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Old 01-04-2011, 10:56 PM   #11 (permalink)
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Cunning stunts
(Decca 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
- The mad dabsong
- Ben Karratt rides again
- Pro's and con's
- Wraiks and ladders
- Sneaking out the Bare Square
- All sorts of unmemorable things

7. The Fear and Loathing in Tollington Park


I'm well aware that this is where a lot of fans lose interest in Caravan but I really don't see how that could be explained judged strictly from the music on "Cunning stunts" (allegedly a wordplay on "stunning c u n t s", something they had proved themselves rather fond of. Wordplays, I mean. What did you think?). You see, I'm gonna skip ahead here and state that I really dig this album and claim that it's not an iota worse than, say, their debut or "If I could screw you all over again, I would". (Hey, don't blame me! They started it!). Maybe it has something to do with prog starting to decline or maybe it's their overall turn towards lush pop, but I don't buy that. See, the structuring of this record doesn't really differ from any previous Caravan album and they still manage to deliver a lengthy epic towards the end, and as for the decline of prog, well, that doesn't explain the popularity of such records as "Going for the one". No, allow me to speculate that it's basically ignorance that keeps even fans away from this, and it was indeed released in the shadows of both the marvellous predecessor two years earlier, as well as their concerto performance that followed so it's understandable that it couldn't live up to the expectations. But it deserves a chance and you should grant it, or else I'll be forced to dock off a point from my rating of you and we'll see how fun that is!

It opens on a really grand note with "The show of our lives" that almost manages to out-Queen Queen. That ascending chorus is really something, and newcomer Mike Wedgewood does an outstanding job in contributing the vocals. Yes, forgot to tell you; Since the last time he replaced John G. Perry on bass guitar and occasional vocals, as on this one. The grand piano and all those ethereal gospel stunts (cunning stunts indeed!) make for an almost celestial atmosphere. I can picture the song ascending and spreading out like a giant feathery cloud in the sky, can you? It's followed by the bouncy pop-rocker "Stuck in a hole" which isn't brilliant but a good McCartney-like relief in the process. "Lover" however, is a duffer and this is all Wedgewood's fault. He seized his chance to slip in some stuff himself, one of which is this sugary soul ballad. It's not suitable for Caravan at all, and I'd even say that it's not suitable for anyone. It sounds like something Glenn Hughes would sneak onto a contemporary Purple record. (This is the second time I'm forced to mention him in a Caravan review! Why won't he leave me alone? Get that bastard out of here! He's a criminal! He kills good bands for no reason!)

Anyway, it's followed by another highlight in "No backstage pass" in which Pye shows off just about everything; His ever-growing songwriting skills, likewise growing singing abilities and tasteful guitarworks. This is probably one of his best guitar solos, reminding of both Steve Hackett and Andy Latimer, the latter especially thanks to the scat singing that joins in halfway through. And the main melody is top-notch, soothed by his tender vocals. Then it's time for another Wedgewood-penned thingie, this time better though, being a chugging funk sendup (and yes, I know what I've said about funk but this one at least has a decent melody) named "Welcome the day". Nothing special but a nice breather before the main course is served.

Yeah, you guessed it. They were still not through with side-long multipart epics, although they would be after this one. "The dabsong conshirtoe" ends that grandiose tradition on a really high note, I say. Basically it's a bunch of half-baked songs stitched together, but then again, what Caravan epic isn't? No part overstays its welcome which means the song never has the chance of becoming boring. It begins as a lightweight, almost Hollywoodish, ballad that soon gets mixed up with a rocking brass-driven section during which Pye really shines as a singer. It kinda reminds me of late-period Beatles (which is one of the finest awards you can get), and we all know how the second half of "Abbey Road" was put together, right? Half-baked songs hastily glued together, and if it worked for them, why wouldn't it work for anyone else? Because everyone else are inferior, that's why. But Caravan proved to be talented enough to pull it off. After a brief orchestral break it then finds its way into the obligatory flute passage, probably one of their absolute best and most melodic ever. And the good thing is that it returns after the jazzy solo passage, which by the way is really nicely executed too. It all comes to a conclusion with a lengthy riff-fest dissolving into a total cacaphony of snippets taken from just about everywhere. Kinda like the coda of "I am the walrus" or something. Do you think Beatles would have made a good Canterbury band? Man, this is my number one bet for the best Caravan epic ever, and this alone is a reason not to disregard the album. Oh yeah, the album ends with a minute of instrumental country-rag which is nice and all, but not terribly worthy of being written about more than this.

