band itself has almost forgotten about its existence - Pye, at least, has been quoted as saying that "my copy, and we were allowed only one copy each, has long since vanished", so he couldn't even remember particular info about any of the tracks. Oh dear, oh dear, how can we be so negligible towards our own work? Just look at me - you can wake me up in the middle of the night and I'll be able to quote you everything I wrote two years ago about King Crimson's Live At Capetown, 1977. Ha! Ha! I was kidding you! King Crimson NEVER had a Live At Capetown, 1977 album! That concert wasn't even bootlegged. Ha! Ha! Kidding you again! King Crimson never even played Capetown in 1977! How could you be so stupid not to have known that? HA! HA! Actually, King Crimson were DISBANDED in 1977! Betcha didn't even get your rock chronology straight! Say, this used to be a Caravan review, didn't it? Guess all the organ noodling just requires some half-assed humour to relieve the tension...
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1970
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10
They got a nice sound going, but the jazziness is really superfluous.Best song: IF I COULD DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN, I'D DO IT ALL OVER YOU
Track listing: 1) If I Could Do It All Over Again I'd Do It All Over You; 2) And I Wish I Were Stoned/Don't Worry; 3) As I Feel I Die; 4) With An Ear To The Ground; 5) Hello Hello; 6) As Porteri 25; 7) For Richard.
Tee hee, gotta love those smutty titles. Never mind; the important thing is, Caravan's second album is almost universally proclaimed to be an improvement over the debut and one of the band's pinnacles. Not to my ears, though. What my ears are able to discern is that on their second album, Caravan drifted off into a somewhat different direction, and while that might have been enough to gain a huge support from prog fans worldwide, it's exactly the direction that I don't like prog bands to take: namely, making things more complex for complexity's sake.First of all, the songs now grow long. And I mean long - the majority of the album is taken up by three 'mini-suites' with separate part titles and lots and lots of instrumental passages. Second, the stately majestic organ-drenched medieval atmosphere of the debut somehow vanished into thin air; amazing, seeing as how it would eventually work its way back into the band's sound, but for now, they sack it in favour of a jazzier, somewhat more 'playful' approach. Lots of sax and diddly diddly playing guitars (you know what I mean, don't you?), jazzy time signatures and stuff - apparently these guys decided to somehow justify the 'Canterbury rock' tagline. Doesn't work, really. Too often, I get the feeling they're just showing off: I could count the memorable melodies on this record without having to use my second palm. Essentially, the album is only saved by the fact that I can't deny it some atmosphere - if you're searching for a bit of soul and spirit, it's here all right, it's not just a bunch of jazzy guys who consider themselves above playing emotionally-oriented music. There's still a lot of sadness, introspectivity, majesticity, whatever: If I Could... can work as decent background music if you really want to dedicate yourself to that kind of sound. And they're still going strong in their "uniqueness", although, to be fair, some parts of this album don't sound much different from contemporary King Crimson wank-offs, and both Yes and Genesis were already on their way to the top. Unsurprisingly, my two near-runners for the title of 'best song' are the two shorter tracks. The title track is jazzy, avantgarde jazzy even in parts, something that would be quite fit for Soft Machine. But it's all based around an energetic and interestingly constructed riff and witty vocal harmonies intricately entwined around it, with a lively keyboard/guitar break to spice things up. For me, it works as one of those 'Zen-style incantations' that should be appreciated for their very weirdness and bizarredness if such a thing is possible at all, see Gentle Giant's 'Knots' for instance. However, it's also a very untypic track for the album - nothing else on here can boast the same 'lightweight', almost ridiculous atmosphere. The second track, then, is radically different, but it's also untypic for the album. That's 'Hello Hello', the record's only more or less straightforward venture into medieval-folk stylistics with an intriguing mystical tale to boot. Not the most memorable thing on earth, but pretty solid by the record's standards. I also love Sinclair's organ tone on this thing - granted, he uses it in a lot of other passages here as well, but the riff-solo of 'Hello Hello' is the most impressive bit. And supposedly that's it: no matter how much I listen to the lengthy monstruous suites, I just can't make head or tails over 'em. Atmospheric and supposedly meaningful (well, how can a song entitled 'And I Wish I Were Stoned' not be meaningful? You tell me!), but displaying a tremendous lack of ideas, if you axe me. There's ONE big idea on here - 'hey guys, we know how to make our brand of music, let's make our brand of music, then'. Take the fifteen-minute megalithic horror of 'For Richard', for instance. Its full name is 'Can't Be Long Now/Francoise/For Richard/Warlock', but who cares? The first three and a half minutes are just slow 'atmospheric' (god how I hate this word already) noodling, with lazily strummed guitars and idly puffed flutes that don't go anywhere and don't do nothing. Then, all of a sudden, there's this sharp, thrilling keyboard riff that breaks in and you utter a sigh of relief - the guys start to rock! And then it suddenly loses all the sharpness and the thrill after about five seconds and you get an endless mid-tempo keyboards/sax jam that just bores everything that can be bored out of me. Lengthy improvised sections that never know when to stop and all sound basically the same - definitely not the kind of thing that's supposed to work in a respectable prog band. Unless you dig in the groove, but seriously, I don't even know why you should, as Hastings' and the others' playing style aren't all that unique. Pye does get a little bit more involved in soloing, though, and his solos are good: soaring Gilmour-ish guitar parts that are just as emotionally strong but more minimalistic and less cliched in their essence. But again, there's not that much of 'em. The two other lengthy monsters aren't any better - I vaguely remember that I enjoyed Hastings' vocal sections on 'And I Wish I Were Stoned' just fine, while they were one, but one thing that song never possessed in the first place was a solid vocal hook. Just... nice singing, nice playing. Everything NICE. NICE guys. Well, no more Mr Nice Guys then. In the end, if it weren't for the vibe and Hastings' having developed a very nice, warm vocal tone, I would have given this album even less than I gave it; as it is, it's a very weak ten. And I really can't get it into my head how this album can get that much respect; I suppose it's some kind of a Wind & Wuthering syndrome - the record goes for a 'grand' feel with complex song structures, lengthy suites and pompous arrangements, but never really has that much melodic substance. And of course, the latter thing isn't that important for diehard prog fans. At least the tones these guys work out on the album are far more soothing than Banksynths, but that's small consolation if you take the album on its own. Extra points for the pretty pretty album cover, though. I love nice forest groves like these.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1971
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 13
Caravan's great visionary masterpiece - just a bit monotonous in places.Best song: WINTER WINE
Track listing: 1) Golf Girl; 2) Winter Wine; 3) Love To Love You (And Tonight Pigs Will Fly); 4) In The Land Of Grey And Pink; 5) Nine Feet Underground.
