Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Cream and Eric Clapton Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Fresh Cream (1966, Atco)

B

This debut album from the power trio Cream – consisting of Clapton, lead vocalist/bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker – is almost equal-parts pure-blues covers and psychedelia-tinged originals and is a bit schizophrenic for that reason, so, depending on your music tastes, it’s very possible to like half of this disc and dislike the other.  The musical chemistry between the three men is already obvious, however, and it’s hard not to admire the playing throughout, be it the solo work or the instrumental interplay, even if the group is still somewhat embryonic here and their compositional chops not fully developed. (Indeed, roughly only half the album consists of original material, most of which pales quite a bit next to the band’s later originals like “Sunshine of Your Love” or “White Room.”) Clapton – perhaps not surprisingly – sounds the most energized on the more blues-oriented numbers, like “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and Skip James’ “I’m So Glad,” but the most recognizable tune here is the haunting psychedelic pop of “I Feel Free.” Be careful when purchasing the disc, because there are several different versions in existence to choose from: original British pressings sadly omit “I Feel Free” at great artistic expense to the album as a whole, while original American pressings did include the hit single, but at the expense of the trio’s excellent version of the Willie Dixon blues standard “Spoonful.” A later American re-issue on the RSO label included both “I Feel Free” and “Spoonful” and is the best vinyl purchase for your money. The earliest American CD pressings of the album include all the tracks from the RSO re-issue and also generously tack on the non-LP sides “Wrapping Paper” and “The Coffee Song,” but later American CD pressings inexplicably removed those tracks.

Disraeli Gears (1967, Atco)

A  

Cream’s second disc dispenses with most of the heavy-blues influences of the first disc (though not entirely, Clapton turning in a fine rendition of the Blind Joe Reynolds blues standard “Outside Woman Blues”) and concentrates more on psychedelic rock, but the focus results in a more cohesive album, and producer Felix Pappalardi – the future bassist for the hard-rock band Mountain (“Mississippi Queen”) – manages to help the group refine its sound into something just a bit more pop-radio-friendly, resulting in the band’s first major American hit single, the enduring Top Five smash “Sunshine of Your Love,” which is driven by what is undeniably one of the most memorable guitar licks in all of ‘60s rock. The classic is surrounded by an abundance of fine album cuts, including “Dance the Night Away,” “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” “World of Pain,” and, perhaps most famously of all, the heavy psychedelia of the hypnotic opener “Strange Brew.” It’s also a very well-sequenced disc, and even if the album closer “Mother’s Lament” seems like a bit of a throwaway track, it’s also placed exactly in the right spot and provides for a nice and refreshing bit of levity and hilarity to end what is otherwise a bit too self-serious an affair. 

Wheels of Fire (1968, Atco)

A –

Still better than the debut but not as memorable as its predecessor, the double-disc Wheels of Fire unfortunately gives ammunition to those who found the power-trio pretentious by including a full disc of live cuts stretched out to absolutely absurd running times, such as renditions of “Spoonful” and “Toad” that each clock in at over sixteen minutes. (The former actually works better than you might think, though the latter boasts a thirteen-minute drum solo that gets tedious really quickly.) But the live disc isn’t all bad, and the fiery cover of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” still remains one of Clapton’s all-time greatest moments as a musician. It’s the studio half of this package that’s really the more essential, though. The psychedelia of the previous disc has been dialed down considerably, the band instead concentrating on muscular blues-rock (even turning an excellent pair of blues covers, “Sitting on Top of the World” and, even better still, “Born Under a Bad Sign”), and not only is Clapton playing with even greater fire than ever before, but Jack Bruce also turns in his most consistently strong set of songs yet, including “Politician,” “Deserted Cities of the Heart,” “As You Said,” and, best of all, the Top Ten hit “White Room,” which manages to pull off the feat of simultaneously being incredibly poppy and radio-friendly while also giving Clapton and Baker the space to run wild with their respective instruments without having to weigh the track down with overly lengthy solos.

