CARAVAN: CUNNING STUNTS (1975)
1) The Show Of Our Lives; 2) Stuck In A Hole; 3) Lover; 4) No Backstage Pass; 5) Welcome The Day; 6) The Dabsong Conshirtoe; 7) The Fear And Loathing In Tollington Park Rag.
While the band's obsessive attraction to sexual jokes and innuendos seems to have become a permanent fixture — as witnessed by the current title — the musical direction that the Hastings-led Caravan was taking clearly took a sharp turn in between 1973 and 1975. Technically, Cunning Stunts is still a progressive rock album, what with most of the second side being given over to yet another complex, multi-part suite, and some of the other songs still showing a strong classical and/or jazz influence. But in reality, the whole thing sounds more like «art pop» now, hook-based, potentially radio-friendly and mass-accessible songs without anything particularly unpredictable, bizarre, or musically challenging about them.
Part of the blame could be lifted off Pye's shoulders and placed on the new band member, bass player Mike Wedgwood, who is, for instance, guilty of bringing with him arguably the least Caravan-like song so far in their catalog — the soft funk-rocker ʽWelcome The Dayʼ, which, honestly, sounds more like The Average White Band than anything Canterbury-related, and is only salvageable due to Geoffery Richardson's viola accompaniment (it is not every day, after all, that you hear a viola take an integral part in a funk rocker) and Hastings' inspired wah-wah solo, which he somehow manages to deliver with suitably hard rocking fiery aggression, though, unfortunately, the rest of the band still sleepwalks through it while he is kicking their asses. Also, for that matter, Wedgwood's vocals are quite a heavy blow for all those accustomed to Sinclair's and Hastings' sweet, disarmingly childlike tones — Wedgwood introduces a belt-it-out arena-rock component, bringing on unnecessary associations with Foreigner way before Foreigner even formed, so there's definitely something evil going on.
Still, it was Pye who okayed Wedgwood in the first place, and it is Dave Sinclair who is responsible for much of the songwriting on the album, so blame it on the new times, not the new people. And, besides, why should one necessarily talk in terms of blaming? So now the band does sound, occasionally, more like Elton John than Caravan: this is particularly evident on Pye's muscular pop-rocker ʽStuck In A Holeʼ, which (perhaps, quite subconsciously, as a result of too much radio listening) borrows the rhythmic pattern from Elton's ʽPhiladelphia Freedomʼ, and on Wedgwood's second contribution, the slow, power-chord driven ballad ʽLoverʼ, where some of the vocal moves instinctively echo Elton's tragic-redemptional intonations on ʽSomeone Saved My Life Tonightʼ (is it really a coincidence that we are talking about two back-to-back Caravan songs here reflecting the possible influence of two back-to-back Elton John singles released in the same year?). But while ʽLoverʼ certainly drags, and its orchestral climax also comes out as meandering and muzak-y rather than properly climactic à la Buckmaster, ʽStuck In A Holeʼ is fun and catchy, and I am not ready to count an Elton John influence on a prog-rock band as necessarily denigrating — hey, as long as you are cleverly ripping off Captain Fantastic-era material, you may have any pedigree you like without dishonoring yourself.
At other times, they sound like the pompous, anthemic symph-pop of Argent — ʽThe Show Of Our Livesʼ, for the first time in Caravan history, tries to introduce them grandly and ceremoniously, with a slow celebratory march and a genuine wall of sound. It's done with taste, and Pye, in particular, contributes fabulously melodic guitar passages; as the multi-tracked choir steps in with the final "ring the bells and sing, gather 'round and sing" incantation, we enter ʽHey Judeʼ mode, not as boldly and full-heartedly, perhaps, as should be done for full cathartic effect, but to some effect, sure. Is this «commercialization»? From a certain point of view, most naturally: a bit of straightforward grandioseness, in the age of arena-rock and AOR, could be regarded as a gamble for extra popularity. On the other hand, just how legitimate a prog-rock band could be without having at least one Big Universalist Anthem to its name?..
As to the oddly titled ʽDabsong Conshirtoeʼ, it is far from the best Caravan epic, but it's a good piece of work all the same. It has far more lyrics and vocals than their usual epics, and could, in fact, be construed as merely a sequence of autonomous ballads and rockers, but it still finds some space in the middle to incorporate a waltzing jazz-rock jam, and it also features an unusual ending: the last part is a lengthy, repetitive vamp centered around a loud, paranoid hard rock riff with quasi-chaotic walls of sonic noise gradually rising against it, before the stormy rumble ends up drowning itself in a reprise of the "ring the bells and sing" part of ʽThe Show Of Our Livesʼ. I guess this symbolizes the ultimate triumph of Harmony over Chaos — well, it would be strange to expect anything less than that from a band as naturally optimistic as Caravan.
Upon some deliberation, I'm still inclined to call Cunning Stunts a thumbs up-worthy success. It's a little slow and draggy in places, and a little out-of-their-league in others, and a clear dropdown off the Plump In The Night level, but overall, they are in good shape to survive the crisis of the mid-Seventies if you grant them the permission to move one step away from the classic Caravan spirit and incorporate all these other influences. On the other hand, it is also a transitional album, suffering from a lack of clear understanding of what exactly it is that they want to be at the moment: Blind Dog At St. Dunstan's would soon be spelling out the new status in a far more transparent manner. Still, no reason whatsoever to ignore this work — as far as I'm concerned, it still forms an essential part of the band's «classic streak».