SO MUCH better - the first side of this album is the best side Caravan ever put out. They add that simple little ingredient that was so sorely lacking on the previous album, and that is... a definite direction. The album screams 'progressive!' out of every second pore, and 'otherworldly!' out of every first one. Just look at the album cover if you don't believe me, and the title, of course. On here, Caravan really start taking you places, to that fantasy world of theirs that's just as distant from life's basic problems as the fantasy world of Yes or Genesis, but is far less pretentious and fettered by pseudo-philosophic bull like the first and far less gloomy and pessimistic than the second. And it works!Everything is improved. Hastings finally emerges as the pop-vocal-melodymeister that he is, and his vocals have never been better; the singing on some of the tracks alone is enough to endear the record to A++ degree. The instrumental parts are sharper and more distinct; Sinclair employs crystal clear shrill organ tones that add up to the songs' atmospheres, and they steer clear of the jazzy pointlessness of If I Could. And there's enough humoristic and innocently lightweight notes on the album - first side, at least - to compensate for the more 'serious' material. More 'serious' material that includes two gorgeous epics, 'Winter Wine' and the title track. The title track must have blown many a young mind away with its haunting escapist theme, the beautiful folkish acoustic rhythm track, the dreamy organ solo and especially those weird little brr-brr noises in the instrumental section. What's that supposed to be? Pink hippopotamuses? Whatever, 'Winter Wine' is even better, unless you get offended by the standard medieval imagery in the lyrics. A little faster and a little bit more compact, with Richard Sinclair totally revelling in his role of a minstrel as he raises and drops his voice going through several different emotional nuances while pledging his illusionary troth to somebody from (obviously) Arthurian times. The best moment comes when Dave hits the organ keys; why the heck couldn't Kansas ever deliver such a sharp and hard-hittin' solo? They were 'pros', weren't they? The 'lighter' stuff here in the meantime includes 'Golf Girl', a hilarious cozy little single about how the protagonist 'chanced upon a Golf Girl selling cups of tea'. Nothing special, but somehow there's a charming Lewis Carroll atmosphere about the song that only serves to confirm Caravan's status as a "progressive band for nice-tempered lunatics". I'm not one of them, of course, but then again, you can never tell for sure... There's also 'Love To Love You', an unabashed three-minute pop song that could have been a hit on teenage hit-parades in the land of grey and pink. Too bad they never got to introducing it there. All in all, four excellent numbers with beautiful instrumentation (did I mention the trumpet and Mellotron on 'Golf Girl'?) and plenty of emotional response if you're the right client. They can sound a bit samey, true, but I wouldn't expect Caravan to ever be diverse. Now where does the second side take us? This is serious matters: a twenty-two minute-long nine-part suite, subtitled 'Nine Feet Underground' and sounding just like the first side, only a tad worse. Let's put it this way: it still sounds visionary and breathtaking, but once the first side is over, you'd expect the band to take you in a slightly different direction, and there's very little in the 'suite' that hasn't already been said in 'Winter Wine' and 'Golf Girl'. It's a sheer aural delight, for sure, but... but... then again, let us not forget that the only progressive rock band to fill up an entire side with one 'suite' before Caravan were King Crimson with 'Lizard' (ELP's Tarkus came out one month after Caravan's album), and that wasn't exactly a perfect example. It's still nice to hear the guys jam on the 'Nigel Blows A Tune' part, with a tight tight rhythm section and rip-roaring guitar and organ solos ("rip-roaring" in the Caravan manner, of course, not that they were stepping on Hendrix's toes or anything like that). And heck, the last six or seven minutes of the tune are absolutely great as well... Richard singing yet another gorgeous dreamy melody, this time drenched in melancholy and nostalgia, before it suddenly swoooshes away and is replaced by a magnificent hard-rocking coda. Note, by the way, how many vocal parts Sinclair has on here - I, in fact, thought most of them were actually Pye singing before I was corrected on that. Actually, their voices are pretty similar except that Pye tends to usually rely on his sugary falsetto, as on 'Love To Love You'. Actually, you caught me on the brink of thinking whether it's a nine or a ten, and in the end I'll have to go for a ten. A well-deserved one, too, even if For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night is absolutely on par and maybe even slightly better in some respects. Let's not slit our throats over details, Caravan were a pretty consistent band for the major part of their existence, and the 10 for this album is perfectly justified. The conceptual power and sheer emotional resonance of the album really blow me away, and thus I'm ready to forgive any kind of slight nuances or even a bunch of somewhat boring minutes of the second side - it's a terrific progressive album even for a year rife with terrific progressive albums, it easily stands its ground against The Yes Album, Aqualung, Nursery Cryme, and Tarkus. Buy it today and do the world a favour by not spending money on the Backstreet Boys.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1972
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12
Attempting a rockier sound by adding jazzy personal. The atmosphere rules.Best song: WATERLOO LILY
Track listing: 1) Waterloo Lily; 2) Nothing At All/It's Coming Soon/Nothing At All (reprise); 3) Songs And Signs; 4) Aristocracy; 5) The Love In Your Eye/To Catch Me A Brother/Subsultus/Debouchement/Tilbury Kecks; 6) The World Is Yours.
Dave Sinclair left the band - temporarily, as it later turned out - which resulted in a radical shift of attitude for Caravan, but only for one album. With the addition of Steve Miller on keyboards, Hastings felt a stimulus to lead the band in a somewhat different direction; most people call it 'jazz-fusionish', but that's a bit far-fetched, I think. In fact, I was pretty scared initially that the whole album might be dedicated to saxophone wankery exercises, something like Jack Bruce's Things We Like, you know, particularly since Steve Miller had a vast jazz background indeed, plus he also introduced a whole company of guest studio musicians such as his brother Phil Miller on guitar, Mike Cotton on trumpet and Lol Coxhill on soprano sax.Fortunately, Hastings had enough good taste not to strip the band of its initial feeling of purpose. Most of the stuff on the album is entirely listenable, and the overall emphasis is not on technical prowess but rather on energy and power this time around. As usual, there are lots of lengthy unmemorable instrumental passages, but in a certain sense, they're actually much better than before, because where Dave Sinclair opted for 'beauty', which is a great concept but often unreachable in practice, Miller opts for 'power', and while 'power' is generally easier to obtain than 'beauty', it also means that Waterloo Lily has a better chance of success. Curiously, though, most Caravan fans tend to regard the album as a relative failure, a sort of throwaway deal in between two of Caravan's masterpieces. The only reason I can see for that is also the most obvious: Waterloo Lily is the least 'formulaic' of the first five Caravan albums, and so people who love Caravan for their usual schtick might be somewhat put off by this stuff. 'Meandering', 'boring', 'senseless', all these epithets that I've heard directed towards the album, are entirely understandable if we realize they come from people lulled by Hastings/Sinclair/Sinclair's 'gorgeous' medieval-based style. I actually can be lulled by it too - sometimes - but it doesn't mean that I instinctively reject anything else tried out by these guys. And Waterloo Lily, in particular, seems to me to be at least significantly more entertaining than If I Could... . There's not a single track on the entire album that I'd want to dismiss entirely. Don't just bypass this sentence! It's not often that I say things like these about 'second-row prog band' albums. Even the best of these usually have a song or two that don't contain any outstanding ideas. So how could you people say Waterloo Lily is meandering when it shows a band concentrated as never before? Let's do it track by track - relax, there's only six of them, and they're all worth the bother. The title track is an obvious highlight, no doubts about that. A set of really hard-rockin' riffs, a vocal melody that defines 'catchiness', and Hastings' ever-improving vocals. And an instrumental section where Mr Miller uses sharp, shrill organ tones, completely wreaking havoc on the poor instrument. Dang it, I love when a jazz musician employs the wah-wah pedal on his organ. In fact, the wah-wah pedal is definitely the greatest invention in the history of mankind. Take anything and put in a wah-wah pedal, and you get yourself aggression and anger where you could never expect to get it in the first place. Why don't people use the wah-wah pedal more often? Because that would lead to World War III. 'Nothing At All' is just a blues-rock jam. But wait... just a blues-rock jam? It's excellent, with imaginative guitar parts, moody blues piano, and a great fat throbbing bassline to hang it all upon. And then in the middle it goes into the beautiful 'It's Coming Soon' piano interlude for a couple of minutes. Granted, maybe they could have made it a couple minutes shorter, but I'm not really complaining. Even when my attention says 'Beat it' and skips forward to the dust gathering on my monitor screen, the song still functions as first-rate background music. Next come two short luvvingly short luvvingly pretty Hastings 'poppy' numbers. 'Songs And Signs' isn't TREMENDOUSLY memorable. It doesn't jump out of the darkness grabbing you by the collar and shoving a melodic dagger in your back. Instead, it just kinda pats you on the shoulder and says, 'here am I, a pretty soothing melody to calm you down and deliver you from your worries'. Hastings' falsetto is delicious on that one, and while some people might freak out at the combination of his romantic folksy vocal melody with the jagged cynical little organ solo from Miller, I find the contrast, well, er, really contrastive. Which is a good thing. The faster, boppy 'Aristocracy' used to confuse me all the time before I understood that the main vocal part had been lifted by Hastings off the Kinks' 'Lola' (probably unconsciously - wouldn't want Pye sueing me behind my back), and then nothing was stopping me from liking the song any more. The biggest problem I have with the album predictably lies in its longest track, 'The Love In Your Eye' (and all of its subsequent parts). Actually, the main melody is excellent, particularly the chorus with its sweeping (sorry for a generic epithet, but my knowledge of the Roget thesaurus really sucks as of now) strings - but the instrumental sections are just a wee bit less appealing, aka less powerful, than the parts on other tracks, and that's a minus: after such an awful lot of first-rate instrumental noodling on the previous tracks, anything less than 'spectacular' on the supposed magnum opus of the album looks fishy. Still, Miller is mostly good on the track anyway, and then the main theme reappears at the end, so count me happy as I slowly drift towards the album closer, the happy goofy folksy rave-up 'The World Is Yours'. A fun closer. And as the last song gets chewn up by my horrible logical processor, out pops a strong nine rating, almost a ten if it weren't for some minor flaws and a naggin' feeling that it would be a bit too strange to give a 10 to an album that's maybe the least typical of all Caravan output. In any case, the word's leaked out to you, so now make your conclusions yourself. Or maybe you're just an art lover, and you'd like to buy the album for its William Hogarth painting? Why not?
