Plenty to admire from an experienced musician with views on affairs of the heart and a range of influences.
Fred Wickham and his caravaners hail from Kansas City and Wickham has apparently been a fixture in Midwest Folk Circles for, ‘decades‘. Currently the band – which originally formed to support Wickham’s 2017 solo release, ‘Mariosa Delta’, – comprises Matt Brahl on drums, Richard Burgess on bass, Bart Colliver on keyboards, Marco Pascolini on various guitars, Fred Wickham junior on mandolin and Fred senior on guitar and vocals. Given that Wickham plays here with his son and has in the past made music with his brother Greg (whose album we reviewed in 2017) it can at times be a real family affair.
The Fred Wickham Caravan, we are told, blends country, soul and rock and roll into a sound that has been variously compared to the Band, Randy Newman, Commander Cody, John Hiatt, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash – but given that everyone who can walk gets a name check with the last two then that doesn’t always count for a lot. How about a touch, at times, of Boz Scaggs circa, ‘Loan me a Dime’? On this occasion, the band went to Muscle Shoals to record with award-winning producer Jimmy Nutt and the Muscle Shoals Horns, though used sparingly, add a lot when they play. Indeed as do the Grand Marquis Horns, though only on the one track. Not many albums include credits to the tailor – namely Bruce Slabotsky – and the pictures of the suited and booted band in front of a bus certainly give a strong impression of experienced purpose from a mature ensemble ready to hit the road.
The album commences rather unexpectedly with some piano that has only a little in common with what follows and, ‘Town Without Soul’, has a 1920’s jazz / silent movie feel to it. The remaining 9 tracks portray relationships in their many forms – it may have been noticed that this reviewer has previously questioned what more there is to be said on that front. Well, the answer might be not a lot, but in this case, what is said is put over with some songwriting skill and music that is varied and well played. There are three credited vocalists and the one disappointment is that there is no single voice that really takes the material strongly in hand – the nearest is, ‘Fatbird’ which romps along.
Whilst the subject matter is familiar what lifts the process are the lyrics which are a cut above the norm. For instance opener and title track, ‘Town Without Soul’,
I do believe girl, it must be a crime / To steal a diamond like you from this mine……..People pray but they never take a chance / Music plays but nobody dances / I lived here once, I couldn’t stay / Oh, in a town without soul’.
‘That One Thing’, carries a lyric that could be pure Randy Newman in its direct simplicity.
My Baby loves me / She’s so good to me / House on the corner / and a big Oak tree / Got a bulldog in the backyard / He don’t bark too much’.
The highlight of the album might be, ‘Fatbird’, which brought to mind another Newman song, ‘Kingfish’; his take on the controversial Huey Long, Governor of and Senator for Louisiana. This, ‘Fatbird’, and I have it from the horse’s mouth, is the 45th American president and it’s a tale of promises, twisted nostalgia and delusion. It’s also one of the best vocals on the album with some great horns, which unfortunately are only used sparingly throughout.
‘Listen everybody / People gather ‘round / Fatbird from the City / Comin to our little town’.
Elsewhere we have, ‘Progress’, a stripped-down wry acoustic guitar tale of lost love and the recuperative process. Thankfully there’s a twist of humour in there, ‘That’s progress / that’s improvement / I’m better right now by some small degree …. In a decade or two / I’m sure I’ll be fine’.
‘Just Because You Can’, is a rollicking rebuke to those who think because they can that they should. ‘I Think I Just Fell in Love (With You)’ describes the situation we might all have experienced, where the alcohol provokes a feeling for someone previously thought just a good friend – there’s a rather appropriate feeling of bafflement to the lyrics – often referred to colloquially, I believe as, ‘beer goggles’? Finally ‘What Happened to Me’ is the story of a woman in a dead relationship and what might comfort her,
She sees him sleeping / Doesn’t feel a thing / Lying there beside him / Twisting on her ring…… Sometimes they help a little bit / Sometimes they make it worse / She fumbles through the kitchen drawer / and the bottom of her purse.
The songs are generally well written and varied and this is an album that has enjoyment for the listener – you might look in vain for The Band though which seems a comparison too far. The vocals are a little variable and at their best with the more up-tempo tracks, whilst the production sounded a little flat to these ears. The horns are used sparingly and that felt a disappointment given the added punch they provide – more would have been a bonus. All in all certainly worth a listen.