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Thursday, April 05, 2018

Fresh Cream

by Cream
Year:
1966
Overall Rating = 12

Best Song: I FEEL FREE or NSU or SPOONFUL

Despite being a debut album, Fresh Cream feels very much like a transitional album, although the title pretty much explains it: “fresh”, because originals and covers alike – and on the original UK edition, they’re at equal numbers in terms of representation – they’re steering into new directions of heavier, spacier or jammier music (though the latter two characteristics in smaller proportions than on their later albums or on albums by those they influenced, and the former not as heavy as they could go) and “cream” because they’re the cream of the crop already, being three established musicians with phenomenal reputations both among the general public – Eric Clapton for his time with the Yardbirds who continued to be popular without him – and the in-the-know blues underground crowds – Clapton again, with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and both Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker with the Graham Bond Organisation. If I were to guess, it was mainly those interested in the “fresh” aspect that gave the band its due respect, because those looking for the cream of the crop in jazz/blues purism would be highly disappointed, and more so on subsequent albums. Of course, these guys would get the live performances to cheer them up, but this album only hints at what they could do on stage.

Now as I mentioned, the album was about equally split between originals and covers. If the CD version combining the UK and US versions were to be split up in sides like an LP, the split would be originals on side one and covers on side two, with the side closers as the exceptions (the same split applies to the UK LP, actually). In the long run, only two classics emerged amongst the originals as far as fans are concerned, and it’s hard to disagree with them on that. Whether you’re talking about US LP/CD edition opener “I Feel Free” or UK LP opener “NSU”, the A- and B-side, respectively, of their sophomore single, you can pretty easily sum up Cream’s originals throughout their (unfortunately brief) career: a unique fusion of pop, blues, rock and psychedelia, and any other genre or genres. The former is introduced by a single chord à la “A Hard Day’s Night” before shifting to a jazzy scat vocal hook from Eric occasionally interrupted by him almost whispering the title complemented by Jack humming this soaring melody over it, and soaring is definitely one word that fits the song as a whole: the falsetto-vocalled refrain, the speedy verses with Jack almost rapping over a terrific, flexible bassline, Eric’s melodic soloing with a tone not unlike his patented “woman tone”, albeit without any wah-wah, Baker’s explosive, yet brief, drum fills… you get the idea. It’s a surprisingly free-form tune for essentially a pop song, and it couldn’t be more fitting of the times without adhering to its clichés, though perhaps one could attribute that to Pete Brown, who gets his second writing credit as lyricist here (and the only one on the LP proper). “NSU” is technically a throwaway – it’s a Jack Bruce solo composition written for the group’s first rehearsal allegedly named after a venereal disease –, but man is it cool: the verses are somewhat unassuming, with arpeggios guitars, bass and the toms of the drums slowly building up, like someone starting his jalopy, contrasting Bruce’s vocals and lyrics, a soft-spoken falsetto singing about riding in his car or yacht, smoking cigars and only being happy playing his guitar (which minus the yacht part, could easily describe me), while the verses turn into this psychedelic surf thing where the guitars strum madly over what’s essentially a long drum fill and which contains no lyrics, just a cool wordless melody, and for the guitar solo, the rhythm shifts completely, going for this dark quasi-tribal rhythm allowing for some great aggressive soloing, where it sounds like Eric is strangling his guitar.

After these two, the three remaining originals on side one and the LP closer would easily pale, but that’s not to say there’s nothing of interest within them. “Sweet Wine”, a collaboration between Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce’s wife Janet Godfrey (an arrangement made after it was decided Brown and Baker didn’t get along so Bruce opted to work with the former), is a similar fusion of genres, with an aggressive, but fun jazz-rock vocal hook going “bap-bap ba-boo-bap-bap”, a soft folksy refrain and another tempo and mood shift allowing Eric to stretch out his guitar soloing chops. “Sleepy Time Time” and “Dreaming” are more stable stylistically, though despite their titles they have little in common since the former is a slow blues with a lazy, jazzy vocal melody and the latter is a folksy and accurately dreamy psycho-pop tune. Neither tune shows any songwriting genius, and the former doesn’t really show the band at their blueswailing peak, but they’re nice when they’re on anyhow. The album closer is possibly the most contentious of the originals: “Toad” not only introduces drum soloing into the world of rock – I wouldn’t consider Baker’s debut composition for the Graham Bond Organisation “Camels and Elephants” as rock, you see –, it also introduced the stereotypical format of a drum solo-containing song in rock: a cool 12-bar guitar/bass riff interrupted by some drum outbursts, then the drummer is left on his own, and the song concludes with a reprise of the riff where the percussive outbursts continuing whilst the others play rather than after. The song’s influence is certainly hard to dispute, but its enjoyability certainly is. Personally, Baker manages to make most of the solo pretty interesting, or at least consistently rhythmic, and it kind of makes sense as a closer, but it works better in the live setting (even if he would extend the length beyond the generally acceptable five minutes you see here). As for the covers, there is only one that I would speak of as lukewarmly: Eric’s country-blues interpretation of Robert Johnson’s “Four Until Late”. It’s pleasant enough, with cute harmonica parts and guitar twanging, and I like the way Bruce harmonizes certain vocal parts, but Eric sounds completely disinterested here. Some critics seem to not be too fond of “Cat’s Squirrel”, a radical reinterpretation of an old blues tune from the rather obscure Doctor Ross, and while I’d like it better if it focused more on soloing rather than collective jamming, the transformation of a simple shuffling riff into a blistering rock beast (with the harmonica in tact, but now turned into a loud complement to the guitar rather than the goofy lead instrument) is an impressive feat, and what soloing it does contain is among Eric’s best on the LP.