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1973
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12
Bringing a nice homebrewed-rock scent into the medieval stylistics. Ring a bell?Best song: C'THLU THLU
Track listing: 1) Limits; 2) Memory Lain, Hugh/Headloss; 3) Hoedown; 4) Surprise Surprise; 5) C'Thlu Thlu; 6) The Dog The Dog He's At It Again; 7) Be All Right/Chance Of A Lifetime; 8) L'Auberge Du Sanglier/A Hunting We Shall Go/Pengola/Backwards.
Caravan's fifth release is, I suppose, kinda better than could be supposed for a band with such a limited formula. In fact, so much better that it's easily one of their absolute best (and most probably the most representative album of theirs as well - showing traces of all the minor styles the band used to tackle). And not just because of the title, or because it pictures a pregnant girl on the gatefold cover (not to mention that the girl in question was originally to be pictured naked, and only Decca's stark "no" sufficed to push back the conquered liberties). The album was recorded in the wake of more severe personnel change - this time, keyboardist Steve Miller was out, and so was Richard Sinclair, one of the band's founding fathers. And, although Miller was hastily replaced for a short stint by the returning Dave Sinclair, and a bunch of other guys was also picked out to give the band some "spatiousness", there's no question that For Girls is essentially a Pye Hastings show throughout - he writes all the tunes but a few parts of the closing epic.More so, this is supposed to be one of Caravan's most guitar-heavy albums. Granted, the guitar was always audible on Caravan records, but in their verve to play that stern 'mild-Goth' sound, Caravan always relied extensively on keyboards; this is the first album where the keyboards are subdued by Hastings' guitarwork. No, no, I don't mean "guitar wanking" - it's not the solos here that impress you, it's the riffage and the rhythm playing. The solos are, in fact, the weakest spot, by the book guitar/organ/violin instrumental passages that lack any imagination whatsoever. To appreciate the album, one has to dig in Hastings' playful melodic rhythms and the cute "medieval pop" songwriting. Most of the album feels very 'light', optimistic romantic ditties that are extremely easy-going and totally endearing. Stuff like 'Surprise Surprise', for instance, which almost serves as the blueprint for half of Camel's entire recorded output. Or the controversial 'The Dog, The Dog, He's At It Again', that starts as a light pleasant piffle and then slowly progresses up towards a magnificent chorale crescendo carrying you away with it... one thing you gotta realize is that the lyrics are really really gross. "Lonely girl, would you like a sweet to eat?/I've got something that I'd like you to hold/And my brother will tell you that it's good for your cold/So, there, surely there is nothing wrong/Take my hand and we'll try to make a stand/For all censorship, decency, all night long'. And once you understand what that mighty chorus is actually singing about ('Medicine gone, it's coming on strong, it's coming on and on and on' - eh???), the song will take on a whole new life. Turns out Pye Hastings could be even dirtier than Bryan Johnson, the bastard. Still a great song, of course. On one number, though, Hastings drops the cheerful playfulness and presents us with a fully-developed soul-chilling thriller - 'C'Thlu Thlu', with an unforgettable ominous bass riff and perfectly placed blasts of ethereal synthesizer creepiness, as well as tension-decreasing faster passages that make for some nice contrast. Seeing as the song comes in between the two previously mentioned "lightweight" numbers, one could probably say there's enough mood diversity on the album to... well, enough diversity for me to have something to write about. God bless the Internet and the stream of conscience thing. However, I see I still haven't mentioned the actual 'rockers'. There are some pop rockers on here, to be sure, like 'Hoedown', which to me seems like a fast-paced country song in pop-rock drag. It doesn't sound much different from the far better 'Memory Lain, Hugh' either; far better, because the latter has a tighter-established groove. That riff ALMOST sounds like something Judas Priest wouldn't have refused in their earliest stages: monotonous, compact, memorable, and so unbearably mid-tempoish it would kill all you hardcore lovers. Of course, the Priests would have played it in a much harder way, but come on now, it's not the hardness that matters. You can make a heavy metal anthem out of anything. Look, this album is hardly what you'd call "absolutely classic". Pye Hastings, the guy, he's all right but he just doesn't have genius, like, I dunno, like Jeff Lynne, for instance. He's got professionalism. Taste, he's got lots of taste. (Okay, those endless lollipop references in 'The Dog The Dog' might testify against that statement, but let's just pretend we never figured out those references). He can make some good riffs and he can make atmosphere, and he even can make some hooks, technically, oh yes he can. But the problem is, this is definitely one album that'll never make me cry. Especially if we consider the standard prog lover's usual favourite on the record - the ten-minute long instrumental epic suite 'A-Hunting We Shall Go', with all of its endless subdivisions. It's got a good orechstrated finale, but I suppose it's mostly good just because it's grandiose. And you know better than me that millions of lame progressive bands knew how to make things 'grandiose', but only a handful of them knew how to make 'grandiose' things really thrilling and imaginative. This suite, for the most part, just bores me. It's better than your standard Kansas piece of mush, because it's fresher and has all those guitar bits fading into those keyboard bits and mixing with the orchestral bits, but it's far from masterpiece status. But, oh wond'rous fate, the album is still good! When you judge a prog-rock record, the prime criterion is: "Where does this stuff take me?" You're supposed to be taken somewhere, you know. If, say, Tales From Topographic Oceans actually takes you to the realm of topographic oceans, you'll be able to forgive the album any faults... me, I must confess that Tales mostly take me to the realm of indigested watercourses, but not so with this album, which does have a cool medievalistic mood, like any good Caravan album should, and places me directly inside a tenth century forest or so. Apart from the "grande finale", which so unwisely dispenses with the humbleness and "easy charm" of everything else.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1974
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11
Orchestra goes well with Caravan. I guess you could predict that.Best song: THE LOVE IN YOUR EYE
Track listing: 1) Introduction; 2) Mirror For The Day; 3) The Love In Your Eye; 4) Virgin On The Ridiculous; 5) For Richard.
