CARAVAN: BETTER BY FAR (1977)
1) Feelin' Alright; 2) Behind You; 3) Better By Far; 4) Silver Strings; 5) The Last Unicorn; 6) Give Me More; 7) Man In A Car; 8) Let It Shine; 9) Nightmare.
Okay, so if you want a proverbial example of what a «major drop in quality» truly means, look no further than the alarming gap that divides Blind Dog At St. Dunstan's, an energetic, inspired, and emotional pop album with progressive overtones, from Better By Far, a limp, mechanical, openly boring exercise in radio-friendly MOR music with no overtones whatsoever. It is always a puzzle to me how the exact same band can go from exciting to insipid in the short span separating one record from another, but yes, these things do happen.
First, this record does not rock, not in the slightest. Where Blind Dog gave us some nifty funky grooves, nicely steeped in a sharp, sarcastic attitude, Better By Far is almost completely given over to quiet, inoffensive soft-rock workouts, with completely conventional musical skeletons, generic (and heavily synth-based) musical arrangements, and energy levels that often sound pitiful compared to The Eagles, let alone the new blood of the punk movement of 1977. The opening number, ʽFeelin' Alrightʼ (not a Traffic cover), should be getting me up on my feet, cheering and clapping and welcoming a brand new day — instead, despite all the formal upbeatness, it feels drab and colorless, most of the «excitement» provided by Schelhaas' ugly and boring synth tone, and Pye's vocals inexplicably drowning in the sea of lackluster instrumentation instead of soaring on top of them. And that chorus? Other than a slight, predictable, pitch rise on the "feeling alRIGHT" bit, it does not even try too hard to separate itself from the pedestrian march of the verses. Awfully disappointing.
And it never gets better — all of these songs sound as if Pye and the others wrote them in about half an hour. The second song, ʽBehind Youʼ, rests on the same melodic foundations as ʽFeelin' Alrightʼ and tries to produce the exact same mood, except that it also incorporates a funky mid-section, again, dominated by ugly keyboards. The title track leads us into balladeering territory and ends up sounding even more like contemporary Bee Gees than like contemporary Wings, Pye's sweet voice being pretty much the song's only saving grace as it finally manages to elevate itself above the MOR arrangement. But all of that is nothing compared to Richardson's ʽSilver Stringsʼ, which actually seems to intentionally sound like modern Bee Gees — disco basslines, falsetto harmonies, and a silly artistic gimmick where the "let me hear the silver strings" refrain is followed by some lazy mandolin plucking.
Some of the (usually just as bitterly disappointed) reviews of the album single out the last track, ʽNightmareʼ, as the LP's high point — most likely because it is the longest, most complex, and most «progressively oriented» song of the lot (and also features the most enigmatic, introspective, and noticeably troubled lyrics on the album). My impression, however, is that it is just as boring and mushy as everything here — a slow trotter, all atmosphere and very little proper melody, not to mention zero energy: even the violin and guitar solos, though technically melodic, mostly just meander on the spot and never end up going anywhere. I mean, you'd think a song called ʽNightmareʼ should have something nightmarish about it, right? Well, there's hardly anything more «nightmarish» about it than there is about, say, an Elton John ballad from Blue Moves.
Vainly do I try to find anything here that would even remotely repeat, for instance, the triumph of the chorus of ʽAll The Wayʼ — now there, too, was a slow, sentimental, conventionally written epic ballad, but it did sound epic: it was an anthem, played out with a winning mix of tenderness and determination, gaining more and more strength and spirit as it went by. Strength and spirit are sorely lacking on this sucker, though — and, okay, if you don't have strength and spirit, give us bleakness, weakness, and chaos, show us a shining example of depression, but do not feed us with this gray blandness. Better By Far? «Better by far» than what, I wonder? The title alone is so irritating that I have no choice other than to give the record a thumbs down — the first truly bad record in Caravan history; yes, this is definitely one of those albums that may be counted as «one of the reasons punk had to happen», except the commercial fortunes of Caravan were so low at the time that most punks probably never heard it in the first place.