A worthy introduction to a likeable but often unfairly neglected English institution.
Sid Smith 2010-03-18
Although they are intricately entwined into the DNA of that sub-genre of progressive music known as the Canterbury scene, there’s nevertheless always been something of the “bridesmaid but never the bride” syndrome about Caravan.
Quite why this should be is slightly baffling given that their sound has always been on the light and accessible end of the progressive rock spectrum. Their straightforward songs and bright, unfussy noodling was the sunshine to the oft-dark complexities of their close Canterbury cousins, Soft Machine.
Whereas the Softs veered far from their shared pop roots, ploughing an acerbic, often ground-breaking furrow into improvisation, jazz-rock fusion and beyond, Caravan pretty much bumbled along on their old straight track in a benign, slightly sleepy but agreeable manner.
This handsomely appointed four-CD box set, whilst being skimpy on unreleased or rare material (only boasting a couple of previously-unreleased extras), offers a pleasantly winding stroll through their classic period, from which 1971’s In The Land of Grey and Pink remains their most enduring work.
All but one of its original studio tracks are presented here; filled with flutes, fuzz-pedalled organ and dreamy vocals about girls, freedom, and finding yourself, these agreeable, sun-dappled pastoral tunes are as English as Elgar.
Gracefully structured long-form suites were essential ingredients in the Caravan brew, but whilst Nine Feet Underground (1971), Nothing At All (1972) Memory Lain (1973) and several other notable epics all clocked up the minutes, these were genteel, subtle undertakings rather than vulgar exhibitions of technique.
Though they recruited a dedicated following it was never wide or deep enough to deliver them real commercial success. It always seemed that Caravan were only ever one album away cracking the market, but much to the frustration of the band and its supporters that happy event always eluded them.
At a time when bands like ELP seemed hell-bent on world domination via bombastic rock symphonics, Caravan generally opted for a kinder, whimsical non-competitive mode of expression when soloing, and perhaps it was precisely the lack of extrovert showmanship that prevented them from attracting wider attention.
Yet, as this set demonstrates, given that they sound a good deal less-arch and cliché-free than many of their more illustrious and fêted contemporaries, this was probably a good thing. A worthy introduction to a likeable but often unfairly neglected English institution.