When the supergroup Cream formed, fans everywhere eagerly awaited a hardcore blues nirvana, and thus it was seen as something of a betrayal when the band defiantly released an album predominantly composed of light pop songs. This decision confounded all expectations, as each member's pedigree suggested a vastly different type of music from them, but the band was not to be daunted and persevered in their choice of what they wanted their debut to be. Why they opted for this unpredictable career path is unknown, but it was certainly a courageous move for a group that was perceived as consisting of individuals irrevocably pigeonholed exclusively as hardcore blues musicians.
While this choice of musical direction was certainly mystifying, the truth is that the band pulls it off quite well. Fresh Cream is a very charming album, featuring an array of entertaining, if somewhat primitive and simplistic, pop songs, from the anthemic opener I Feel Free to the irresistible Sweet Wine to the hyper catchy N.S.U. They're hardly first rate pop songs, but nonetheless they're very endearing and likeable, and they're sufficiently strong that they indicate that the band was indeed capable of penning solid pop fare. Their pop acumen may not be extensive, but they certainly knew how to craft some memorable hooks.
So as not to completely alienate their prospective fan base and avoid growing rusty at their true calling, the band included some blues numbers as well. The best of these is their cover of Spoonful, and the group instantly proves that in this environment they're unparalleled, fabulously pulling off this rendition with exceptional grace and precision. At heart they remained a blues band, and their skills in the genre were far from diminished or diluted by the presence of the proliferation of pop songs that constituted most of the album.
The album certainly has some flaws; many of Clapton's solos sound completely incongruous in their context, as he appears to have the same approach to them irrespective of whether he's playing a pop or blues song. His solos are magnificent, of course, but it's somewhat jarring to hear a ferocious solo erupt in the midst of an innocuous pop song.
Furthermore there's certainly a fair amount of filler. Songs like Sleepy Time Time and Dreaming are far from bad, but they're thoroughly unexceptional coming off as little more than padding, while Cat's Squirrel is blues at its most prosaic. Four Until Late is also somewhat lacking, but the worst offender is the closer Toad; drum solos have always been anathema to me no matter how masterfully executed, and this is no exception; I admire the level of skill it signifies, but at heart it's still tedious and a case of instrumental masturbatory self-indulgence.
Nevertheless the album is quite good, balancing some highly entertaining pop songs with some first rate blues performances. While neither a pop masterpiece nor a blues masterpiece it's still a very enjoyable affair and proved that the group would not allow themselves to be limited to what the public wants or expects from them.
Cream's second outing is immeasurably better than their first; on their debut, between their flirtation with light pop and the occasional foray into the realm of blues the album came off as a somewhat desultory affair, with the band displaying little in the way focus or originality. Disraeli Gears corrects this situation, as the group returns with a renewed sense of purpose and a newfound style around which to coordinate their musical efforts.
On Disraeli Gears Cream unveil their revolutionary fusion of blues, rock and psychedelia, an eclectic mix that infuses all their work with the zeitgeist's brand of trippy flower power. The album manages to eschew hippy clichés while still operating within the confines of the psychedelic movement, resulting in an irresistible blend of acid tinged music and hallucinogenic lyrics that never come at the expense of memorable, creative melodies.
The songwriting is universally superb, from the classic opener Strange Brew, which functions as an exhibition for their new psychedelic style (without sounding the least bit dated in retrospect), to the album's most famous cut, the riff rocker Sunshine Of Your Love. Nearly every track is a classic as the band embraces various styles in which to apply their psychedelic edge, from morose melancholia in World Of Pain and We're Going Wrong to dark phantasmagorical explorations like the brilliant Tales Of Brave Ulysses (which sports amazing wah-wah passages from Clapton) to more whimsical fare like SWLABR. Nearly every song is terrific, be it the entrancing Dance The Night Away or the unjustly maligned Baker sung Blue Condition.
Another improvement over the timid debut is that Clapton's solos are now organic extensions of the material as opposed to excellent yet incongruous guitarwork hastily superimposed over unrelated melodies. While one needs to be a virtuoso to execute Clapton's explosive solos from Fresh Cream, it's yet more impressive to conjure fabulous guitar passages that simultaneously radiate incredible skill and precision and perfectly match the material they're married to.
One notable criticism often leveraged against the album is that it tapers off a bit toward the end, with perfectly solid blues tracks that nonetheless lack the depth and imagination of the earlier songs. While this is a legitimate problem, the blues workouts are sufficiently strong that they don't detract from the experience, and the previous material is so brilliant that it eclipses any defects at the album's end (including the amusing a cappella joke closer, Mother's Lament).
The album is a psychedelic masterpiece, a bold new vision for the band that imbues every note with a sense of wonder, evoking an ethereal atmosphere that animates the LP, transfiguring already excellent songs into magical anthems for a generation, epochal visions that haven't diminished in potency over time.
Ultimately Disraeli Gears is an excellent album, filled with unforgettable melodies with a fascinating aura that permeates the entire experience. While it could be viewed as a relic from a past era, the truth is that it's a timeless work that transcends chronology, an album that's just as striking today as it was when it was first released nearly forty years ago.
Cream had always compartmentalized their talent, with differing approaches to their live and studio work. Thus there was an entire side of the band that was never unveiled to the record buying populace, a drastically different incarnation of the group wholly removed from the considerably more well known, accessible fare presented on their albums.
