The version I have is a recent remastered version that collects all of the songs that appeared on all of the different versions of the album, plus the A and B sides of a pre-LP single. Since it is structured this way, it begins with "I Feel Free" and "N.S.U.", back to back. "I Feel Free" was a non-LP single in the UK, but was tacked onto the beginning of the album in America, in order to spur LP sales through the use of a familiar hit. These two songs work well back to back, as they are both uptempo rockers that would fit in well with the other songs of the time that were later collected for the UK-oriented "Nuggets II" box set. The songs on the British version of this compilation tended to be more psychedelic and less raw and simple than their American counterparts, and the same is true of both "I Feel Free" and "N.S.U." These two are pretty much the only Cream songs that could be said to fit into that genre. Most of their later songs existed somewhere between the heavy blues style that eventually evolved into heavy metal and a more psychedelic heavy rock sound that pointed the way towards the progressive rock of the early 70s. However, at the time of "Fresh Cream", Cream were still working out what their sound would actually be, and as a result, it's a scattershot collection of songs, with many different genres only evident on one or two of the dozen or so songs here.
The only song on "Fresh Cream" that really points the way forward towards the sort of heavy psychedelia that Cream would later refine on songs like "White Room" and "Deserted Cities Of The Heart" is "Sweet Wine", and this song is more prototypical than anything. The full extent of their psychedelic powers wouldn't really come to light until their followup, 1967's "Disraeli Gears". However, some of the elements are already in place--Jack Bruce's powerful vocals on the chorus and the pounding, non-blues-based guitar riff that drives the song being the most obvious examples.
Most of this album, though, focuses on the heavy blues elements of Cream's sound. A lot of the songs here draw from all three members' time in the blues collectives of John Mayall and Graham Bond (Eric Clapton played with the former, drummer Ginger Baker with the latter, and Jack Bruce with both, at various times). Their rollicking take on the traditional blues instrumental "Cat's Squirrel" is a fun little blast, and covers of Howlin' Wolf's "Spoonful" and Skip James's "I'm So Glad" are probably the most representative examples on the album of how Cream would sound over the coming years. Both songs became live staples, and both were rereleased on later Cream albums in much longer, jam-filled live versions. My personal preference is for these relatively restrained versions. While I can recognize that the lengthy instrumental showcases that these songs often became are a big part of what a lot of people like about Cream and other bands like them, I personally find them boring and self-indulgent. The best elements of the garage-psych era, to me, come from experimentation within the song form and with the sorts of less traditional and melodic sounds players can wring from their overdriven electrical equipment. Endless noodling misses the point completely, to my mind, and therefore I can enjoy the "Fresh Cream" versions of "I'm So Glad" and "Spoonful" much more easily than the live versions on "Goodbye" and "Wheels Of Fire", respectively.
The rest of the album has its good moments and its bad. "Dreaming" is a shmaltzy misstep of a ballad, which doesn't even have that much of a blues sound to recommend it, and the slow cover of Robert Johnson's "Four Until Late" that gives us Eric Clapton's only vocal turn on the album is not much better. "Sleepy Time Time", a Jack Bruce original, pulls off the slow blues sound in a superior fashion, probably due to its thick guitar and bass sound, which is absent from "Four Until Late".
"Rollin' and Tumblin'", a Muddy Waters cover, is another big favorite of mine. On this song, Jack Bruce forgoes his bass completely in order to play harmonica between vocal lines, and he and Eric Clapton double each other on the song's melodic main riff, propelled along by Ginger Baker's frenetic drumming. Between Bruce's frantic blowing and Clapton's overdriven guitar lines, this song is a mighty blues-based noisefest of the sort that I look for when I dig into mid-60s era albums like this one.
There's one other song on "Fresh Cream" that, like "Sweet Wine", steers away from the traditional blues sound that dominates much of the rest of the record. Like "Sweet Wine", "Toad" is written by Ginger Baker, but unlike "Sweet Wine", this instrumental is mainly here as a showcase for Baker's drumming. The first third of this 5-minute track is a catchy, bass-driven instrumental with awesome riffing, but at the 90-second mark, the guitar and bass drop out and leave Baker to play drums by himself for the next three minutes or so. Sure, the guy is a great musician, but as you might imagine from earlier comments, this kind of thing bores me to tears. Unfortunately, a lot of people thought it was a really cool idea, and like covers of "Louie Louie" in 1963-64, covers of "Hey Joe" in 1966-67, and raga-style modal instrumental breaks in the wake of "8 Miles High", the drum solo became de rigeur for a lot of heavy-blues/proto-metal garage bands in the late 60s and early 70s. When I was doing my explorations of Decibel Magazine's top 50 forgotten proto-metal albums list, I found that damn near all of them featured a drum solo of some interminable length. This was probably more due to the 15-minute live version of "Toad" that later appeared on "Wheels Of Fire", than this initial 1966 version, which predates the fad by at least two years (really, it's probably more due than anything else to Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida", but Ginger Baker undoubtedly had a hand in it). That said, it's still a pretty terrible idea, and I feel that way even more fervently because the 90-second full-band intro to "Toad" is actually really good. I wish they'd turned it into a full-band three-minute instrumental, like "Cat's Squirrel", instead of the drum showcase it became.
