Search This Blog

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Caravan: Caravan

CARAVAN: CARAVAN (1968)

1) Place Of My Own; 2) Ride; 3) Policeman; 4) Love Song With Flute; 5) Cecil Rons; 6) Magic Man; 7) Grandma's Lawn; 9) Where But For Caravan Would I; 10*) Hello Hello.

The earliest history of Caravan is inextricably linked to the earliest history of Soft Machine: both bands were formed out of the ashes of the legendary Canterbury band Wilde Flowers, which made no recordings yet served as a building pad for two of the most famous outfits of the «Can­terbury scene». That said, from the very start Caravan and Soft Machine followed two very dif­ferent paths — apart from the fact that both teams were progressive-minded, Soft Machine quickly adopted modern jazz and avantgarde as their prime sources of inspiration, whereas for Caravan, even in their «wildest» days, jazz was just one of the building blocks, and hardly the principal one. Above everything else, Caravan wanted sorely to be an English band, so that the word "Canterbury" could actually redeem that Chaucer association; and that Englishness already permeates and dominates their self-titled debut so thoroughly that, perhaps, it is no wonder that it did not sell all too well — in the same year when the same fate also befell the Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society, for instance.

Then again, maybe it was just because it was not such a great record. Recorded in London and released on Decca in the UK and on Verve in the US, Caravan was a collection of relatively quiet, friendly, introspective progressive pop songs whose closest stylistic predecessors would probably be The Moody Blues and Procol Harum (to a lesser degree, also Traffic) — and it might have been just a wee bit hard to understand what it was that made them special. The primary lead vocalist, Pye Hastings, sounded pretty, but clearly less gorgeous than Justin Hayward, and he wasn't much of a guitar player, either, certainly not when compared to Robin Trower. Richard Sinclair, on bass and occasional vocals, did not exactly lay on a ton of dazzling lines, taking more of a McCartney-style «concealed melodic approach» to the instrument. The most visible musician on the album is Richard's cousin, Dave Sinclair, whose organ is almost always the single loudest instrument of all, but even he ends up sounding like a slightly inferior partner of Rod Argent.

So what is the saving grace, then? Nothing but the simple fact that in between all of them, they form a pleasant mix, and that the lack of flash comes across as a sign of friendly humble­ness. The entire album has a bit of an echoey, cavernous sound to it, further emphasized with the loudness of Sinclair's organ, so that when Pye sings, "I've got this place of my own / Where I can go when I feel I'm coming down", the automatic question in my mind is, "What place? Canterbury Cathed­ral?", and Pye does sound like a preacher on that song, except that the sermon is non-canon ("Why don't you live a bit today? / For tomorrow you may find that you are dead"). A friendly, non-intimidating preacher, though, one that won't piss you off even if you disagree.

Most of the short songs are catchy in their little ways. ʽRideʼ, propelled with a funny little cavalry trot from drummer Richard Coughlan, is a cute folksy ditty, gradually transforming into a vigo­rous drum / organ extravaganza. ʽPolicemanʼ is a wannabe-Traffic art-blues song, with Richard Sinclair throwing in a bit of a political angle, but in such a mildly pleading manner that no true revolutionary would accept this bunch of pussies as his trusted friends. ("Take the time to change our minds / We will pay our parking fines", Sinclair promises like he means it). And ʽGrandma's Lawnʼ, speeding up the tempo and harshening up the organ tone, kind of sounds like early (pre-Gillan) Deep Purple, only without the distorted guitar, mixed with a ʽDead End Streetʼ-like atti­tude of misery ("lost my plec, bloody heck, who's got my plec, break his neck" is a particularly precious line that even Ray Davies wouldn't have come up with at the time).

There are also some psycho experiments that are questionable — ʽMagic Manʼ is a lazy waltz where Pye seems to be trying a little too hard to convince us of the pleasures of a life of floating around in your own pot-enhanced imagination ("Soft Machines, Heart Club Bands and all, are welcome here with me" is a particularly cringeworthy line, too), and ʽCecil Ronsʼ might be their most embarrassing stab at psych-folk ever, since the song never seems to decide if it wants to be intimidating or enchanting, let alone the lyrics that deal with urinating under somebody's tree, if I'm not mistaken. It is well worth a listen just to learn how absurd things can get at times, but don't expect Monty Python quality or anything.

That said, «classic» Caravan is only previewed here by two tracks — ʽLove Song With Fluteʼ, a jazzy ballad with unpredictable time / tempo changes and, indeed, a lengthy flute solo delivered by Pye's brother Jimmy in properly pastoral mode (with more fluency than Ray Thomas, but far less aggression than Ian Anderson); and the lengthy ʽWhere But For Caravan Would Iʼ, book­marked with more folksy preaching from Pye but essentially given over to proggy jamming in non-standard time, Pye holding things together with simple, but powerful guitar riffage and Dave pulling a Rod Argent / Keith Emerson on the organ as long and hard as he can (which isn't really that long, or that hard). Both tracks are passable exercises, but do not really answer the question of whether we need to have yet another young aspiring progressive act to add to the already existing diversity.

Despite that, Caravan still works as an atmospheric, melodic, friendly collection of art-pop songs: for what it lacks here in originality, it makes up in terms of hooks, good taste (other than "so we all go to wee in the garden"), and humility. I mean, with this kind of equipment and these parti­cular musical goals, Caravan's debut could have easily been like Uriah Heep's debut — except that it wasn't, because nobody is trying to compensate for lack of musical virtuosity with annoy­ing bombast and trumped-up epicness. So, even if this is just a brief taste of better things to come, I've always had the same kind of soft spot in my heart for it as for From Genesis To Reve­lation, and here it is reflected in a thumbs up rating.

