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Caravan - Better by Far CD (album) cover

BETTER BY FAR

Caravan

 

Canterbury Scene

2.86 | 101 ratings

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LionRocker
4 stars I guess that Canterbury musicians charting the well-worn waters of pop music could be a turn-off for "fans" of Caravan's earlier work, but pop when it's more than pop is great. This is one of my all time favorite Caravan releases and I believe that the first side of this album is smart pop par excellence despite the dirty scoundrel unworthy of "sophisticated" music it makes me. Why do I like such piffle, lovers of Dream Theater? I like to look at all of "Better By Far" as a string of great melodies - they just kept coming up with them - that, being much more inventive than the average, place them above the realm of mere pop music, as a term that has been used in protest against this evolution of Caravan. Saying that, there is also a great deal of effort from all the musicians and a superior production by the esteemed Tony Viscotti, hammered into this album.

We open with two numbers set in the pop rocker vein, they are completely and utterly simple in song structure but compensate that "flaw" simply by being pop taken to a near Beatle-esque level of catchiness. (Not that Caravan really sounds like the Mop-top mods, but I digress) "Feelin' Alright" and "Behind You", unbelievably, have verse melodies that match their choruses, which are more hooky than a Massachusetts cod boat, in terms of infectiousness. "Behind You", a would-be crowd raising chant of a number and a particular favorite, has a wonderfully sharp contrast between the verses and the chorus. I adore how the song goes from a 'happy stomper' in the verses to something a little more menacing in the chorus. (How can you not feel a bit threatened by a song whose overall message is "Slow down, boy, or they'll carry you hooooooome")

The title track, I'm sure, is a guilty pleasure for many of those who claim to be fans of Caravan's prog work only. However, it's merely a pleasure for me. This song is one of simple ambitions with a meaning that is discernible as soon as that alluring guitar riff opens up the piece, however, despite a lyrical theme that has reoccurred in songs since many a bard has pledged his troth to the fairest maiden in the land, "Better by Far" is one of Mr. Pye's most seductive and melodic ballads ever. It is his excellent vocal performance, most of allr, that gets me so enraptured in this song. Pye is at his most humble and gentle but sounds entirely infatuated by a certain woman who he would want nothing more than to lay down beside her tonight. It never gets anymore complicated than that but in a simple three minutes, he manages to sound more convincing than the legions of modern commercial singers and teen stars who dedicate their careers to writing about something as trivial as love.

Now, nothing else on this album really reaches the pure intelligent pop perfection of the first three songs but everything else is immensely enjoyable as well. The lightweights on this album, the adorable nursery rhyming violin pop, "Silver Strings", the light midnight waltz, "Give Me More", (With bad Claire Tory-like backing vocals in the chorus) and the very optimistic "Let it Shine", must have been a bane to many a proghead but once again, someone who appreciates brilliant hooks (like this lush pop loving yuppie author) will really dig 'em. Of course, I will agree that it was tracks like these that previewed the band's imminent decline in the eighties. "Silver Strings" and "Give Me More", especially, frame what was so grossly wrong with "The Album": Half assed genre experimentation that Caravan had little or no talent, promise, or interest in trying out. However, both of these aforementioned songs have strong melodies to save them from being utterly despised by moi, unlike several songs on "The Album".

To avoid enduring the wrath of the long hairs, Caravan also manage to prove they still have their musical prowess and pen three fully worthy prog numbers, "The Last Unicorn", "Man in a Car", and "Nightmare". "The Last Unicorn", (Despite having a title that is somehow more fruity than all of the pompous song titles by Kansas, Rush, Supertramp, and Renaissance) is quite possibly the stunning sequel to "A Hunting We Shall Go" but much more compact and filled with more flowing violin majesty and less wank. The six minute "Man in a Car" is more in a much poppier style but is filled with spontaneous bursts of minimoog soloing after every chorus repetition. I would also like to give an honorable mention to the darkly gorgeous ambient bridge sections that are undoubtedly made even more luscious by Tony Viscotti's atmospheric production. The closing epic "Nightmare", is a bit of a stumble, though, it starts off with Pye at his most solemn, singing a really melancholic and desperate melody but by the third minute, the excellent melody disappears and in it's place is something more in "Adult Contemporary" vein. For shame.

"Better by Far" is Caravan's peak as a pop outfit. I find most of the melodies on this album to be among the band's most inspired and it's an absolute shame that this album has so many unjust haters. Ah well, their loss. If you love inventive, inoffensive, idiosyncratic pop and don't dismiss a song for it's simple structure, this album is a must.

Album Grade: A-

LionRocker | 4/5 |

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