Unfortunately, I only own the original 'short' version of the album, put out as a 'memento' for Caravan's noteworthy performance of some of their material together with the New Symphonia Orchestra at the Drury Lane Theater on the 28th of October, 1973. The old one captured most of the orchestrated part of the gig, but there's currently a new 'expanded' version available which adds an entire first half of orchestra-less material, mainly from For Girls..., and also adds one last orchestrated encore ('A Hunting We Shall Go') which was omitted from the original version due to either lack of space or some weird engineering mishaps during the performance. Or maybe both. Anyway, the new version is probably the one to buy, but the most important stuff, naturally, is captured on the old one, so this still counts as a valid and self-sustained review.This is actually one more link between Caravan and Procol Harum - obviously, this album is 'modelled' after Procol's famous 1972 Edmonton Symphony Orchestra experience, and indeed, out of all art-rock/prog bands the music of these two is perhaps the most appropriate choice for orchestration, as it is based on classical patterns rather than on hard rock or jazz or pure medievalistics. Interestingly enough, another connection is in that both bands actually felt pretty nervous about the experience; neither Procol nor Caravan had enough time to rehearse and arrange the material, and neither band was particularly happy about the final result, even if the albums themselves are pretty fine in both cases. Ah, the toil it takes to connect a rock band with an orchestra... In any case, the album is of excellent quality, although it does betray signs of 'transition'. The "poppy" side of Caravan gets MAJORLY emphasized on the album despite (or maybe because of?) the orchestra, and thus predicts the 'sellout' of Cunning Stunts and Blind Dog At St Dunstan's. The two new songs that Pye penned and performed specially for the record are unabashed sentimental pop exercises! Not that I mind - 'Mirror For The Day' has some gorgeous hooks going for it, and the song's climactic rise from the ultra-quiet verses to the upbeat mid-section to the glorious anthemic chorus is totally involving. Plus there's this cool violin riff that you won't soon forget, and also, I can't help but wonder at the way Mr Hastings was able to control his voice. He's got a very weak voice, I think I already said that, but it's 'weak' in the 'weak' sense, not in the strong sense. He just sounds like a total wimp, somebody whom a guy like Leslie West or Roger Daltrey could easily pin down with their little finger, and he really struggles to hit all the right high notes without his voice breaking, and for the most part, it doesn't break, although at certain points it shakes in a pretty dangerous way. Considering that he was doing that live, simultaneously playing a guitar and probably feeling all jumpy about not getting in synch with the orchestra, too, it's definitely one mean achievement. 'Virgin On The Ridiculous' is a bit more complex (and a bit more long), but it's also essentially a romantic pop anthem. A good one. Nothing else to say about it, really - that's the biggest problem, from a certain point on all of Hastings' compositions just start to sound the same. Lush hook-filled love songs, soft as butter, shiny as silk. In this particular case, tastefully orchestrated. My cry for diversity goes unnoticed, though. So let's just see what we have with the 'progressive' numbers on here, which are 'The Love In Your Eye' and 'For Richard'. They both rule, and they both easily blow away their counterparts on the studio albums, for one major reason: whoever wrote the orchestral arrangements actually bothered about giving each of the suites an extra power punch that blows you out of your chair. For example, the middle part of 'For Richard' used to begin with an awesome keyboard riff and then develop into swampy noodle, but here, due to the orchestra and all the extra instruments, that noodling is much more convincing, with peaks and climaxes all over the place. And the closing parts just roll along on a huge mammoth ride, with a near-Wagnerian approach to the material. The little Pye must have probably just been lost, drowned in this swirling sea of overwhelming sounds. That part should definitely be played as loud as possible. However, the grand prize still goes to 'The Love In Your Eye', which, of course, featured strings on the original release, so it's not really fair (Procol did the same cheap trick with 'A Salty Dog'), but it still was nowhere near as majestic as they pull it off here. So, in fact, the album balances the band's "prog" and "pop" sides pretty well and, as you could see, actually brings out some hidden qualities in some stuff you might never have suspected about. But on a historical plane, The New Symphonia is more like a brief selective summary of the band's main achievements, and thus is probably the place where most progressive fans' love affair with Caravan comes to an abrupt end. Too bad, really; if one looks behind the complex arrangements, one easily finds that deep inside their collective heart, Caravan were always a "pop-yearning" band, with enough affectionate care for hooks and 'simple pleasures', so for me at least, the transition from early 'classic' Caravan to later 'pop' Caravan is not really a problem.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1991
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11
Prog-rock in full flight! Commercialization? In your mind only!Best song: LOVE IN YOUR EYE
Track listing: 1) Love In Your Eye; 2) For Richard; 3) The Dab Song Concerto; 4) Hoedown.
I don't know how often Caravan were guesting in the BBC studios themselves, but this isn't a selection of tracks from guest sessions - it's the recording of a broadcast of Caravan's show at London's Paris Theatre on the 21st of March, 1975. I'm not sure if it's the complete show, either, but if it is, it's a hell of a daring one: the entire recording consists of three very long tracks and one (relatively) very short one. That night, Caravan did their usual standards, 'Love In Your Eye' and 'For Richard', which you can also find on the New Symphonia album, and augmented them with their recent long-song exploration, 'The Dab Song Concerto', which was yet to appear on the Cunning Stunts album several months later, finally washing it all down with a short uplifting 'Hoedown' that included some untrivial audience participation. Ah well, a 'Golf Girl' or two would be nice... but we can't always get blah blah blah.Anyway, the important thing to note is that the Cunning Stunts is already fully in place, with Mike Wedgewood occupying his place as bass guitarist. Not wanting to run ahead, I'll just note that it's a funny thing to notice Caravan being so dreadfully esoteric and intricate and long-winded in their stage approach when their very next album would already be all poppy and short-song-based and accessible and all - meaning it's much harder to actually change your image on stage than it is to do that in the studio. On stage, you're kind of chained by your audience. What's better for an avid prog period Genesis fan - the studio Abacab or Three Sides Live? There are no two answers to this question. Then again, I'm subconsciously making that mistake of placing a red-hot iron bar between the "prog" and "pop" sides of the same band, which really should never be done. On to the performances themselves. The lack of orchestra, surprisingly, does not make Caravan's sound any thinner, because Dave's rich array of keyboards almost perfectly emulates the sound of a string section when needed. And with or without the orchestra, 'For Richard' is still infinitely better than its studio counterpart when played live. Thus, Geoff Richardson's violin solo in the first part of the song moves fluently and flawlessly, with a little bit of country influence, I'd say (or maybe he just plays the violin in the same way he'd play a guitar, which, of course, makes it sound country in the end - that's the bizarre crazy thing about all those instruments), and so does the Dave solo... the best thing, though, happens when Dave and Pye start battling with each other, the first one with that thin wimpy "fusion-esque" synth tone so deeply loved by Jan Hammer, the second one with a weirdly processed guitar sound. 'Love In Your Eye' goes off equally well, although, granted, that crashing violin riff which introduces the 'sturm und drang' section of the song is pretty goddamn hard to play convincingly without a full orchestra backing. Never mind - they compensate for it fully by stretching the song and adding even more of that jazz-fusionesque sound that was probably being pushed on the band by Dave, because he carries most of the soloing brunt while the jazzy parts are coming. 