Sunday, April 12, 2015

Cream - Disraeli Gears (1967)

Cream's 1966 debut album Fresh Cream presented the group as a basic three-piece blues band with a flair for virtuosity, but for their follow-up effort, guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker decided to broaden their horizons.  That album, Disraeli Gears - recorded in New York under the tutelage of producer Felix Pappalardi and engineer Tom Dowd - is a full realization of their awesome talents, fusing psychedelic rock and thick blues chords into a new, heavier sound distinguished by searing melodies and fluid rhythmic lines.  While the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album proved, in a rather stately manner, that rock could be art, Cream, with their formidable playing and arrangements, proved that art could rock.
Disraeli Gears is as spellbinding and colorful as its cover, which the late Australian artist Martin Sharp designed to - successfully - emulate the music.  Cream's sound sparkles with tasteful production that captures its freewheeling nature, from Clapton's shimmering, stinging guitar lines and Baker's measured but intense drumming  to Bruce's effortless bass and his astonishing vocals, the latter complemented by Clapton's growing confidence as a singer.  Cream were getting more adventurous on their songwriting, as Bruce was collaborating increasingly with fantasy-inspired lyricist Pete Brown and as Clapton worked with Pappalardi and Sharp; the original tunes on Disraeli Gears imagine worlds of castles in the skies and golden swordfish in the seas ("Dance the Night Away"), as well as an acid-drenched re-telling of Greek mythology ("Tales of Brave Ulysses").  Even the songs about flawed women, a common staple in blues tradition, are cosmically oriented. "Strange Brew," the opening cut written by Clapton with Pappalardi, tells the tale of a witchy woman out to cause trouble, conveyed by Clapton's bluesy vocal and piercing guitar, while Bruce, in "SWALBR," humorously explains the flaws behind his lover's perfect appearance - "The rainbow has a beard" - to the rip-roaring energy of Clapton and Baker's backing.  (The title is an acronym for "She was like a bearded rainbow.")  
Though Cream maintain a commitment to the blues, from their crisp take on the Pappalardi-Collins tune "World of Pain," conveying human suffering with images of a solitary tree in a bleak urban landscape, to their unvarnished cover of Blind Boy Reynolds' "Outside Woman Blues," they were clearly more interested in pushing rock beyond the basics.  Nowhere was that more obvious in Disraeli Gears' big hit, "Sunshine of Your Love," with its shifting rhythmic sequence and Baker's distinctive on-beat drum pattern backing Clapton's steady guitar riffs and Bruce's chunky bass.  And with lyrics more sexual than romantic, it became the original power ballad.  The late rock journalist Lillian Roxon once wrote that rock "finally grew up" with Cream. Disraeli Gears is why.        

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