So, you see, the race wasn't run for the band even in the steadily darkening mid-70's, not yet. The tendency to streamline the sound to the more accessible genres of the time was starting to make itself visible, and I'm not talking about the orchestrated lush pop here, rather the sugary ballads and soul/funk/disco/whatever influences. But they were still brave enough to hang on to their own standards and besides, Pye's songwriting was definitely on a roll, and anyone who can apply to the formula of generic pop and still come out with winners, is definitely worthy of praise.
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Old 01-05-2011, 04:13 PM   #12 (permalink)
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Ahh, For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night .. What a marvellous album!

A very few years ago, I was temporarily staying in Longyearbyen in the norwegian arctic to do labwork at the university centre there. It was December, dark as the blackest night 24 hours a day and horribly cold. Most of the people I knew up there had left the island, so it was a very dark and strange place to be. I lived in a large barrack with shared kitchens where I was the only person. For a couple of weeks up there, I spoke to only a very few people.

It was at that time I first checked out musicbanter, looking for some online company as I was feeling quite lonely. However, I wasn't completely alone because right around that time, I discovered For Girls Who Grow Plump In the Night. I had a little mp3 player I would listen to as I walked through the gales down to the lab and a little radio with a mini jack input and I listened to that album a lot. I even put some speakers in the bathroom once so I could listen to it while taking a long shower. It's auditorily distilled sunshine was a great spirit lifter in that kind of environment and it quickly became a bit of a love relationship with an album which was stronger than I'd felt in years.

It was definetly something about that situation and that environment which made the record stand out, though. When I got back to the mainland, my relationship with it sobered up a bit, but it remains a very strong Caravan favourite for me. I absolutely love the viola on the album and the orchestral arrangements towards the end are breathtaking. There are many fine little details, like the little hook some 3:45 minutes into "Be All Right / Chance of a Lifetime". I remember how, up there, after hearing the thunderous bang at the end of the record, I just wanted to loop back to Memory Lain. Brilliant album!


As for Cunning Stunts, I agree that it is enjoyable. You point out the highlights and I quite enjoy "lover", although I might agree that it doesn't really suit the band that well. No Backstage Pass is a gorgeous song and The Dabsong Conshirtoe is a fine piece of work
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Old 01-05-2011, 04:46 PM   #13 (permalink)
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Great story! I understand how that album hold a special place for you, it's just one of those defining periods of time for which certain albums become the soundtrack. And it's cool to see how you agree upon the notion of Caravan being like auditory sunshine.
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Old 01-07-2011, 03:30 PM   #14 (permalink)
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Blind dog at St. Dunstan's
(Repatoire 1976)

1. Here am I
2. Chiefs and indians
3. A very smelly, grubby litle oik
4. Bobbing wide
5. Come on back
6. Oik (reprise)
7. Jack and Jill
8. Can you hear me?
9. All the way (with John Wayne's single-handed liberation of Paris)



Okay, this is not prog! Not at all. Of course that doesn't mean it's bad or anything but there's this thing with prog bands doing things that ain't prog that somewhat prevents the seasoned progsters from approaching it with a clean mind. I know, I am one myself and it took some time for me as well to get used to the notion of acquainting, much less liking, the poppier dinosaur output that started to emerge from the mid-70's onward. But don't you dare dismiss it just because it isn't prog, because that is obviously not the main factor that made certain records suck big time. Relative latecomers such as Rush and Camel carried on just fine into the 80's for example, and even some of the Genesis stuff of the time qualify as well, despite it not being considered prog anymore. Likewise, the reason why Yes's "90125" stinks is not because it isn't prog but because it's synth-disguised sleaze rock (or a pile of digital dung, whichever you prefer). In short, records rule or suck because of what they are, not because of what they aren't.

