Friday, August 9, 2013

Cream 1: Fresh Cream

These days Eric Clapton is the most famous member, but Cream started out as a compact democracy. The original power trio, they had Clapton on guitar (naturally) delivering the blues angle, rounded out by two jazz pedigreed guys in Ginger Baker on drums and Jack Bruce on bass, vocals, harmonica and whatever else he could touch.
Bruce was the dominant singer in the band, established on Fresh Cream, seeing as Clapton wasn’t as confident in his vocals at the start. Besides being able to carry a tune while playing the bass, Bruce’s keening baritone lent itself to layered harmonies, as displayed on “N.S.U.” and “Sweet Wine”, both of which could be called psychedelic before the fact. “Sleepy Time Time” and “Dreaming” come from more of a music hall tradition, which likely appealed to manager Robert Stigwood. All together, they deliver a diverse menu of styles. (Just to keep things confusing, the original US LP began with “I Feel Free”, their first hit single, and omitted “Spoonful”, which ended the first side. In their homeland, the opposite was the case. The CD you can buy today includes both, thankfully, being essential to the album.)
Side two provides something of a blues primer, being mostly hepped-up arrangements of songs every London R&B band should have memorized by then. “Cat’s Squirrel” is a suspended-fourth riff as old as the hills, and just plain fun. Clapton sings a rather polite lead on Robert Johnson’s ragtimey “Four Until Late”, which is wiped aside by a furious “Rollin’ And Tumblin’”. “I’m So Glad”, an extremely simple Skip James song, rises above its simplicity via a neat descending intro, compact guitar solo and dynamic drums. Those drums dominate the last song on the album, as “Toad” begins with a jam on E, followed by a definitely musical drum solo that would become a template, for better for worse, for drummers of all levels of skill.
The one nitpicky thing that holds back enjoyment of the album—besides the bomber jackets on the cover—is its extreme stereo separation, with the basic backing track (instruments) in one channel and the vocals on the other. That makes some tracks sound like one of your speakers isn’t working, and in this age of Deluxe Editions, it’s a wonder why Fresh Cream hasn’t been made available in mono. It’s a terrific debut, economical and powerful.

Cream Fresh Cream (1966)—4

1 comment:

  1. Audiophiles, to a man, swear by the DCC version of Fresh Cream mastered by Steve Hoffman. But it's out of print and a couple of hundred bucks. Next best is the old Polydor version. I don't know if either of these fix or mitigate the underlying separation issue, though I didn't see any complaints in the forums.