When the band was unleashed in a live environment they'd shed all restraint and inhibition, displaying the full extent of their instrumental chops with a plethora of virtuoso solos and incredible jams. This side of the band was difficult to capture in the studio and was thus simply relegated to their live performances.
Thus in order to present this elusive side of the band to the masses, they opted to release a double album, bifurcating their disparate approaches into one live and one studio disc, thus exhibiting the band in all their versatile glory, sacrificing neither side at the expense of the other.
The album's rating, however, is a reflection of the studio side as opposed to the live one. Disc one of Wheels Of Fire is yet another spectacular studio outing for the band; it isn't hurt by the fact that it opens with my favorite Cream song, White Room, a fantastic rocker featuring an irresistible falsetto from Jack Bruce and incredible wah-wah guitarwork from Clapton.
White Room is hardly all the album has to offer, however, as it also boasts the great cynical bluesy riff rocker Politician, two more very good rockers in the forms of Those Were The Days and Deserted Cities Of The Heart, not to mention two excellent blues workouts, the covers Sitting On Top Of The World and Born Under A Bad Sign which demonstrate that the band remains more than capable of handling more traditional blues fare.
Most fans scoff at the oft vilified trio of Passing The Time, As You Said and Pressed Rat And Warthog, but I beg to differ; they're certainly at odds with the band's usual style, but they help engender a note of variety into the proceedings. Passing The Time has a great contrast between its harder and softer sections, As You Said is a somewhat menacing burst of psychedlia and Pressed Rat And Warthog is charming in its extreme eccentricity.
Thus the studio half of the album is another victory for the band, containing numerous classics and nothing that I'd dismiss as filler. It's the live side that tends to go awry, however, depicting the extreme excesses of the group at their very most self-indulgent.
While it opens with a blistering cover of Crossroads (which subsequently became a staple of Clapton's live shows), it quickly goes down hill. The seventeen minute rendition of Spoonful is impressive from a technical standpoint but drags on for far too long; I'd be the first to acknowledge the masterful degree of skill and precision that went into Clapton's ten minute solo, but I find it far more admirable than enjoyable, while the whole song is exacerbated by Bruce's grating vocals (which, while a minor irritation on the studio version, have their annoyance factor infinitely compounded on this particular run-through.
Unfortunately things grow far worse from that point. Traintime is an improvisational harmonica jam, a concept that's just as painful in practice as it is in theory. Its seven minutes will speed by, however, when compared to the chthonic ordeal of a sixteen minute drum solo; Toad, the worst track from their debut, has returned in a greatly protracted form; once more, I'll admit that Baker's technique is flawless, but I still can't derive even a modicum of enjoyment from it.
Thus Wheels Of Fire is a bipolar affair, with a great studio disc and a profoundly flawed live disc. The latter isn't worthless, as Crossroads is a true classic and Spoonful can be enjoyed in moderation, but its second half leaves a rather sour taste in my mouth, and a final impression of that nature can condemn an otherwise worthwhile album. Nevertheless, the positive on Wheels Of Fire far outweighs the negative, and thus I have no reservations about granting the double album such a high rating.
The original plan was to release another double album with one disc being live and the other being studio ala Wheels Of Fire, but the band found that they had a dearth of new studio material and thus lacked sufficient content to sustain an entire disc's worth of it.
I'd go one step further and say they didn't have sufficient new studio material to sustain half a disc either, but this didn't deter them from compromising and bifurcating a single disc into live and studio halves.
The live half is easily the better of the two, a trio of unremarkable but fundamentally solid elongated renditions of cuts culled from their previous work. The best of these is a strong run-through of Sitting On Top Of The World, which functions as a forum in which Clapton can unleash his considerable skills as a guitarist, with a plethora of excellent solos erupting over the course of the song.
Elsewhere I'm So Glad becomes the recipient of some of the fastest solos Clapton's executed in his career, while Politician alone fails to be the beneficiary of Clapton's virtuoso skills to any meaningful degree (not to mention the fact that it's marred by Bruce's inability to ever sing well in a live environment).
The studio half suffers far more than the live portion, as the band was barely able to muster enough content to fill a side and thus were forced to select their best works from an extreme paucity of good material.
The mutual loathing between all three members of the group meant that each new studio cut was a solo composition, as any conferring between them was out of the question.
Thus the only good track to emerge from these awkward, alienated sessions was the album's best cut, the classic Badge, which was the product of a collaboration between Eric Clapton and George Harrison. It boasts a strong, moody melody and thankfully lacks the inane 'my love is a badge' mantra subsequently affixed to it by Clapton for his live solo shows to rationalize the title (though the existent lyrics are hardly compatible with it).
The other two studio cuts don't fare quite as well. Bruce's insipid Doing That Scrapyard Thing is catchy, which can only be a bad thing when you vehemently don't want its melody to become lodged in your brain, while What A Bringdown is hardly the note you'd want a group of Cream's caliber to go out on.
Thus Goodbye is a rather lackluster swansong; while Wheels Of Fire is technically the band's true swansong, as Goodbye is something of a studio cash-in released after the band's breakup, it's difficult not to view the album as the group's final hurrah, and it thus somewhat taints the final moments of the band's existence.