CARAVAN: FOR GIRLS WHO GROW PLUMP IN THE NIGHT (1973)
1) Memory Lain, Hugh / Headloss; 2) Hoedown; 3) Surprise, Surprise; 4) C'Thlu Thlu; 5) The Dog, The Dog, He's At It Again; 6) Be All Right / Chance Of A Lifetime; 7) L'Auberge Du Sanglier / A Hunting We Shall Go / Pengola / Backwards / A Hunting We Shall Go (reprise).
Good or bad, the Waterloo Lily formula just did not stick, and the new configuration fell apart pretty quickly — with new member Steve Miller leaving for good and taking veteran member Richard Sinclair with him (or, actually, vice versa), forming Hatfield & The North, a band with its own distinct agenda, very different from the Caravan sound. This essentially left Hastings in full control over the remains of the band; however, the rule «no Caravan without a Sinclair present» still managed to work, since Dave Sinclair rejoined the group in the wake of Richard's departure, bringing a much-welcome return back to the organ sound instead of Steve Miller's electric piano. Richard, in the meantime, was replaced by formerly unknown John G. Perry, and in order to expand and thicken the sound, Geoff Richardson was added on electric viola: an auxiliary musician at first, he then went on to become one of the most permanent fixtures of the Caravan sound for the next four decades.
Simple logical calculations should lead us to expect that the results would suck: without Richard's songwriting and musicianship and with Pye's well-known penchant for a softer, poppier sound, Caravan could have been immediately reduced to sappy-sounding generic mush. Well, that sort of did happen later, but in 1973, Caravan hit back with a vengeance — releasing what was probably their second greatest album, and on certain auspicious days, I'd even say that Girls is more fun and consistent than In The Land Of Grey And Pink, although the latter will, of course, forever remain their most... shall we say, «programmatic» artistic statement.
With all power concentrated in his hands, Pye goes here for a little bit of everything. From basic rock'n'roll (ʽMemory Lain, Hughʼ opens the record with a looped riff groove sounding not unlike the beginning of CCR's ʽRamble Tambleʼ) to elements of Traffic-style roots-rock to bits of spooky hard rock to sentimental pop to multi-part progressive suites, For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night is truly a wonderful gift to all them girls who grow plump in the night (and take good care of the future eclectic musical tastes of their offspring while still in the womb), no matter how many crude sexual jokes Mr. Hastings might want to introduce in the lyrical content of his creations (if you ever wondered what the title ʽThe Dog, The Dog, He's At It Againʼ might be referring to, head straight for the worst possible hypothesis and you'll be hitting it). The reformed lineup sounds rested, refreshed, and energetic; the songs combine hooks and atmospherics in that classic British manner; and there are neither any signs of the band «selling out» to the commercial pop machine, nor any signs of their ambitions overclouding their capacities — the curse of being «too progressive for their own good», already applicable in 1973 to such bands as Jethro Tull or Yes, does not apply to this record at all.
The very first track, a merger of two heavily rhythmic, uplifting pop-prog compositions, seems to represent the wish for a new beginning — "I just want the chance to try and find me", Pye sings on the ʽMemory Lainʼ part, and although I have no idea whether he did it on this track or not, the devotion sounds sincere and powerful enough. Richardson's viola on the instrumental parts fits right in with Sinclair's returning organ and brother Jimmy's flute soloing, and on the faster ʽHeadlossʼ groove, is a good fit for Pye's own wah-wah soloing. There's no boundary breaking here, just a few good-natured vocal hooks and life-asserting, inspired jamming in between, seemingly shooing away the odd darkness of Waterloo Lily and ushering in a new wave of sunshine without too much sappiness.
The friendly atmosphere carries over to ʽHoedownʼ, a song clearly inspired by country-western stylistics (especially in terms of Richardson's fiddle-like viola solo) but essentially pop-rockish when it comes to the vocal melody; ʽSurprise, Surpriseʼ, one of Pye's best exercises in pure sentimental pop-rock; and, of course, the already mentioned ʽThe Dog, The Dogʼ, probably the single most controversial example in history when an essentially salacious matter would be presented as a sunny-sweet pop singalong, steadily moving to a vocal harmony-filled crescendo climax in ʽHey Judeʼ mode. The song clearly invites the listener to join in the angelic choir of "oh, medicine gone, it's coming on strong", experiencing a state of loving bliss over lyrics that might make even Howlin' Wolf reconsider, had he ever been offered a line like "legs and thighs, hellos and goodbyes it's all there". It's like Pye Hastings took a good look at Mick Jagger singing stuff like ʽStray Cat Bluesʼ and said, "oh, great goals, crude methods, we'll try it subtler". Of course, this didn't exactly help him gain a lot of teenage girl fans, but in the ideally comprehensive encyclopaedia of «sexuality in music», with tracks like these, Caravan have certainly deserved their own and nobody else's chapter.
In the middle of all the sunshine comes an unexpected blast of creepiness — ʽC'Thlu Thluʼ, clearly a jumbled homage to H. P. Lovecraft, is a horror-themed track, driven by a deep bass riff that sounds like Sabbath-lite and panicky lyrics that would be quite appropriate for Ozzy. Not that Caravan could really be capable of a genuine «the-Devil-is-after-me» atmosphere: the song's chorus, with a funky change of key and an excited rather than scared vocal performance, subverts the whole thing and makes it deeply ironic. But that does not mean that the track does not rule anyway — with its abundance of cool heavy riffs, Sinclair's medievalistic organ playing, and a crashing coda, this is as close to «metallic» as these guys ever got, and in the context of the record, it works great in between all the sunshine-oriented songs.
The «old school Caravan» is probably best represented on the final multi-part suite. With subtitles like ʽA Hunting We Shall Goʼ you'd probably expect to find some influences from ye olde British folk or at least court music from the Tudorian era, and, indeed, the suite begins with a medievalistic acoustic melody, but then quickly jumps into paranoid jazz-rock mode and finally settles on a slow tempo, grand orchestration (for which purpose they spared no expense and hired master orchestrator Paul Buckmaster), Wagnerian brass, and psychedelic swirling Davolisint hums. With a reprise of the jazzy ʽHuntingʼ section at the end, the suite, for once, sounds like a thematically oriented, smoothly flowing musical journey, sensibly organized from beginning to end rather than just being mindlessly pasted from several available bits and pieces. In fact, in a certain way the entire album could be taken for such a journey — beginning on a fairly light note, then picking up elements of deeper seriousness as it goes along, and finally culminating in the grand finale.
With Caravan's ongoing low-key profile and lack of stage flashiness, there was hardly any hope for the record to become more noticed than its predecessors — but in retrospect, it stands out humble-and-proud as one of the best progressive-themed albums of 1973. If we stick to chronologically based comparisons, I'd go as far as to call it the «high comedy» counterpart to the «high tragedy» of Selling England By The Pound: tackling some of the same matters (including the sexual obsessions of both frontmen), but substituting Peter Gabriel's melancholy and bitterness for Pye Hastings' warm irony and optimism. And if we don't stick to chronologically based comparisons, it is just a charming piece of British progressive rock, and Caravan's last great hurrah in an epoch that was already rapidly moving to a close. So, a big thumbs up before it's too late!