And this record, well it doesn't exactly rule but it sure is listenable and cheering in the best Caravan tradition and I suppose we have our favourite sissy boy mr. Hastings to thank for that. Dave Sinclair left the band once again and was replaced by Jan Schelhaas and the overall approach seem to somewhat hearken back to "Waterloo Lily" with all the funky electric pianos, clavinets and whatnots. But this time around it all seems to gel together much more fluently because the playing is actually suspended in compact and well-written songs in contrast to aimless jamming. For the first time however, I find it a bit hard to talk about the separate songs on this album but several of them sound almost like Steely Dan with all the gospelish harmonies and syncopated bass rythms, proving after all that Caravan are capable of being the funk soul brother, check it out now! This transatlantic feel is especially present on tracks like "Come on back", "Can you hear me", Jack and Jill" and the very Steely Dan-ish "Chiefs and indians" that would not have sounded out of place on an album like "Countdown to ecstasy". Surely we've gone a long way from Canterbury by now. And the bass line in "Jack and Jill" is killer! Who said that white nerds can't play the funk? Oh yes, I did. So I contradict myself? I am vast, I contain multitudes!

The opener "Here am I" is a cheerful light rocker that sounds suspiciously like Styx but, like in the case of Kansas, better because Caravan aren't nauseating and Styx are (although it isn't too hard to imagine it being ruined by Tommy Shaw). The highlight though, and the only track that somewhat stands out, is saved for last; The majestic "All the way" that continues the tradition of "The show of our lives" and even parts of "The love in your eye" with a mellow but stately, even Broadwayish, melody set to a carefully orchestrated arrangement with a bit of flute and woodwind here and there. I'd really like to see this used for a film score if it hasn't been already, preferrably set to the final scenes of course. This is just about what I find myself able to write about this album though, since there's not too much to write about. The melodies are all decent but nothing, apart from the closing track, stands out. But this was all but expected from what we have experienced from Caravan up until now, and the tendencies were there already on the previous album even if I must stress that they managed to expand on it on here. The songs are all compact and well performed and nothing sounds the least bit inadequate, as differed to songs like "Lover" on the predecessor.

So all in all, "Blind dog at St. Dunstan's" is a decent but not terribly memorable album, clearly scented by its time period. Of course, noone should ever think about starting their Caravan collection with this one, but I'm keen to add that you shouldn't end it with it either. Hang on to find out why!
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Old 01-07-2011, 04:26 PM   #15 (permalink)
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I'm not very familiar with Blind Dog, but I've given it a couple of spins while I was, admittedly, preoccupied with something else. However, I liked both Chiefs and Indians and Bobbing Wide, although how I think they compare to the rest of the songs on the album I shouldn't say before I've given it a few more spins. What I like about Chiefs and Indians is that groovy jammin' part from the middle and onwards with a nice, almost Zappaish brass section playing along. Very cool!

Bobbing Wide is a comfortable, sleepy little tune with some probing flute. Those may not stand out to most people, but I love that kind of stuff.

From what I've heard, it's a fine pop record which I intend to listen to more of. It also marks the final frontier, sort of, because their later material is largely uncharted territory for me. Looking forward to read about it, of course.
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Old 01-07-2011, 06:02 PM   #16 (permalink)
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By the way, do you ever get the feeling that you're the only one who cares about Caravan?
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Old 01-08-2011, 03:19 AM   #17 (permalink)
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I sometimes I get the feeling I'm the only one who cares about a lot of different things. I try not to let it affect me
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Old 01-09-2011, 11:20 AM   #18 (permalink)
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Great stuff really informative thank you.
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Old 01-11-2011, 06:24 AM   #19 (permalink)
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By the way, a little piece of trivia regarding plump girls. For the slow building orchestral theme in the last track, they've certainly borrowed from Soft Machine's song "Backwards". My version of the song is on Soft Machine live album Noisette which was recorded in 1970, but wasn't released until 2000. Those interested should definetly check it out.
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Old 01-14-2011, 12:20 AM   #20 (permalink)
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Better by far
(Arista 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



Would you believe me if I told you that our supposedly washed-out heroes from Canterbury actually managed to squeeze out one of the best pop records of 1977, of all years? Well, maybe you would and you should too, because despite what the critics or the chart statistics or the nerds at Progarchives will tell you, "Better by far" surely is better by far. Just like on "Blind dog", all of the tracks are relatively short but I dare say that this time around they are also diverse and built upon simple but catchy melodies which will stay with you a long time after you turn it off.

