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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Caravan: Back To Front


1) Back To Herne Bay Front; 2) Bet You Wanna Take It All / Hold On, Hold On; 3) A. A. Man; 4) Videos Of Holly­wood; 5) Sally Don't Change It; 6) All Aboard; 7) Taken My Breath Away; 8) Proper Job / Back To Front.

Look — a reunion! The band may have folded after The Album, but in less than two years, they are back, and look at the lineup: Pye Hastings on guitar! Richard Coughlan on drums! Dave Sinclair on keyboards! Richard Sinclair on bass! All songs written by Hastings, Sinclair, and Sinclair! It's 1968 all over again — or, perchance, even 1971?..

The most interesting thing about Back To Front is that it is heavily nostalgic. For most prog veterans, the early Eighties were not yet a time, usually, when they would look back with sadness and yearning on their glory days. Many were too busy tripling their hair volumes, learning drum machine programming, or finding other ways to compete with the new romantic youngsters on the charts (usually unsuccessfully, but at least it seemed to keep them alive at the time). With Back To Front, you can certainly sense by the production that it probably belongs in the early Eighties — but mostly it looks as if they are trying to recapture the inspiration of the days of Grey And Pink. There is even an epic track with instrumental jamming (ʽProper Job / Back To Frontʼ), although they do not dare to launch into full-scale multi-part suite mode.

I am not sure, however, that the final result would genuinely appeal to veteran fans of Caravan at their peak. Admittedly, the two-part finale is a grower, particularly the ʽBack To Frontʼ part, an ominous riff-based jam shaped as a crescendo, with the doom-struck bass groove gradually enhanced by more and more layers of keyboards, and then finally evaporating into nothing and leaving you in a state of dark anxiety — just like in the old days, when they used to end their records on suspenseful notes rather than landing them softly with some soothing Pye Hastings lullaby. Even so, the entire thing hardly holds a candle to the classic suites, since the overall sound is somehow too close to generically tepid jazz-fusion grooves: Sinclair's bass lines on ʽProper Jobʼ seem taken out of the fusion textbook, and Dave's synth tones are... well, too syn­thetic for my tastes at least.

The biggest problem is that everything else is, at best, trying to hold up to the level of ʽBack To Frontʼ, and, at worst, not even trying. The presence of Richard adds extra spice if you like his above-mentioned fusion-esque bass playing on the album (polished and perfected due to years of playing with Hatfield & The North), but hardly so if you have high hopes about his songwriting: ʽBack To Herne Bay Frontʼ is a rather non-descript exercise in nostalgia, and the wannabe-arena-rocker ʽA. A. Manʼ is really just another mid-tempo pop song with a boring anthemic chorus that cannot seem to decide if it wants to be soft and tender or powerful and angry. Dave, meanwhile, is credited for the writing of the closing suite, but he is also responsible for ʽVideos Of Holly­woodʼ, a draggy rhythmic ballad that seems to share the sentimentality, but not the charm of the Kinks' ʽCelluloid Heroesʼ, and for ʽSally Don't Change Itʼ, an even slower ballad that sounds... well, like an unfunny parody on a Billy Joel ballad, I'd say.

This leaves us with Pye, and Pye is the same Pye as he's been on the previous two albums. An oddly out of place tender rockabilly number (ʽBet You Wanna Take It Allʼ), seguing into a slow R&B ballad (ʽHold On Hold Onʼ), and a couple faceless pop numbers on the second side all seem to be rather jello-like — not hopeless choruses, perhaps, but everything sounds so silky, so fragile, so muffled and cuddled that whenever I try to concentrate on this stuff, I find myself figuratively drowning in some imaginary viscous fruit drink. Fun bit of trivia: the near-rapped mid-section on ʽTaken My Breath Awayʼ has the same vocal melody as Suzanne Vega's ʽTom's Dinerʼ — almost certainly a coincidence, since I cannot imagine Vega taking cues from a nearly unknown Caravan album. But what's up with the spelling of that title? Is ʽTaken My Breath Awayʼ an implicit tribute to AC/DC's ʽGiven The Dog A Boneʼ? That might not be a total coincidence.

Overall, the record is still a major improvement over the previous two albums — at the very least, there are no obvious embarrassments (like trying to do a reggae song or going disco at the wrong time), and that final suite is surprisingly better than I could have guessed. But it is also easy to see why the reunion did not hold up: trying to revive the classic Caravan vibe in the early Eighties was a bit like setting up a pro-Britain party in 1783. Absolutely nobody needed this at the time, and the reunited Caravan quickly split up again, even before it became obvious that the album would not sell, I believe — which, might I add, was a very good thing, because I shudder to think what the fate of a slightly cohesive Caravan could have been in the mid- to late Eighties. As it is, the Caravan finally took enough time to unpack, rest its weary legs, take a long drink, and sit out the rough times without getting into the heart of the shitstorm.

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