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A Strange Brew Indeed...
Disraeli Gears - Cream
Member Name: cheffrey
Disraeli Gears - Cream
Date: 13/06/12, updated on 13/06/12 (48 review reads)
Advantages: Tight, imaginative, fun, influential, consistently great throughout.
Disadvantages: Dated production, but not unforgivably so.
If history has taught us anything, it's that waging a land-war against Russia is futile, and that rock supergroups are almost never 'super'. Yet while Mother Russia sits safely unconquered, there is one band that stands out in the annals of music history that managed to take the moniker 'supergroup' and not only live up to it, but proved to be the zenith of all participants' careers.
When Cream formed in 1966, guitarist Eric Clapton already possessed a fearsome reputation as a guitarist, having played in both the Yardbirds and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, earning him the rather blasphemous nickname 'God'; for a time, though, he did wield the instrument like someone with supernatural powers. Drummer Ginger Baker and frontman Jack Bruce had both featured in the lesser known Graham Bond Organisation, and Cream's debut album had been a well-received strong blues-rock effort. Could they keep up the tempo in the psychedelic summer of 1967 with their second effort?
In short, yes. Cream's monumentally arrogant name is actually deserved, as they managed to almost effortlessly fuse their heavy blues rock sound with more experimental and trippy motifs to match the vibrant, splattered album sleeve. Opening with the double salvo of their signature songs 'Strange Brew' and 'Sunshine of Your Love', the unfamiliar listener might be forgiven for thinking that this record might well be a flash on the pan. But as thrilling as the riff-based, bluesy muscle-flexing of these two songs is, there is much more on offer throughout. 'World of Pain' is as mournful as the title suggests, with Jack Bruce showing his trademark vibrato and falsetto. Clapton spices things up with some (for then) new wah-pedal effects. What's also great about this album is that it is littered with hidden nooks and crannies; careful listens will throw up previously-unheard details and runs in corners of the mix. God, as they say, is in the detail.
'Dance the Night Away' is embroidered with all manner of Eastern-influenced flourishes, a relatively new feature in western music, introduced almost single-handedly by Beatle, and close friend of Clapton, George Harrison. It grooves and shimmers, with Clapton making his guitar sound more like an over-driven sitar and it is immediately obvious that this is Cream at the height of their powers. The band are tight, and the ideas flow as easily and naturally as the music. 'Blue Condition' slows things down, and sounds like one long hangover. More 60s psychedelia is encountered on 'Tales of Brave Ulysses', which might just be the strongest track on here. It possesses that rare gift I call 'sonic landscaping', which, while I run the risk of sounding utterly pretentious, is where the music conjures up vivid mental images beyond the lyrics. Maybe this is something unique to me, but it really does make me think of the clear Aegean waters and wonders of Greek mythology. Anyone else? No, OK I'll shut up about it now...
'SWLABR' stands for the utterly drugged out 'She Walked Like a Bearded Rainbow', whatever the hell that means. Perhaps it means nothing. Perhaps it means everything. It was the 60s, so take your pick. All I know is that it shows Bruce and Baker forging a mighty performance as the rhythm section; it must have sounded awesome live. 'We're Going Wrong' is another falsetto part from Bruce, and this does grate a little, I must admit. But 'Outside Woman Blues' and 'Take It Back' feature the band back at doing what they do best; blues-rock with acid-tinged edges. Then it all ends on a very silly note, with a cautionary tale about how best to bathe skinny babies on 'Mother's Lament', which is good for a giggle once or twice. It's not in keeping with the rest of the album but shows a light hearted side to them next to their complex jazz beats and Clapton's fiery riffing and solos. Only the Jimi Hendrix Experience rivalled them as a power trio, and this record really does hold its own against Hendrix's firestorm of a debut, released the same time as Cream were recording this. Its influence is apparent throughout.
This is a terrific blues/psyche rock album, and one of the very best releases of the decade, and indeed since. While the performances and song-writing are at a pinnacle here, it is somewhat marred by its lousy recording. This is hardly a real dig at the band though, as they were only doing what they could with technology and production techniques available at the time. It is a shame though that Ginger Baker's drumkit sound so muffled and muted. A quick look at a live performance shows just what a monster he was at the drumstool.
This can be bought for a few pounds on Amazon, and there is also a deluxe edition that includes numerous out-takes and live cuts, though these are more interesting than essential. It was also released in mono and stereo, which allegedly differ quite substantially. I can't really comment though, as I only have a mono copy and don't really have the money or inclination to fork out for a slightly different mix. My advice would be to pick one and go with it.
Cream were short-lived, which is both a blessing and a curse. They released only a handful of albums, but this meant that they never lapsed into being safe or repetitive. For me, neither Baker, Clapton or Bruce ever managed to do anything better since Cream, despite Clapton going on to become a household name (I find a lot of his solo work quite dull, to be honest). Eddie Van Halen once said that they all sounded quite lost without each other, and he's right. The chemistry and musicianship here is excellent.
Summary: One of the best albums of the decade