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.