Monday, March 1, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 48 - Cream

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

One of the better discoveries I've made through this project is my love of instrumental jam sessions. This is something I never expected that I would like as much as I do. When I was in high school, I had a friend who was a big fan of jazz, and would drag me to various shows around the area. He would sit, transfixed, listening to a trumpet player toot on the same three chords for half an hour, while I struggled to stay awake.

I suppose that experience turned me off to jamming. I could appreciate the skill that it required, and admire the talent of a group that could play improvisatory pieces together as a unit. But this sort of thing never really impressed me until I started exploring blues-rock groups for this project. Starting with the Allman Brothers Band, and extending to Cream this week, I've been consistently floored by the experience of listening to an electric guitar jam away in blues progressions for fifteen minutes on end.

I'm not sure why this kind of jamming has won me over whereas I'm still lukewarm toward jazz. Is it that a rock ensemble simply packs more of a punch when they play? Is it that this blues music has more direction, naturally driving toward a cadence, whereas jazz players tend to dick around on the same chord for hours? I'm not sure.

Regardless, listening to Wheels of Fire (my favorite of the albums this week), I always found myself anticipating the second half of the album, with its powerful live recordings of Cream jamming away. Some of the tracks are over 16 minutes long, but they never seem boring or repetitive. Maybe only virtuoso supergroups like Cream can pull off this sort of thing and actually sound good, but I'm glad this stuff is out there.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll continue this post in twenty minutes when this track is done.



WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: I'm pretty sure I've listened to a "Greatest Hits" CD from the group sometime in the past. I was certainly familiar with all their major hits, but I hadn't realized that their albums also contained these longer jams, which might have added to their appeal.

MY LISTENING: I listened to Disraeli Gears (1967) every day this week. I also put on Wheels of Fire (1968) three times and Fresh Cream (1966) twice. And I'm listening to Goodbye (1969) as I write this.


Generally, the harder Cream rocks, the more I like their stuff. The trio is at their very best when cranking their amps up to 11 and blasting away without any sort of reserve or restraint, best demonstrated on the unforgettable "White Room". Some tracks dominate simply through the sheer force of their riffs, like the gritty opening to "Politician"; others through their unbridled energy, like the fast-moving "Rollin' and Tumblin' ". Still more tracks might have languished in psychedelic obscurity if it weren't for their hard-rocking blues - here, I'm definitely thinking of "Tales of Brave Ulysses", a bizarre neo-Homeric ode rescued by a dark foot-stomping blues riff that rises above the song's pseudo-mythological pretensions.

In addition to the group's own compositions, their cover songs are equally enjoyable, and rock just as hard. Tracks such as "Born Under a Bad Sign" or "Sitting on Top of the World", not to mention the unforgettable "Crossroads", convey the melancholic power of the blues in a manner totally unlike anything I've heard before. It's during these songs that the musical unity of the group is more apparent - Jack Bruce's bass sets up a riff-heavy blues foundation while Eric Clapton's guitar squeals on top, dancing in and around the structure that Bruce has set up. Meanwhile, Ginger Baker's drumming fills in gaps you didn't even know were there with fun kicks and syncopations.

Finally, like I said, I loved the lengthy jamming sessions. "Toad" is an impressive showcase for Baker's drumming and a lot of fun to listen to, but the highlight of Wheels of Fire, for me at least, is Clapton's epic guitar solo in the sixteen-minute version of "Spoonful".


For all their hard blues rock, there's still an element to Cream that ties them to the latter half of the 1960s, and unfortunately this lends itself to an inescapable datedness. While some of this is redeemed by the hard blues I talked about above, there still remain songs like the regrettable "Pressed Rat and Warthog", that bring down the otherwise irreproachable Wheels of Fire. Even worse is when the band tries to make a joke - the "Mother's Lament" that ends Disraeli Gears is nothing but an annoying trifle, and ends the album by leaving a sour taste in my mouth.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: Cream has a whole crop of live albums that I feel I should start exploring, from their initial tour in the 1960s to their 2005 reunion concert. Additionally, both Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker have remained active, teaming up with various groups and recording some solo albums. Eric Clapton, on the other hand, never did anything ever again.


I'm a sucker for a seven minute harmonica solo.

NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: Little Walter.

This choice might be a bit more obscure than the artists I usually listen to. But there's quite a few reasons for this pick, which I'll elaborate on next week.