Goodbye (1969, Atco)

B +

Cream’s final album together can’t help but seem like a bit of a cash grab: there are only six tracks on the original vinyl release, the three longest of which are live renditions of previously-released songs, meaning there’s less than ten minutes’ worth of new songs here. But the live cuts aren’t bad, either, and they seem much more focused than nearly anything on the live half of Wheels of Fire (with the exception of “Crossroads,” of course), even if they’re ultimately unnecessary. It’s the three new songs here that are the biggest standouts. Bruce’s “Doing That Scrapyard Thing” isn’t as poppy as his best material, but it has a real charm to its playful and experimental nature, while Baker’s “What a Bringdown” is arguably the best song he ever wrote for the trio. But it’s Clapton’s contribution, “Badge,” co-written with George Harrison (who also shows up on guitar under a pseudonym), that’s the best and most famous song here; the lyrics are a bit incomprehensible, but the music is simply gorgeous, especially the guitar work. The disc may not have been the best way for the band to go out, but if you look it as being an odds-and-ends package rather than being a proper album, the three new originals are still strong enough to make this still worth picking up, and some vinyl and CD reissues of the album improve on it by adding the delightful Clapton-penned-and-sung non-LP cut “Anyone for Tennis” from the film The Savage Seven

Blind Faith (1969, Atco)

B +

The one and only album from the four-piece supergroup of the same name – consisting of Clapton and Baker alongside former Spencer Davis Group and Traffic member Steve Winwood and former Family bassist Ric Grech – is understandably quite famous, but it’s also somewhat overrated and doesn’t come anywhere close to being as good as it should have been considering all the talent involved, largely because there are just six tracks here, one of them a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Well … All Right,” and another, “Do What You Like,” that’s less of a song per se than a fifteen-minute-long jam that wears out its welcome fairly early. The album is mostly saved by the fact that it contains two album-rock classics in the Clapton-penned “Presence of the Lord” and, even more famously, the Winwood-penned “Can’t Find My Way Home.”

Eric Clapton (1970, Atco)

A

Arguably a better album on a song-by-song basis than the Blind Faith disc even if it skirts a little closer towards the pop side of things than album-rock (only one song here goes past the four-minute mark, and the guitar solos are brief by Clapton’s usual standards as well), Clapton’s first solo outing – produced by Delaney Bramlett, who also co-writes most of the material here – is a very encouraging debut indeed, though it feels at times just as much of a Delaney & Bonnie album as an Eric Clapton album and you do sporadically wish that Clapton’s own style and persona seeped through a bit more. Though technically only one of these songs was a Top 40 hit, the great J.J. Cale-penned “After Midnight,” the album also boasts many an early Clapton standard, including “Blues Power,” “Bottle of Red Wine,” and, perhaps best of all, the enduring classic-rock cut “Let It Rain.” The album also boasts one of Clapton’s most criminally underrated non-singles, “Easy Now.”

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970, Atco)

A +

One of rock and roll’s all-time greatest double albums, this one-and-only studio album from the sadly-short-lived Derek & the Dominos – rounded out by Duane Allman and session greats Bobby Whitlock, Carl Radle, and Jim Gordon – is masterful, and not simply because it contains what is arguably Clapton’s most iconic song, the Patti Boyd-inspired seven-minute epic “Layla,” which boasts one of the greatest guitar riffs ever put on record and one of rock’s loveliest piano solos (the latter reportedly composed by pop singer Rita Coolidge, who got cheated out of a co-writing credit on the song.) It’s the strength of the surrounding material that makes this album so great from start to finish, be it the sunny opener “I Looked Away,” the minor hit “Bell Bottom Blues,” the toe-tapping blues-rock of “Tell the Truth,” the pleading “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?,” the chugging “Keep on Growing,” or the fabulous covers of “Key to the Highway” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” Clapton seldom ever sounded more passionate in the studio than he does here, and this is certainly his most fiery and emotionally powerful album, if not his best, period. This is a must-own for any rock fan.