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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Caravan: Blind Dog At St. Dunstan's

CARAVAN: BLIND DOG AT ST. DUNSTAN'S (1976)

1) Here Am I; 2) Chiefs And Indians; 3) A Very Smelly, Grubby Little 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).

The first Caravan album to completely drop all pretense and be qualified as a pure pop record is naturally despised by large amounts of progressive rock fans, judasing it for all it's worth, and just as naturally ignored by the majority of pop fans — unlike Genesis, Caravan were unable to adapt sufficiently well to the new reality and find themselves an entirely new base of support. By­passed by main audiences for being too unattractive and lambasted by critics by being too slick and commercial, Blind Dog At St. Dunstan's fell through the cracks and sank like a stone. Never mind the unimportant fact that it incidentally happened to be one of the best pop albums released in the small chronological interim between the Golden Age of Art Rock and the radical change in musical fashion arriving with punk and New Wave.

There is no conceptuality here (other than four songs on Side A joined together in a single suite, but this time they are not even listed under any single title), no musical innovation, no lengthy instrumental passages, no avantgarde influences, no spiritual messages — only a bunch of pop songs with influences from music hall, folk rock, funk, R&B, and even a bit of proto-disco. But now that the transition is made complete, the band happens to embrace the new light style with verve. Dave Sinclair is once again temporarily out of the band, replaced by Jan Schelhaas, a new guy with good technique and few ambitions, being perfectly happy to simply be one of the boys and, for the most part, keeping out of the spotlight; but his playing agrees very well with Hastings and Wedgewood, and Richardson's viola and flute, though applied now to seriously different types of material, are still vital to the overall sound.

The only non-Hastings song on the entire record is Wedgewood's ʽChiefs And Indiansʼ, and it is a major improvement over his contributions on Cunning Stunts. A simple tale of discord between two lovers, it begins as a soft British music hall piece, somewhere in between Ray Davies and Alan Price, then launches into an angry funk-rock escapade with all the band members taking short, snappy solos (Wedgewood's bit of bass, eventually sliding down into a pool of nasty fuzz, is the best one, but everybody else shines as well) before returning back to music hall mode for the outro. What really sells the song, apart from all the snappy energy, is that it actually manages to sound cool — not too serious and pathetic, like ʽWelcome The Dayʼ on the previous record, but not straightforwardly comical, either. The lyrics, the vocals, the instrumental passages all have this air of sharp, witty sarcasm, and it is a defining feature of the album in general.

Take a seemingly silly, superficial funk-pop song like ʽJack And Jillʼ: its very title places it in the ʽMary Had A Little Lambʼ category, and its lyrics are, indeed, a modern-day expansion of the old nursery rhyme with its potential sexual innuendos (well, leave it to Pye to find the subtext of physical romance in virtually everything — and, for that matter, the very title of the album is also a masked allusion to physical romance, spelled out in more detail during a well-audible bit of dialog at the end of the song: "what are those two doggies doing over there?" — "well, the first one is blind and his friend behind is pushing him all the way to St. Dunstan's!"). But really, the song is made by Wedgewood's spin­ning bass line and its interaction with Richardson's syn­copated viola (how often do you hear funky bits played on a viola, anyway?), implying a sort of «trickster» atmosphere, friendly and mischievous at the same time. As simple as the song is, it's got some bottom to it — both in the direct musical sense (cool bass!) and in the artistic one.

Each song has its fair share of hooks and attractions. ʽA Very Smelly, Grubby Little Oikʼ has not only enriched my knowledge of non-literary English language (next time somebody offends you, just call him a "grubby oik" in response and watch him spend the rest of his days in confusion), it also gave me a fun pop-rock riff and a catchy chorus — which then makes a masterful transition, by means of the vocal-synth merge, into the slow atmospheric instrumental ʽBobbing Wideʼ and then back into the realms of catchy soft-pop with ʽCome On Backʼ. Now ʽCome On Backʼ could be thought of as a pretty straightforward and «bottom-less» tune (although it really depends on which way you want to interpret the line "only when you come, you know that we'll be one"); but the real fun thing about it is that as soon as it is over, it is immediately reprised in the form of a gospel-pop coda, combining the melody of ʽCome On Backʼ with the lyrical subject of ʽGrubby Little Oikʼ with guest-starring Chanter Sisters providing the vocals. So is this really a four-part thematic suite about the adventures of a representative of the lower classes, or is it rather an exer­cise in sarcastic absurdism, firmly placing melodic fun over serious content?..

I have mentioned Ray Davies and Alan Price, but I think an even more substantial comparison here would be with Wings — the album shares a lot in common with McCartney's style in the Seventies, what with all the soft keyboards, sweet vocals, stylistic variety, and preference of humor over seriousness; no wonder, then, that it tends to get underrated in exactly the same ways in which people still like to criticize Wings At The Speed Of Sound or London Town, and that I, personally, find myself fond of it in much the same way I am fond of those records. In fact, the last and longest song, ʽAll The Wayʼ, starts out with Pye sounding almost like Macca at his most sentimental (think ʽMy Loveʼ?) — and then transitions into a perfectly McCartney-esque chorus, simple, instantly memorable, and so sincere and touching that looping it for a very lengthy coda just seems like the most logical decision to take (especially because it's hard to think of a perfect resolution for the rising line "better than before, better than all after", so the only thing to do is just let it roll on and on and slowly fizzle away into a quiet whistle pattern). For the record: the reference to John Wayne in the subtitle is completely gratuitous (actually, ʽAll The Wayʼ is the only song on the album that begs to be taken completely seriously, with no signs of tongue-in-cheek attitude anywhere in sight).

Overall, the correct approach here is not to get worried about the lack of challenge or experi­mentation and simply to let yourself get carried away by the waves of vocal hooks and instrumen­tal sharpness — the music, that is, and not the supra-musical ambition, for which we also have a time and a place, but different ones. Pretty soon afterwards, Caravan would finally start losing their way in a world of rapidly changing fashions; but just for this once, their fine-tuned pop instincts worked out perfectly. Big thumbs up.

4 comments:

  1. I don't have anything to say about this album, although I *did* own it briefly in the late 1970s, in an attempt to find new artists to enjoy. (Caravan didn't catch on for me -- perhaps I chose the wrong entry point.) Rather, I'd like to draw attention to your phrase, "the small chronological interim between the Golden Age of Art Rock and the radical change in musical fashion arriving with punk and New Wave." This is one of my favorite musical mini-eras. I only wish it had lasted a little longer. (What was it, two years? Three?) 10cc, Sparks, Split Enz, Supertramp, City Boy, ELO, Queen, The Tubes, Be Bop Deluxe, Genesis, Deaf School, not to mention Elton John (but I just did) all released very entertaining projects during the mid 1970s. Sure, it wasn't "rock," and I guess we can thank all the punk bands for giving music a hard cold slap in the face in 1977. But still, that was a fun couple of years, for me at least.

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    1. Agreed. Problem was the most creative of these (e.g. 10cc) were themselves in decline come 1976

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  2. Interesting bit of self-plagarism - the main vocal melody of 'Jack and Jill' appears in the song 'Surprise, Surprise' on For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night...

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  3. Ha! This review prompted me to listen to it for the first time in nearly 40 years. I enjoyed it on its release but gave up on late-period Caravan following the massive disappointment of Better By Far. Thanks for rekindling my interest; it's really very good!

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