14 comments:

  1. I get an impression from the closing paragraph that Uriah Heep's debut must be something bad... But it isn't, therefore I'm confused.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Of course you are confused. Anybody who thinks "Exile On Main St." is bad, and Uriah Heep's debut is good, is confused. Deeply. :)

      Delete
    2. Like so many serious critics GS doesn't like UH. Read the reviews on the original site. They are very entertaining. The funniest thing though is that those serious critics accuse UH of taking themselves way too seriously, which they didn't.
      However lots of GS' criticism of UH still is valid and far more substantial than Melissa Mill's (in)famous "If this band is gonna make it I'll have to commit suicide" or 10 years later also in Rolling Stone Magazine: "David Byron is the worst singer in the history of rock'n'roll. Fortunately he got the music he deserved". UH's delivery of Come Away Melinda is so overblown that it becomes pathetic in the wrong way. And Hensley's sound experiments on Gypsy are so primitive that they cringeworthy (I much prefer the edited, almost punkish single edit). For some people such failures overshadow the good stuff, so that they don't recognize how Mick Box hits the nail with his short, punchy solo on that same song. GS is one of those people.

      Delete
    3. "Gypsy" is like a late-era "Family Guy" joke -- it starts off good, becomes grating as they continue to beat the dead horse, then suddenly becomes fun again after stretching out so far. Certainly the single edit, though, makes it a far more effective song.

      "Come Away Melinda" is definitely the nadir of the Byron years, from a band that never shied away from including moments of deplorable taste on even their best albums. UFO did it far better on their own debut, making it rather creepy (which surely wasn't the original writers' intent, but it works).

      Compared to their contemporaries, in heavy metal or prog, UH was always kind of a joke, and despite their longevity they've never really seemed to find their place. A reasonable critic recognizes the joke and still looks for spots of actual talent to show that there was some kind of point to their existence. GS, whether you agree with him or not, is pretty fair -- he noted the obvious highlights when there were some ("Look at Yourself", "July Morning", "Easy Livin'", "Bird of Prey").

      Delete
    4. UH have nothing on the Stones, but I'll admit I enjoy Demons and Wizards more than any Led Zeppelin album.

      Delete
  2. Have always really enjoyed the first 5 Uriah Heep albums and could never understand the hate directed towards them. It's decent 70s heavy rock with some nice guitar and organ playing. Nothing more, nothing less.

    They did get bad in later years though.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Came here to see what fellow Caravan fans thought about your review. Found a load of people waffling on about bloody Uriah Heep. You've every right to delete these posts for being off topic!

    There's enough here to hint at what was to be achieved over the next four albums. The big change to come was Richard Sinclair's development as a songwriter and performer. Five years on from this, the band managed one great album following his departure (For Girls...) but declined thereafter

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. To be fair, Uriah Heep are more of a conversation-starter because they're so damn divisive; Caravan could never hope to angry up the blood to the same degree.

      That being said, I think the debut from Hastings, Sinclair, and co. has some legit great moments. I adore "Place of My Own," as it manages to sound warm and hospitable despite the superficially "cavernous" quality of the production and Pink Floydish (Barrett era, obvs) psychedelic vibe. And "Policeman" manages to blend a cheeky (and catchy) music hall style with a feeling of genuinely affecting melancholy. Always liked that one...

      Sidenote, prompted by the realization that George has continued into the realm of classic British prog rock (was Camel the last one he reviewed?): it's disappointing that he will almost certainly never have the opportunity to review Van Der Graaf Generator again, or any of the recent and nifty reunion albums they put out. Listening to Trisector now and it's ace.

      Delete
    2. That's more like it! Your comments on Place Of My Own are spot on. You are right about Richard's melancholy; it balances the whimsy perfectly.

      I was put off VDGG at an early stage for two reasons: they were ostentatiously loved by the most pretentious people at school, and the bus to school passed within touching distance of the giant Manchester University Van De Graaff Generator the band were named after, but couldn't be arsed to spell right

      Delete
    3. Probably fair to reassess my prejudices after 45 years have elapsed though!

      Delete
    4. I'm fond of this album -- it can't touch "ItLoGaP" or "Waterloo Lily", but it's got a lot of quiet and very British charm. Like you, I find the obvious highlights to be "Place of My Own" and "Policeman".

      Delete
  4. These are shaky times we're living in....I'm sayin' UH peaked with 'Salisbury' now! ....

    ReplyDelete
  5. Can't wait for more Caravan reviews!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Let's get the nit-picking out of the way first: Caravan's debut album was released originally in the UK on the Verve Forecast label - Verve's attempt to grab a piece of the rock market. The roster mainly comprised US folkies like Tim Hardin & Odetta plus US fringe rock acts like the Blues Project. As far as I can recall, Caravan were their only British act. The label disappeared in the corporate shake up that saw Polygram buy Verve in the early 1970's.

    As for the album, I think Caravan were aiming for the same kind of Englishness that Pink Floyd, Family, Traffic, early Yes and Jethro Tull were aiming for. Hastings' limitations as a guitarist meant that they were never going to be blues-rockers like Fleetwood Mac and they avoided the West Coast janglings of The Byrds and Quicksilver. Obviously, the first album is a very fragile affair but whilst it lacks in musical virtuosity, it has a lot going for it in terms of pastoral mood and David Sinclair's organ sound was a new departure from the blues-rock Hammond stylings of Steve Winwood and Ian McLagan. I first heard the band via John Peel who played 'Place of my Own' and I still love the overall mood of the album despite some weak songwriting ('Cecil Rons' being a prime example). Spent much of summer 1969 listening to this, Pink Floyd's 'More' soundtrack and Traffic's second album - they're all a fit, really. Later Caravan became more polished but less interesting somehow.

    ReplyDelete