Though it doesn’t compare to the six-minute rendition of Howlin’ Wolf’s Willie Dixon-penned “Spoonful”, a tune that’s tied with the two album openers for best song. It does what any great Howlin’ Wolf cover does: it slows the tune down, toughens up the instruments, and turns it into a vehicle for some fantastic soloing. But it’s not just the soloing that’s great – even if, as I said, Eric doesn’t really get better on this album than on this track; the tone, the level of tension, the speed-ups and slow-downs, every change throughout the solo seems calculated down to the millisecond and still having the feeling of blues improvisation (which it actually is, it’s just that Clapton was so great at this time that every moment of his improv could seem perfectly thought out) –, it’s all three members of the group that are great. Any moment where Bruce’s bass seems to pop out of the mix, he’s in the middle of this great fill, his harmonica playing is soft but creepy and moody, and his vocals, are sharp and aggressive, much like the fills Clapton responds to each line with. And of course, Baker beats the shit out of his kit in a way that shows his talent far better than an army of “Toads” could. Their cover of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” has Eric taking the backseat for Bruce and (to some extent) Baker to take center stage. The latter once again bashes the drums like crazy, but this time to the speedy shuffle this tune demands, and despite the aggression, he manages to get the shuffled rhythm just right (which isn’t that surprising given his jazz pedigree, but it’s still worth noting). As for Jack Bruce, he decided to play the harmonica and sing at the same time, and it couldn’t fit better: you can’t tell a word of what he’s singing, and it allows him to get back to his harp to blow out some mean, nasty notes. Seriously, his harmonica ends up sounding like an electric guitar with how menacingly he plays it. Finally, “I’m So Glad” is a cover of another lesser known bluesman (one named Skip James), but instead of transforming it into a jamming/soloing vehicle like it did the other highlights in this category, it transforms it into a song more in line with the better originals on side one as a clever psycho-pop rock tune, from the country-esque rollicking guitar arpeggio intro, to the dynamic shift between soft verses and aggressive refrains, to the rip-roaring yet melodic guitar solo… let’s just say there’s a reason Deep Purple did the song in this style for their debut album when they were but a psycho-pop rock band.

If you’re a completist like me, you’ll want the 1980s CD reissue that adds two bonus tracks after “Toad” (sadly this reissue is discontinued, but you could easily make a Spotify playlist with them or download them from iTunes or whatever it is you do to legally obtain music); the second of these, “Wrapping Paper”, is especially important; their debut single, it managed to be a significant hit despite shocking and perhaps even disgusting those who were expected to be their biggest fans. It’s essentially a vaudeville-like jazz-pop tune with rollicking piano and a cello/slide guitar duet in the instrumental interlude with Bruce cheerfully singing about a nostalgic time with his girl as Clapton and Baker respond with backing vocals that sound bored out of their minds. They hated it, and it probably sewed the seeds for their eventual break-up even at this early a stage, but to me, it’s just a great, silly tune that’s one of those really cool throwaway tunes that are better than they are in theory. “The Coffee Song” (the European-only b-side to “Wrapping Paper”, apparently) is less interesting. It seems to be a cover of some pop tune with lyrics about a chance meeting with a girl at a coffee shop that the singer would never see again, but there are some great basslines and psychedelic guitar leads, so it gets a pass from me. With or without these bonus tracks, though, this album easily gets a 12/15 for me. Even if it’s not perfect, and both the songwriting and cover selection/arrangement would improve on their next two albums (respectively for each category), it shows them as a confident band ready to conquer the world. And for the first two songs and “Spoonful” alone it would be worth it, the fact that a handful of other covers and at least one of the other originals are great is more like a bonus.

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