CARAVAN: THE ALBUM (1980)
1) Heartbreaker; 2) Corner Of My Eye; 3) Watcha Gonna Tell Me; 4) Piano Player; 5) Make Yourself At Home; 6) Golden Mile; 7) Bright Shiny Day; 8) Clear Blue Sky; 9) Keepin' Up De Fences.
By the early Eighties, Caravan were in a total state of flux: their Arista contract fizzled out, some of the band members quietly quit, and so it was almost by accident that somehow, in 1980, they found themselves in the studio once again — and with Dave Sinclair in person returning for the third time, no less. Now they found themselves signed exclusively to Kingdom Records, the small label of their former manager Terry King (which used to distribute their recordings in Europe), they had three of the original members, and they split the songwriting three ways, with Hastings, Sinclair, and Richardson each taking a near-equal share. Perhaps one could hope for a slight improvement over the mediocrity of Better By Far?
Well, look no further than ʽHeartbreakerʼ, the opening single (no relation to Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones), for the revelation. It opens with a broken-hearted (yeah right) bluesy riff, so muffled, so glossy, so tight-wedged in the hum-hum-humming of the synthesizer wraps, that it is clear from the first fifteen seconds: whatever melodic potential there is here, it is going to be smothered by awful production, and once again what used to be the strong side of Caravan — a sense of sentimental humility — is going to work to their absolute disadvantage. But that is only the beginning of our problems: by the time we get to the chorus, it is clear that Caravan have pretty much mutated into Air Supply, or America, or any of those limp soft-rock outfits who thought that the more shallow they made their tenderness, the more appeal it would find among those people for whom even ʽHere, There And Everywhereʼ was too deep. The hookline of ʽHeartbreakerʼ — "while with you was a heartache, without you is a hell" — is not only barely grammatical and barely pronounceable, but is also unsingable with a straight face.
Still, at least Pye's other two contributions are arguably the highest points of this sorry mess of an album: ʽBright Shiny Dayʼ has him in solid McCartney mode, with a sunshiny chorus that makes good use of his high-pitched modulation and heavier emphasis on catchy guitar licks than on the synthesizers, and ʽKeepin' Up De Fencesʼ — if you can make peace with the idea of disco basslines on a Caravan song (and we all knew it was coming, sooner or later... in 1980, though? what a bunch of retards!), it is the only song on this album that genuinely rocks, with a fine flashy guitar solo at the end and true proof that Richard Coughlan can keep a fast, steady, tight beat and ornate it with expressive fills at the same time.
I wish I could be just as empathetic to Richardson; but ʽCorner Of My Eyeʼ is just another one of these taking-itself-too-seriously soft-rock cornballs, not helped much by the surprising transformation into rollickin' pop-rock in the bridge section — and ʽClear Blue Skyʼ is Caravan's first and last foray into the distant world of reggae, a track that they try to make more psychedelic by adding «cloudy» synth swirls all over the place, but Richardson's strained vocals are awful, his scat singing over the syncopated rhythm chords is even worse, and at six and a half minutes, the song tries to present itself as something epic when in reality it seems to simply follow the guideline of "hey wait, we've never done a reggae song yet? come on now, everybody's done at least one reggae song! this will be fun, like a ʽBob Marley goes to Canterburyʼ kind of thing!"
Which leaves us with the Dave Sinclair songs, and I don't remember much about them after three or four listens, except that they kinda sounded like a mix of Elton John and Billy Joel (heck, one of them is even called ʽPiano Playerʼ, for Chrissake!). ʽMake Yourself At Homeʼ is ʽHonky Catʼ-like funk-pop that could really benefit from a strong singer like Elton, but has absolutely no future with these totally disinterested vocals (is that bass player Dek Messecar singing? he has no personality whatsoever).
I would not say that The Album is a significant drop down from the level of 1977 — the only difference is that here, there is not even a single superficial attempt to retain the «progressive» legacy of classic Caravan, but then, this is not necessarily a bad thing: from a certain point of view, it makes them more honest about what they are trying to do. The problem is that Caravan as a bona fide pop band, with no additional ambition, is a suicidal proposal — they never had the cockiness, the energy, the great guitar tones, the vivaciousness that should go along with a great pop band. They almost succeeded with Blind Dog, though, but then they ran out of inspiration and sheer power altogether, and now all we have is utter blandness. Thumbs down.