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Caravan - Caravan CD (album) cover




Canterbury Scene

3.68 | 480 ratings

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4 stars 13/15P.: The Piper at the gates of Canterbury, so to say. It's perhaps the most underrated and most groundbreaking album by this band and worthwile alone for David Sinclair's impassionate organ playing. This guy enriches the whole album with wooly organ carpets and breathtaking counterpoints, components which were sadly reduced significantly on the subsequent Caravan albums.

I don't know Caravan for too long. Still spending my time in school at the moment, I unfortunately wasn't allowed to enjoy this music when it first appeared, so I had to investigate the so-called Canterbury Scene 40 years after it was in its full blossom. The first record I bought was Camel's "Mirage", then came Soft Machine's "Third" in 2008, Khan's "Space Shanty" in late 2010 and the third one was Caravan's debut album in early 2011. Soon, some later Caravan albums found their way into my shelf, actually all from 1970 to 1974 - but my striking conclusion is, especially regarding the big mass of reviews in the WWW: none of these albums is as consistently good as this one. In The Land of Grey and Pink has good compositions, but a thin sound due to David Sinclair playing more solos and less chord textures.

Of course - it's 1968, and there's plenty of dated 60s psychedelia which is assimilated here, but - as I've just said - Caravan really assimilate the spirit of the time and thus create a piece of music which stands the test of time. It is as mindblowing today as it most probably was in 1968. And the huge advantage is that Caravan are more concise than on all their later records. The organ solos start where they have to start and are followed by the next stanza or by a new part just before they run the risk of becoming overlong. The songwriting is top-notch, too - less hooks

Place of My Own, the opener, already points out where the journey shall go: a distant drum roll, then a melange of floating organ loops, restrained rhythm guitar (a Rickenbacker, by the way - the Fender XII guitar with the golf-club headstock for which Pye Hastings would become famous isn't used here yet) and high-pitched lead vocals which can't deny that the singer grew up with R&B and soul. It's Pye Hastings, who played with Robert Wyatt in the band Wilde Flowers before and whose voice interestingly sounds just like Robert's (and Robert certainly doesn't have a most common voice!). The chord progression actually isn't too difficult, but Pye's melody isn't really the one you would expect, and that's what good songwriting is all about. The creepy stanzas are followed by quite up-beat choruses, and inbetween there is an awesome Hammond organ solo. It's just one minute long, and there's neither a Leslie nor a Wah Wah pedal used, but it cast a spell on me the first time I listened to it. It's just a Hammond L100 the organ with a loud key-click played through a guitar amp, and it grows and floats on top of a groovy rhythm until a breakdown around 2.30. Organ and guitar enter again, with organist Dave Sinclair trying out his typical wah-organ sound the first time. The last chorus, played twice this time, and the song ends after a short organ outro.

Ride is the typical psychedelic thing, albeit without any sitars: the whole piece stays on a minimal drum beat (think Steeleye Span's Boys of Bedlam) and one drone while guitar and voice wind around each other, based on a really successful melody. The introspective verses (I try and find a place in my mind, where I know I can go and leave all behind) find relief in the upbeat instrumental interludes which already sound quite like Canterbury music, complete with rising Hammond organ chords and a fairly simple bluesy chord progression. But the more 'scalic' approach in the stanzas, i.e. moving the scales up and down, and the steady Hammond sound (without the usual swirling of the Leslie) - both factors are present on most of the pieces - actually make me feel reminded of Medieval church music, Gothic sounds in the truest sense of the word, conjoint with early 70s rock music. The plethora of reverb, limiting and compression effects enhances this mood furthermore. Actually I have rarely heard a late 60s record which makes such a sombre impression on me without sounding like a stoned-out experiment. Perhaps this is the point which the band takes up in the liner notes: they complain that the sound is quite fat and compressed, but not exactly what the band was aiming at when recording it.

I don't know if it's meant this way, but Policeman makes me think of late-60s drug razzias, such as the infamous Rolling Stones incident in 1967. forty people more locked behind the door In the bathroom, Hope you don't go in for at least an hour. However - with less than 3 minutes it's the shortest track in the album, and one of the two pieces which Richard Sinclair composed. Everybody who knows Richard Sinclair's later compositions knows that his songs are always full of strange chord changes (Golf Girl), and this piece makes no difference. Again, the production stands out; Pye Hastings is on bass guitar this time and has a really chunky sound while the drums sound as if they were recorded in a church.

Magic Man is as simple as a late 60s piece can be, perhaps The Tremeloes' Call Me Number One is even more complex, both in composition and in arrangement. But in a way both pieces are quite alike. Of course Magic Man is more hymnic, based on a slow 6/8 metre with atmospheric harmony vocals, but both pieces are examples of what I mentioned in the first lines of this review. There's no denying that this is music from the 1960s, but it still sounds impressive and fresh. Richard Sinclair's and Pye Hastings' voices blend wonderfully in the chorus, there's quiet 12-string-electric guitar strumming all the way through and Sinclair's organ loops provide the 'cerebral' component with the dreamy wah wah effects. Yes, it's not only an ok track, I really do approve of it very much!