'The Dab Song Concerto' (here called exactly that, not with the crazyass spelling of Cunning Stunts) also requires your full attention. Yeah, I realize it's kind of tiring to listen to three fifteen-plus minute suites (sic!) in a row - when was the last time you did that since you threw your copy of Tales From Topographic Oceans into the garbage bin? But really, Caravan in concert are such a great bid, and they have such a ferocious jamming power you'd never expect from such a pathetically wimpoid band (well, at least Pye is definitely wimpoid), that I have no problem sitting through all these lengthy demonstrations of Brit virtuosity. But anyway, what I wanted to say was that this live version is easily just as good as the studio version, and that it's certainly Hastings' main spotlight on the album, with a few short, but well-placed fiery guitar solos and a vocal delivery to die for... I'm still occasionally afraid that his thin whiny voice might break just about any second now, but somehow it never does. And then there's the greatest moment of the entire record - at the end of the fourteenth minute, where the soft limpy melodies die away, get replaced by that "ominous" outburst of faux-orchestrated sound from the synths, and then Pye hits the distortion pedal and comes through with that massive metallic riff and they go into the looping coda of the song, with Richardson wailing away on the violin, and then they probably let in the tape or something because there are all these vocal overdubs and apocalyptic noises and blabber over the playing (and occasionally, a few lines of Mellotron - did they have one onstage or was it on tape as well?) and it just grows and grows and then BOOM!, it bursts, and the stunned audience has to have at least a second to realize that it's over before it bursts into applause. After these lengthy marathons, five minutes of 'Hoedown' sound like a Ramones song or something, but it's still fun, and a little bit of relief before the end - and a little bit of fun when Hastings gets the audience to clap and then politely informs them that they're 'clapping in 7/8 time' and everybody's happy. Including me. Well, I mean, I would still like to have something that wouldn't "double" the New Symphonia album so gruesomely, but I guess the BBC aren't really to blame.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1975
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10
Poppy and identity-losing at a fast pace, but compensated by Hastings' ever-increasing songcrafting abilities.Best song: DABSONG CONSHIRTOE
Track listing: 1) The Show Of Our Lives; 2) Stuck In A Hole; 3) Lover; 4) No Backstage Pass; 5) Welcome The Day; 6) Dabsong Conshirtoe; 7) The Fear And Loathing In Tollington Park Rag.
Caravan becomes Styx. No, really. I'm not joking. Just substitute Hastings with Tommy Shaw on 'The Show Of Our Lives' and you get a typical Styx number - glamorous, upbeat, with a joyful juvenile delivery, keyboard-based with atmospheric synths in the background and a certain nasty tepidness that undermines the song'a adequacy. The main differences are crucial, of course - Hastings' arrangements are far more ear-pleasing, with real pianos and real tasty electric guitars carrying the song forward, thus it's not an absolute disaster. But it's a rather discouraging start to the album anyway, and for many fans Cunning Stunts marks the beginning of the end - Caravan's transformation from Britain's leading underground prog band to Britain's most unremarkable pop band.Such a transformation isn't at all surprising, as most prog bands eventually underwent it; it's weird, though, that Caravan seemed to have initiated the process before anybody else, as 1975 was still a year in which some progressive rock mattered, and even the biggies like Yes or Genesis weren't ready to 'poppify' their basic musical paradigm. And, of course, it's even stranger that Caravan would want to poppify their sound in a Styx-like manner, i.e. pompous, but essentially simplistic 'arena-pop' with a lot of theatrical overtones. That said, Cunning Stunts (and the title says it all, too, together with the cover) is still a lot better than almost any Styx record. Not among Caravan's best, it does one thing that could have been overlooked earlier: shows that Hastings' love towards accessible, but well-written and well-established melodic hooks has not only increased through the years, but actually transformed him into a first-rate songmeister. Although I suppose it's a mistake to mention Hastings alone: in fact, Pye isn't even responsible for the majority of the compositions on the album; the songwriting is more or less equally spread between him, Dave Sinclair and new band member bassist Mike Wedgwood. Out of these, Wedgwood is definitely the weakest link - not that I can really blame him, him being a new member and all, but the problem is that he offers material which Hastings obviously doesn't know what to do with. Namely, he offers one soul ballad ('Lover') and one funky rave-up ('Welcome The Day'), both of which could have been done much better in the hands of real pros. 'Lover', in particular, is a song of the kind that only sound good when treated with a powerful vocal delivery, preferrably from some expert black singer, and the expressions "Pye Hastings" and "powerful vocal delivery" are even bigger oxymorons than "Britney Spears" and "Christina Aguillera". Yeah, right... As for 'Welcome The Day', this is a kind of song that only sounds good when played with the utmost energy, with fiery chunky funky guitars that tear the very soul out of you, and the expressions "fiery funky guitars" and "Caravan" are even bigger oxymorons than "Ricky Martin" and "George W. Bush"... Whatever, I'm just not in a particularly comparative mood today. Not that the songs are bad, but they might have done better. However, Pye's 'Stuck In A Hole' is a wonderful, simply wonderful McCartneyesque pop-rocker with an infectuous vocal melody and vocals that fit it quite right. Why does the guitar riff remind me of 'The Bitch Is Back', though? I have a deeper and deeper feeling that these guys were ripping off more sources I'll ever know... Never mind anyway, 'Stuck In A Hole' is one of the most fun, energetic, and moderate (3:06) tracks in the band's catalog. Plus, you gotta love the pretty contemplative medievalistic number 'No Backstage Pass', whose introspective painful lyrics are as close to personal as Pye ever got, I guess. The mid-tempo 'dragging' chorus might take a while to get to your soul, but give it time, and chances are the song might coincide with a particular mood of your spirit. You won't let it go afterwards. The biggest, hugest surprise for me was the band's 'Dabsong Conshirtoe' with its six 'movements' that occupies most of the second side. I usually tend to be very sceptic of 'epic tracks' that any certain ambitious band pens already past its peak - stuff like Yes' 'Awaken' (not to mention hideous borefests like 'Mind Drive', etc.), or Genesis 'One For The Vine', or ELP's 'Memoirs Of An Officer And A Gentleman', etc. Add to this the fact that I've very rarely been pleased by even a classic Caravan 'epic' in its entirety, and you'll understand the depths of my surprise when I actually discovered 'Dabsong Conshirtoe' to be one of the very best, if not the very best Caravan epic ever written. Sure, it's also spotty, with about four or five minutes worth of jamming I'd like to have thrown out. But the other parts rule! 'The Mad Dabsong' is pretty and soothing, and 'Ben Karratt Rides Again' wonderfully contrasts with it in its raging fury - after which 'Pro's And Con's' carries the anger and fury even further. Great instrumentation everywhere, plus superb vocal melodies. The 'Sneaking Out The Bare Quare' part is the jazzy jam I mentioned as unnecessary (it still doesn't hold a candle to the decisive jazzy jams on Waterloo Lily), but it all comes together in the climactic 'All Sorts Of Unmentionable Things'. Yeah, I'd easily bet right now that out of all the 'serious' music written in 1975, 'All Sorts Of Unmentionable Things' is the most satisfying. Imagine something like the 'Wurm' coda to Yes' 'Starship Trooper', only faster and where 'Wurm' was pretty heavenly and optimistic, this one's more like aggressive and paranoid, with ominous violas and heavy guitars carrying forward the rhythm and tons of apocalyptic noise overdubs are gradually heaped upon it. Like somebody just took the coda to 'I Am The Walrus' and crossed it with 'Revolution 9', then squashed onto that frantic rhythm section. Mah-velous, and it all really gives the 'Conshirtoe' some kind of positive final link in the chain, otherwise it's just a bunch of unrelated and often nonsensic compositions. Now you see it's a composition dedicated to the end of the world. Or maybe not, but that's how it works in my brains... although if it's like that, then we have to deal with the end of an old world and the beginning of a new one - the album ends with a reprisal of 'Show Of Our Lives' that slowly grows out of the coda, and then with a pretty one-minute acoustic snippet of 'The Fear And Loathing In Tollington Rag'. Cute! So count this as a very strong seven/weak eight, and if you have some spare time and a teenage lust to kill, just massacre all the Caravan fans who twirl their noses at this album. But don't quote me on that, please. I never said that! It was just my subconscious, and you know people aren't really responsible for their subconscious.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1976
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11
Caravan's Big Lolly Pop Album. Way to go, kids!Best song: ALL THE WAY
Track listing: 1) Here Am I; 2) Chiefs And Indians; 3) A Very Smelly Grubby Little Oik; 4) Bobbing Wide; 5) Come On Back; 6) Oik (Reprise); 7) Jack And Jill; 8) Can You Hear Me?; 9) All The Way.