There's one maddening element of "Fresh Cream"'s time-capsule feel that I must mention before I'm done. In 1966, stereo recording technology was just starting to become widespread, and as a result, a lot of albums that were recorded with the intent of being released in mono were given post-production stereo mixes of varying quality. Generally, people wanted the stereo versions of the albums if they could find them, and therefore the mono versions are often much rarer--which is disappointing, because the mono versions were always much truer to the band's original intent. Worse, the stereo mixes that were done were usually done with a gimmicky eye towards making the stereo separation as obvious as possible. These two tendencies combine particularly unfortunately on "Fresh Cream". The way I'm listening to it right now, with it playing on a boombox over my right shoulder, isn't all that obnoxious, but trying to listen to this album through headphones or on my home computer, where the speakers are located to either side of the monitor, is an exercise in frustration.
In 1966, most studios had four tracks on which to record, and in order to maximize the overdubs possible on a song, the basic tracks of the song--rhythm guitar, bass, and drums--were generally mixed down to one track. If an album was due to be released in mono, this was no problem, but once stereo came into the picture, it complicated things considerably. The best choice in order to make an album sound as good as possible would undoubtedly have been to leave basic tracks in the center of the mix, and maybe pan some of the overdubs to one speaker or the other. However, with the powers that be desiring to make stereo mixes as obvious as possible, this never happened. A stereo mix with the basic tracks all in the center sounds a lot like a mono mix--too much, to the minds of record executives. So you end up with sonic abominations like the stereo mix of "Fresh Cream". On almost every song on this album, the basic tracks are panned hard to the right. Then all of the overdubs--generally including any lead guitar tracks, percussion instruments like tambourine, and whatever backing vocals there are--are panned hard to the left. Only Jack Bruce's lead vocal generally gets positioned in the center of the mix. This creates two weird effects, one being that the instrumental overdubs stand so far out from the basic tracks that the sounds don't combine at all. Often, a guitar lead will sound off, somehow, just because it's hanging out there in space, completely divorced from the rhythm track. The other weird effect this creates is that only the lead vocal ties the sounds in the two speakers together in any real way. This means that, while Jack Bruce is singing, the sounds from the two speakers mostly manage to integrate as a whole in your brain. However, as soon as he reaches the end of a vocal line and stops singing, the song seems to split in two and move as far apart in your head as possible. Like I said, maddening.
The song that, to my mind, defeats this problem most soundly is "Rollin' and Tumblin'". Jack Bruce's bass is absent from the rhythm track, and his harmonica is part of the same overdub track on which he recorded his vocals. This live switching between singing and playing harmonica on the same track is not something that would be done today (and that's a crying shame), but thankfully, it was done on this track. The way Clapton's lead guitar, panned hard right, meshes with Bruce's harmonica playing, panned hard left, does a great deal to create a real stereo sound on this track. The only real problem is that Baker's drumming is panned hard right, but there's no way to fix it, and in context it's not that bad.
Where it is really horrible is on "Toad". I'm not sure how it was done, unless the drums were recorded beforehand and without accompaniment, but on this track the guitar and bass are panned hard left, while the drums are panned to the right all by themselves. This works pretty well during the sections when the entire band is playing, but for the entire three-minute drum solo section of the song, the drums stay panned all the way to the right, meaning that your left speaker is getting no use at all. On my computer speakers, this is a bit off-putting. Through headphones, it's nigh unlistenable. Honestly, I've been so frustrated by the completely un-optimal stereo mix of this album that at one point I went hunting on the sort of blogs where garage-rock nerds post vinyl rips of entire albums onto rapidshare (I love blogs like this, and I'm eternally glad that there are so many of them) for a mono vinyl rip of "Fresh Cream". I found one, with a 10-song track listing that included "I Feel Free" but left off "Spoonful", but it was such a mediocre quality rip that it was just as frustrating to listen to, in its own way, as the stereo remaster. At this point, I'm stuck listening to the stereo version and dealing with obnoxious panning issues, but I keep on listening to it. Regardless of the obnoxious mix and the two or three less-than-great tracks included on the album, "Fresh Cream" is a pretty awesome piece of musical history, and aside from all that, it's great fun to listen to. I'm sure I'll be putting up with its quirks for some time to come.
Cream - Sweet Wine
Cream - Rollin' and Tumblin'