If anyone's interested I can start with telling you that Mike Wedgewood was replaced by Dek Messecar on bass guitar, which may or may not have a part in the fact that the funk'n soul elements present on here are nowhere near as obnoxious or good-for-nothing as on "Blind dog" or "Gunning c u n t s". No wait, get outta here, Ted Nugent! Because essentially, the word of the day is power pop of the kind Big Star and Badfinger popularized (and that Beatles, Kinks and Byrds originated) and it kicks you right between the eyes from the very beginning. "Feelin' alright" sounds like a bona fide McCartney-penned Beatles tune circa 1965 and drags you with it in its truly uplifting catchiness and sets the tone for the whole record which rarely lets down this magnificent opening even a single bit on its way. "Behind you" showcases Caravan as fully capable of adopting a barroom rocker to their own harmful setting, and I can't help but sense a striking resemblance to whatever hard rock bands like UFO or Whitesnake did around this time. Of course, Caravan wouldn't touch metal with a ten foot stick but the vibe is there, man! The vibe is there! Not a highlight though, but essentially they pull it off.

The lighter side of things are represented by the title track with a really pretty guitar line and the song itself could be seen as succeeding where "Lover" failed. Not overblown by some uncalled for soul gymnastics, just a mellow and humble ballad distinguished by said guitar melody. Even better in that respect is the folksy Kinks-like "Give me more", greeting us with a neat whistling synth melody setting the scene in which Pye encounters a whore and proceeds to abuse her with certain bondage devices. Oh yes, you thought he had reached the limits of decency with that dog that was at it again four years ago? Forget that! His eagerness to show off his gigolo skills has only increased over time. I wonder if we're supposed to draw any conclusions from the album cover? Or the orgasmic wailings of Vicki Brown in the chorus? Whatever may be, it's still a nice song. As is the closing epic "Nightmare" that somewhat presages the lush symphonic indierock sound that Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips successfully would adopt in the 90's. I could easily see those fragile vocal deliveries performed by Wayne Coyne. And "Let it shine" which precedes it is yet another Beatlish pop tune, spiced with a Harrison-like guitar line that enhances its already sunshiny atmosphere.

In the midst of it all we also have the strange funk sendup "Silver strings" that is done completely Bowie-style, which may be a result of the record being produced by Tony Visconti. The drums sound almost pre-programmed in the trademark 'Berlin' kind of way and the bass line is weirdly deconstructed, and over it all we have a minimalistic guitar pattern that wouldn't sound out of place on "Heroes" or "Low". And what about the Traffic-meets-Supertramp, although less bloated, "Man in a car", with its crawling pace and hazy psychedelic vocals? Man, this is one mixed bag! But I consciously saved the best for last in this review. Apparently, Caravan felt they had to reconnect with their roots somehow and decided to throw in an instrumental and slightly updated Canterbury tribute, and to pay their respect to the queer community, dub it "The last unicorn" (ok, that last part may be subject for speculation). And might I say, it ends up being their best instrumental number ever, as well as one of their best songs altogether! It's simply breathtaking from beginning to end, starting with some gently strummed chords and Richardson's contemplating viola (he is the author of the piece, by the way), leading into a beautiful synth/recorder break that out-Camels Camel in just a few seconds. And then it throws itself headfirst into a rapid jazz-rock fiesta a'la National Health/Hatfield & The North, where Pye fires off what must be his finest guitar solo ever. Then everything settles down into the opening chords over which a tear-jerking flute waves goodbye. I dare say that this is the single best song of 1977, even with albums like "Going for the one" being in the competition, and that says a lot! Its only flaw is that it's too short. I would want it to go on for ten minutes or so, but then again, maybe not. The best songs always leave you craving for more, right? A prog masterpiece in pocket format, hands down!

So it turns out that Caravan really was a force to reckon with after all, even in the darkest depths of prog degeneration towards the end of the decade, which some of the other giants couldn't even handle. That speaks tons of their endurance and creativity, and not least of how they successfully managed to transform into a pop act instead of trying to force upon themselves some prog formula just for the sake of it. But on the other hand, they always had it in them, didn't they?
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