The pop transformation goes further. Indeed, it goes the furthest. Cunning Stunts was a training ground, this is the real stuff - I can tell Pye had a lot of fun making this album, and even if you ever heard him denying that, don't believe it. This is a fun album, warmer, more life-affirming and also more self-ascertained and more straightforward and decisive than everything the band did since at least In The Land Of Grey And Pink. No more lengthy multi-part suites. No more band democracy, either: with the final departure of Dave Sinclair, Hastings and drummer Richard Coughlan are now the sole remaning members of the original lineup and of course it's only one of them who takes the reins. Pye writes all the tracks on here save one, takes most of the lead vocals and makes sure that all of the songs follow one and only one pattern - the lush 'baroque pop' pattern.This certainly makes for a tiresome first listen, but as the hooks sink deeper inside your flesh, you slowly start realizing that the album's lack of diversity is its only weakness. Actually, even Wedgewood's sole contribution, 'Chiefs And Indians', follows the general pattern, and instead of another half-lame attempt at something whiney-funky, it's a tough driving pop-rocker with a decent 'soft' intro and outro. And oh, it ain't about human rights and illegal extermination of national minorities at all, but rather about the problem of determining your place in society. Actually, what strikes me a LOT about this album is how nicely the songs are done. My bet is actually that people who despise this album (and there are many) have never really given it a fair listen. The songs are short, the lyrics are stupid and/or romantically simplistic, who needs any other proof that the record sucks? But this, in fact, is pop music of the highest order, not just three-minute songs based on a single repeating hook, but actually whole complexes of creative ideas, with excellent instrumentation and enough variations on the topic to keep you satisfied. Guitar solos, organ solos, viola solos and flute passages alternate with each other easily; songs flow by in reprises and reminiscences, and tons of giggly sound effects and tiny surprises await you at almost every corner. This trip is always highly artistic and almost never boring. Plus, the playing is all ace. Sometimes, like in 'Jack And Jill', I just feel like concentrating on the bassline alone is worth the money you paid for it. Or on the swirling organ line. Or something like that. Anyway, out of the six "main" Hastings-penned songs on the album, five are bouncy and boppy, playing at the top of their active entertainment powers, but never really trying to 'rock out' as 'rocking out' would be pretty stupid for Caravan at this point. In one case at least, the rockin' part is smoothly integrated into a soft sentimental ballad part - that's 'Come On Back', which kinda sounds like (brace yourself) Billy Joel meeting Lynyrd Skynyrd, only a deeply sensitive and catchy Billy Joel and a very poppified and funny Skynyrd. That's NOT a denigration, by the way, and I bet you anything you'll love the song even if you hate both of the above-mentioned entities. The other stuff is mostly going at the same pace, with the formula steady and working: unbeatable Hastings hooks over unbeatable instrumental backing. No, really, I don't think you can beat the hookline of 'you should see that boy FLYYYYYYY... [degenerate into a lot of phasing noise]' on 'A Very Smelly Grubby Little Oik' (gotta love those titles), or the 'oooh, right down to the bottom' hookline of the enthralling funk-pop ditty 'Jack And Jill' with yet another of Hastings' giggly stupid posturings loosely based on everybody's favourite nursery rhyme. And if you CAN beat these hooklines, you'll have a hard time demonstrating that it's possible to write a better pop song, or create a better arrangement than the one on 'Jack And Jill', with the viola and organ solos rattling the walls and the TOTAL major surprise around 5:00 that'll send you on a vain quest of replacing your CD (wink wink)... Of course, though, even these songs all pale behind the beauty of the soft jazzy chef-d'oeuvre 'All The Way' ('wittily' subtitled 'With John Wayne's Single-Handed Liberation Of Paris', even if the song itself is PERFECTLY serious and sincere), a song where I guess even Sir McCartney himself would have to give a tip of the hat to the Reverend Mr Hastings. It's one of those soft, luscious, heart-warming deeply intimate anthems ending in a lengthy repetitive coda that's bound to lift up your spirit even if it's lying under the ruins of the WTC - what a beautiful, utterly gorgeous song, so much more humane and naturally flowing than any selected national anthem ever created. The song alone should probably earn the album a couple extra points. Gee, I'm still dizzy about it. So far, this is the best pop album of 1976 I've listened to. That maybe isn't much, but it sure ain't little, either. Drastically underrated, and dammit, it's worth buying for the cover alone. A cover which has NOTHING, absolutely not a single bloody doggy-haired thing to do with the album's actual content, but this is Caravan you're dealing with, man, and Pye Hastings has always had a pretty twisted sense of humour and a really bizarre surrealistic vibe around him. REALLY bzarre. It ain't the Zappa surrealism and it ain't Beatles surrealism. Canterbury scene? CHAUCER SURREALISM? That's really a long way to go.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1995
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10
Funny and dismissable, but don't make the mistake of dismissing it - I proclaim the album an obligatory guilty pleasure for Caravan fans.Best song: COOL WATER
Track listing: 1) Cool Water; 2) Just The Way You Are; 3) Tuesday Is Rock And Roll Nite; 4) The Crack Of The Willow; 5) Ansaphone; 6) Cold Fright; 7) Side By Side; 8) You Won't Get Me Up In One Of Those; 9) To The Land Of My Fathers; 10) Poof Molly; 11) Send Reinforcements.