Love Song With Flute is the album's torch song, a slow soul number, a tasteful British love song with an awesome jazzy melody and the full dynamic bandwidth: soft vocals, quiet guitar picking and a few hi-hat strokes in the first stanza, reverberated harmony vocals and Hammond organ in the chorus and a wonderful bossa nova rhythm in double speed in the second stanza. A slightly weird jazz vamp (at 1:24, for instance) keeps it all together, dominated by Sinclair's tight organ playing. Pretty much going on here in terms of arrangement! Jimmy Hastings, Pye Hastings' cousin, also has his first Caravan performance in this song and delivers an absolutely fantastic flute solo in the end of the song. Interestingly, this is take 1 of the flute solo, and Jimmy didn't listen to the track before - it's spontaneous jazz and a breeze to listen to. Caravan also performed this piece live for the BBC in 1971 as Love Song Without Flute (honestly - Caravan's song titles are dead cool in their own special way!). Buy the new re-issue of "In The Land Of Grey and Pink" and enjoy this BBC version with upfront electric piano and Hammond organ replacing the flute.

The two pieces left unreviewed are Cecil Rons and Grandma's Lawn, and both sound as if the musicians were totally out of their minds. Cecil Rons starts off with a totally crackbrained electric guitar drone with an even more crackbrained organ backing until a steady acid rock drum/bass rhythm (think The Nice's Rondo in half speed) enters. The rest of the piece consists of nursery-rhyme-like melodies, church-organ-like sounds which seem to be taken straight from a horror film and bloodcurdling screams inbetween. Except for the Beatles-like chorus and the majestic ending (yes, "The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack" is a definite influence) the band does not care about beautiful - or at least memorable - melodies at all; this piece is complete madness, but performed really well.

Grandma's Lawn is not as mad, but completely uncatchy - and that's why I don't give this album the full rating. This is the second Richard Sinclair song on the debut album and the combinations of completely unintellegible lyrics (I don't know if I should recommend you to read them or to not read them) with Sinclair's baritone voice and loads of organs somehow resemble the sound of Pink Floyd's "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn". But the things which it lacks is a good melody and a bit of structure, it sounds as if the band was trying hard to run through the lyrics.

To me, Where But For Caravan Would I? is the greatest song the band has ever recorded. Basically, this song is motored by a really strong riff which relies on the 11/8-metre in which the whole piece is written. Seemingly Brian Hopper, Hugh Hopper's brother who played saxophone in the Canterbury scene of the early 1960s, contributed to the composition and maybe it's to him one has to owe this clever idea. The song begins really mellow and pastoral with the jangly 12-string electric guitar chords, a creeping drum rhythm and atmospheric organ work before Pye Hastings' soulful vocal part begins. The first two stanzas are followed by a more enthusiastic middle 8 before it goes back to the stanza again: awesome song-writing which the band are yet able to force up. An aggressively dissonant scale heralds the piece's extended organ solo at 2:35. From now on you may enjoy 3 minutes of David Sinclair's improvisation towering on the aforementioned riff, including wah-wah pedal, rapid organ runs and moments of complete escalation. Every tone color of this instrument is at least hinted at during the course of this solo, But instead of savoring the whole 9 minutes in order to jam the band enters a second, 2-minute vocal part, this time sung by Richard Sinclair in his baritone voice - it's a different piece, or rather a fragment of a song which is written in the more accessible 6/8 metre, but it has found its perfect place here. Actually when listening to this song it feels like a trip or a hike: slow rising from the ground in the beginning, then gaining height and momentum in the first instrumental part in order to drift and fly for some minutes in the second vocal part. A pulsation of guitar and organ (I love those sounds from 8:40 onto the end) finishes the album, but not before reprising the organ solo with increased power; indeed, the 80 seconds of the second organ solo are really welcome since they give this piece the finale it deserves to get.

In a way, For Richard and Where But For Caravan Would I? seem to be quite similar: a vocal part in the beginning, an instrumental part following and extended organ melodies inbetween. But this earlier piece has two vocal parts and it really goes somewhere, the organ parts aren't only there, but also home on a specific point and are twice as concise than in For Richard. I do get the point that Caravan are one of the bands that invite the listener to a journey on a meandering river of music, similarly to what modern minimal/techno musicians do (I thoroughly recommend Deadmau5's Bored of Canada!), and I like the album In The Land Of Grey And Pink for what it does and what it conveys, but a free improvisation becomes much more inspired when it's framed by composed parts and moves freely in a fixed scope.

Unfortunately, the album is merely half an hour long (34 minutes or so). Yes, okay - thanks to this short length the CD features both the mono and the stereo version of the album (although I like the mono version more), but why didn't they include the 1968 BBC recordings (Place of My Own/Ride/Feelin Reelin Squealin/Green Bottles for Marjorie) instead? Contractual obligations? Anyway, we get the single version of Hello Hello as an additional bonus track. It actually belongs to the reissue of the following album, but the responsible persons couldn't find the master tapes of the single when "If I Could..." was reissued. It's a damn fine song, with a good percussion backing (hedgeclippers, tambourine, zils, shaker, +whatever...), a groovy 7/4 metre and a great melody - a nice easter egg which enhances the de-facto-length of the album to scarcely 38 minutes.

However, this album is plain awesome. The last piece is spectacular, many more pieces are utterly great (Place of My Own, Ride, Love Song Without Flute, Magic Man, Hello Hello[#]) and the other pieces (Policeman, Cecil Rons and Grandma's Lawn) are less convincing, but also no fillers by any means. Perhaps I'm emotionally biassed, but until now this is my favorite Caravan album and - also regarding its age and the impact it must have made then - it deserves a 4 star rating which really is situated close to the 5 star realms. (I even gave it 5 stars when I first wrote this review.) Highly recommendable, in any case.

Einsetumadur | 4/5 |


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