Friday, December 30, 2016

Review: Cream's 'Fresh Cream' Super-Deluxe Edition

After picking up a musty old copy of Heavy Cream for a buck at my local record store recently, I had an unpleasant revelation while listening to “I Feel Free” through headphones for the first time in a long time: the stereo mix is absolutely awful. The rhythm guitars, bass, and drums are all shoved off to the right-hand channel, vocals are centered, and tambourine is the sole occupant of the left channel for much of the track. Suddenly, one of my favorite pieces of psychedelic pop was reduced to a limp noodle. Tears were shed. Dreams were dashed. Heavy Cream curdled.
The timing of UMe’s Super Deluxe Edition of Fresh Cream couldn’t have been better for me, because the quadruple-disc set’s anchor is Cream’s debut in its mono mix long unavailable in the States. No album was as mighty as Fresh Cream in 1966, and the wonky separation of its stereo incarnation did a complete disservice to that considerable distinction. Great tracks such as “I Feel Free” (from the U.S. version), “Spoonful” (from the UK version), “I’m So Glad”, “Cat’s Squirrel”, “Sweet Wine”, “N.S.U.”, and “Sleepy Time Time” are restored to their original power, Baker, Bruce, and Clapton booming as a unified unit as they were always meant to. The set includes the album’s stereo mix, but there’s really no reason to ever bother with that again.

The Fresh Cream Super Deluxe Edition also includes stereo and mono mixes of the underrated contemporary tracks “Wrapping Paper” and “The Coffee Song” (a new and particularly miserable stereo mix has everything but the sporadic lead guitar outbursts hard-panned to the right). Elsewhere on the mono first disc and stereo second one are alternate masters and mixes, though none of them are particularly revelatory.

The most radical alternates are bunched on the third disc, which includes substantially different early versions of “The Coffee Song”, “Sweet Wine”, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”, “Toad”, and “I Feel Fine” (with a hilariously dinky vocal arrangement and dummy lyrics). There are a couple of so-so outtakes— “You Make Me Feel”, previously released on the Those Were the Days box set, and an awkwardly stop-starting vocal-deprived blues called “Beauty Queen”—and a big clutch of worthwhile BBC recordings that were mostly released thirteen years ago on the BBC Sessions CD (versions of “Steppin’Out” and “Sleepy Time Time” are exclusive to this new set). I couldn’t assess the Blu-Ray Audio version of the original mono album because this fourth disc was not included in the review package I received (neither was the 64-page hardback book notated by David Fricke). As is often the case with Super Deluxe Editions, there’s redundancy and bloat, but that mono mix of Fresh Cream remains a powerful selling point in more ways than one. Don’t expect to find it for a buck at your local record store, though.
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