Archive release. Pye Hastings sure got a funny writing style, as self-indulgent as it actually is quite humble - the liner notes are a gas to read, and you'll learn all about how he unearthed these tapes, originally destined for Caravan's tenth studio album that never was, all dating back from recording sessions in 1977. The particularly good news is that Hastings decided not to tamper with the tapes at all, releasing them right as they were. It's quite obvious that most of them are somewhere half way between demo tapes and finished recordings: full band playing on most of the songs, but no obvious overdubs, excessive orchestration or whatever tricks Caravan liked to have in their studio.Anyway, as you guess, this is another straightforward 'light pop' album, with absolutely no progressive ambitions in sight, but, at least, as Hastings wittily remarks in the liner notes, 'I hope I have succeeded in not writing what my father in law used to refer to as that "Yeah Baby Yeah" music'. With a few reservations, of course. Whenever Hastings tries to rock on a certain given track, he always falls flat on his face and flatter than that. Maybe overproduction would help conceal the weaknesses of "late Caravan rock", but no overproduction could conceal the fact that Hastings' voice is simply unfit for rock'n'roll. He's got a gorgeous falsetto, we all know that. He writes lush pop hooks occasionally worthy of Brian Wilson. But rock? I suppose you don't own this album and so haven't heard the ridiculous, embarrassing pile of self-humiliating excrements that is 'Tuesday Is Rock And Roll Nite'. A mild, meek guitar/synth pattern and a shaking feeble vocal delivery that gives the impression of a three-year old son of a rocker imitating his daddy on his little xylophone or something. Each time I hear Pye go 'oooh, rock'n'rooooooll!' in that thin falsetto whining that's so non-confirming to the classic view of a 'strong' rocker, I wanna cut out the sound. Truly and verily, Mr Hastings rocks ten times as horrid as Mr Lynne, who at least actually had some real guitar chops, you know. And a voice that could be gruff and gritty on occasion. But enough, let's just forget about the rockers. I throw out 'Tuesday Is Rock And Roll Nite', I also throw out the funk idiocy of 'Ansaphone', and I pause only slightly before a similar funky vibe of 'Cold Fright', just to think on the subject of why Mr Hastings had to steal the riff from Black Sabbath's 'N.I.B.' and transplant it onto a dance-style pattern. The Lord knows the answer alone, I guess. And that's all I need to throw out - the other eight songs are all minor pop masterpieces. Light, accessible music, but graced with often heavenly guitar melodies, inspired synth patterns, gorgeous vocals (to think that while listening to Caravan I actually had the guts to call Hastings a mediocre singer!), and... and yeah, the one thing that still remains is the Caravan atmosphere because the Caravan atmosphere only dies with Caravan. Who cares how complex the music is? Caravan's ideal has always been light gorgeous heavenly sonic panorama that caresses and soothes the listener, and I still get that atmosphere from most of the tracks on here. The lack of long compositions only ensures that nothing will prevent us from enjoying the melodies - that the band won't go off on unrelated tangents, wanking in all directions in an experimental way that doesn't at all guarantee enjoyability. Like I said, the mood is one, but the different shades of the mood are always different. The title track is among the least pretentious on the album and definitely calls associations with the Beach Boys' 'Cool Cool Water', not melody-wise, but effect-wise. A song about nothing, really, just a song to make you feel so good... warm... relaxed... bathed by... cool cool water. Peaceful, enviromentalistic, majestic. 'Just The Way You Are' introduces an optimistic upbeat note - you'll be wanting to tap your foot and clap your hands and suck in all the joy from everyone surrounding you. 'The Crack Of The Willow' has one of the most breathtaking synth riffs ever written, although Hastings' vocals are way too shakey on the actual song for me to highlight it as the absolute favourite. He should have re-recorded the vocals, I would have forgiven him. 'Side By Side' is the one track that's a bit too pathetic for me (the slow pompous rhythm almost seems like it's been made in order to serve as an invitation for, you know, that dreadful ritual of holding hands and swaying from side to side at concerts... er... side to side? The song's called 'Side By Side'! Man, do I really get to the heart of the problem every now and then!), but it's all compensated with the hilarious calypso - is that calypso or what? - shake of 'You Won't Get Me Up In One Of Those'. That's the ultimate solution for you, Pye: if you're tired of balladeering but don't have the guts to really rock, try something, er, adjacent. Then there's the somewhat unremarkable, but very personal (maybe that's related?) 'To The Land Of My Fathers', the light pop-rocker 'Poor Molly' that's way more tolerable than 'Tuesday Is Rock And Roll Nite' because it's just a fast song, darn it! there's gotta be a difference between a fast song and a rocker! they're not always the same thing, see? And yeah, we close with 'Send Reinforcements', which presents us with a nice enough semi-climactic, semi-epic ending. If you're not wooed over by Pye's vocals on the chorus to the track, you're probably one of those "tough guys" who think Brian Wilson was born without testicles. Tough guys, get off my Caravan page! Don't you know Caravan are a bunch of sissies? Now that the tough guys have gone, let me tell you this in secret - I don't know how a Caravan fan would have the courage to say this record sucks. It's flawed and at times, monotonous, but it has tons of moments of beauty. So, if you're a Caravan fan, get your ass to the nearest store and forget for a moment that music has to be 'complex' in order to be likable. This stuff ain't simpler than Pet Sounds anyway, so take that as an excuse.
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Year Of Release: 1995
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12
Some of the Nineties' greatest sissy music captured here.Best song: IT'S A SAD SAD AFFAIR or I KNOW WHY YOU'RE LAUGHING or LIAR or whatever...
Track listing: 1) It's A Sad Sad Affair; 2) Somewhere In Your Heartl 3) Cold As Ice; 4) Liar; 5) Don't Want Love; 6) Travelling Ways; 7) This Time; 8) If It Wasn't For Your Ego; 9) It's Not Real; 10) Wendy Wants Another 6" Mole; 11) I Know Why You're Laughing.
I kinda have to wonder why the hell did the band have to wait with that SO GODDAMN OBVIOUS pun for an album name for twenty-seven years, only coming up with it after their classic prog period, their forgotten pop period, and almost fifteen years of disbanded status? Maybe because this time around they're actually not pulling any punches any more, and Pye Hastings stands out as the guy who means everything for this band? Whatever, I don't really have a lot of time to wonder about that issue, because the record itself is magnificent.Yes, neither Pye nor the rest of the guys, which in particular include the ever-present drummer boy Richard Coughlan and the classic keyboards guy Dave Sinclair, don't even try to make this stuff feel 'progressive' in the least. This is strict mid-tempo pop throughout, and on first listen, it might even seem bland and forgettable. There's no obvious challenge. Moreover, the album's big, BIG flaw is that it's so thoroughly unimpressive from a pure arrangement point of view. Everything sounds the same: clear ringing acoustic guitars, inobtrusive keyboards and flutes, an occasional electric solo, and the usual elfish vocal delivery from Pye. There's very little of the inventiveness that characterized their earlier pop classics like Blind Dog At St Dunstan's with its cues and squeaks and dog noises and tempo changes and funky grooves and everything. But the album's still thoroughly worthy of a 12, because essentially it is fully adequate. It's a mood piece, a collection of dreamy lush baroque-pop numbers that don't need, much less require, any kinds of unexpected experimentation or stylistic changes. Again, associations with Pet Sounds spring to mind - and the resemblance becomes even scarier when you resemble how much Hastings' falsetto sounds close to Brian Wilson's on some of the tracks. It definitely loses to PS as far as originality, complexity, or overall artistic importance goes, but might I suggest the infamous idea that the actual melodies on the songs are better than Brian's, even if the arrangements never are. The only song, in fact, I could easily live without, is new bassist Jim Leverton's only contribution, the dinky 'Travelling Ways'. The song might have eventually become a stage favourite for all I care, but Jim simply hasn't caught on the Hastings vibe - it's an unassuming slash of barely competent country-rock with a fake-soundin' Southern delivery, in the context of which the band's artsy harmonies and the romantic piano backing manage to sound silly and cheap instead of appropriately atmospheric. The rest ALL works. ALL of it, including even one silly folksy throwaway, 'Wendy Wants Another 6" Mole', which could also stick out like a sore thumb - the only piece of intentional silliness on the album - but somehow doesn't. Hastings' miraculous potential to transform even a throwaway into something gentle, kind, and cheerful, works everywhere. It's terribly hard for me to even name the highlights, because no two songs here sound completely different from each other, yet each and every song has at least one, more often more gorgeous vocal hooks that rank equal with everything Caravan did in the Seventies. Just take the album's opener, 'It's A Sad Sad Affair' and play it a couple times in succession, then see if you can get it out of your head. Heck, see if you want to get it out of your head - this song gives me personally such an enormous load of positive energy that even thinking of it acts as an "emotional purifier", if you know what I mean. And I don't really notice the lyrics. The lyrics here are mostly standard-type decent love lyrics, with maybe a couple exceptions. You'll be giving these songs your own worthy interpretations in no time. 'Liar' was the most well-known song from the album, as far as I know, whatever that means in this particular case (BoH made no impact whatsoever - hey, who needs a bunch of aging prog-rockers going pop? We have our Pearl Jam to fry our eggs to!); it's a cool little thumper with a neat guitar line and a catchy chorus, but hardly more climactic than the twisted, exciting vocal melodies of 'Cold As Ice' and 'Don't Want Love', which might seem boring and bland to anybody but the true lovers of fine quality romantic pop - although I frankly don't see how anybody who enjoys Pet Sounds for its real melodies could dislike this stuff. 'It's Not Real' is a powerful highlight as well, even if it does rather obviously borrow its introduction from 'Things We Said Today' (that's another detail that might give you something to think about). And the album closer, 'I Know Why You're Laughing', does begin with generic Spanish guitar, but the way the slow part merges with the fast rocking part, and Hastings' exciting solo towards the end make it a real stunner. Yeah, here's what I have just thought of - maybe the real true comparison one could make would not be with PS, but rather with the early Eighties stuff from the Moody Blues. That early Eighties stuff was somewhat monotonous, but utterly melodic - and spoiled exclusively by modernistic production which rendered even some of the better melodies lifeless and robotic. That's not a problem with Battle Of Hastings; I swear, this is an album that's absolutely timeless - you couldn't ever guess '1995' in your life. No drum machines, no hi-tech synths, no generic metallic riffs, no hip-hop influence, nothing whatsoever. A 'time warp', as the All Music Guide review put it (BTW, the review of BoH at AMG really amazed me - they're about the only independent Net source that actually spotted this album and congratulated it for what it was worth). A beautiful time warp it is, and easily the best ever comeback by a 'dinosaur' I've heard, at least, after such a long period of delay. Find it at all costs, it's well worth any money. Hey, it gives you a boatload of psychic health, and your psychic health sure IS worth a couple bucks, isn't it? And I've actually found it to be an amazing anti-MTV cure if you want really nice-sounding Nineties music.
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Year Of Release: 1996
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9
Ya gotta be kiddin' me. Remake albums are for pussies, like Pye Hastings or somebody. Oh wait a minute...Best song: they're all good, but they're all OLD, too!
Track listing: 1) If I Could Do It All Over Again, I'd Do It All Over You; 2) Place Of My Own; 3) The Love In Your Eye/To Catch Me A Brother; 4) In The Land Of Grey And Pink; 5) Golf Girl; 6) Disassociation (Nine Feet Underground); 7) Hello Hello; 8) Asforteri 25; 9) For Richard; 10) Memory Lain, Hugh; 11) Headloss.
Fucking shit up. That's what these guys are doing. They're fucking their shit up, and definitely not in a Pulp Fiction kind of way at that. It's beyond weird. It's ridiculous.God only knows what Mr Hastings and Co. had in their heads. Maybe after Battle Of Hastings flopped (and how could it have been otherwise? Don't tell me they expected a retro pop album to hit the charts! Not even the Posies could do that well!), Pye thought the problem was, most people never realized what kind of a band Caravan was in the first place. So he decided that a CD full of remakes of the old classics would do the job nicely. On one hand, they'd choose some of the best material, on the other hand, this could be taken as a 'point of rebirth' for the band. Not just issue a compilation (nobody buys old fart production when it proudly says 'Old Fart Production' on the front cover), but start anew. Take the old ideas and mold them into a new form. Something like that. Well, I'm sure they had their reasons for issuing it, anyway. Me, though, I can't think of any particular reason to own it. See, I don't need to tell you that reviewing a remake album is a real pain in the butt. One - you've already written everything you thought important about these songs. Two - pretty much the only question you can answer in a review like this is: "What's the difference?" Three - most probably, the last time you actually listened to these songs was a long time ago and now, in order to make an adequate review, you'll be forced not only to sit through the remake album the required three times, you'll also have to dust off all the classic albums and hear them back to back. Four - the only condition under which I could agree to this procedure would be to receive a check for ten thousand bucks for each of the albums I'd be dusting off. Not that I wouldn't want to hear them again: I just hate the idea of being forced to do it in such a rude way. Anyway, if you wanna hear lots of subtle details, seek yerself out a Caravan fansite. I'm not a hardcore fan, so all I can say is: these remakes sound nice and inoffensive most of the time, but I'd really have preferred for them to sound ugly and offensive. If Pye Hastings actually had sat down and said, 'well, I think it will be a great touch to make a thrash rocker out of 'Golf Girl' and a flamenco out of 'In The Land Of Grey And Pink', whatcha think, boys?', this might have given me some real food for examination. As it is, all I can say is: "Er, well, I guess they did it a bit differently from the way it was earlier, but what exactly is different, I don't think I can tell". Perhaps the most stupid part of it all are the liner notes, credited to one Jeremy Clarkson. Quote: 'And now, with this new album (sic! - G.S.), those days are back. Just look at the musical credits and you can see we're dealing here with real instruments - flutes, saxes, piccolos as well as the more usual guitars and keyboards'. This is then followed by a heavy-on-the-metaphor lament about how all modern day music is so heavily dependent on 'software houses' and stuff. That's all very nice, but what's the use of "real instruments" in this particular case if you're using them to re-record old songs? And the situation becomes twice as cretinic once you come to realize the main differences from the originals actually lie in the use of 'software houses': that is, occasional use of electronic percussion, hi-tech synths and even sampling techniques (some of the remakes insert sampled snippets of the originals). Eh? Another thing that kinda irks me the wrong way is this line: 'Programmed and performed and mixed by the Heroes of the Canterbury Scene utilising the exclusive Legendary Canterbury Sound'. Now I know this ain't cool in the modern world, but I still think there is something to be said for 'modesty', and if there isn't, well, this phrase's exclusive aim is to desperately try and convince the by-passer to buy the album, granted it ain't shrink-wrapped. Considering that most CDs usually are, though, this is just a misguided gesture. Heroes of the Canterbury Scene? I can sort of see Geoffrey Chaucer rolling over in his grave over that one. Granted, the track listing is mostly superb. I'm still not the world's biggest fan of 'For Richard', but 'Memory Lain', 'If I Could Do It All Over Again...', 'Love In Your Eye', the Grey And Pink material... that's all prime stuff from the prime days. And it is performed well. I'm not sure why all the overdubbed applause over 'Memory Lain' (which was obviously not recorded live, or I'm a skunk), but again, maybe they had their reasons. The synthesizer and synth-guitar solos aren't annoying because they're played well, not for atmosphere but for melody, and is it just me or does this particular version of 'If I Could' sound uncannily like Traffic's 'You Can All Join In' as far as the acoustic melody goes? That's funny. Also, I guess the "hard-rocking" parts of the album do indeed rock a bit harder than before - check out, for example, the riffage on 'Memory Lain'. Not that Caravan ever really rocked successfully (although they "pop-rocked" quite nicely, I guess), but at least it's one more friggin' difference. If you want to find out anything else, you'd better buy this album before it vanishes forever. In ten years' time, I don't think it will even be remembered in the discographies. Remakes! Mamma Mia! Even Ian Anderson doesn't sink that low. (He prefers releasing alternate takes and live versions instead. That's sort of the same thing, but it's still different. Kinda like the difference between burping with your mouth closed and burping with your mouth open).
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