To quote critic Robert Gordon about James Carr: “From the mid to late 60s, he established himself with sad songs and songs of desperation, singing them not like his life depended on them, but like what his life depended on was gone and these songs were what was left. His voice is deep and full, operatic even, and though heavy with conviction, he can soar like a preacher giving warning.” I really like that description, and although he was beset by severe depression and personal problems that sidetracked his career and life, for a few years there James Carr was indeed the real deal, a singer to rival any of the Atlantic/Stax greats, though he was relegated to the smaller Goldwax label and only had a handful of minor hits. Three of those songs, all of which can be found on his debut album, You Got My Mind Messed Up, would come to be regarded as all-time classics. Though these songs have since been much-covered, Carr’s versions of “Pouring Water On A Drowning Man,” “You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up,” and especially “Dark End Of The Street” have never been bettered (to quote the latter song’s co-writer, Dan Penn, "everybody keeps asking me what's my favorite version of 'Dark End Of The Street,' as if there was any other than James Carr's"...). “Pouring Water On A Drowning Man” is highlighted by its loping country soul groove, jaunty horns, and of course Carr's emotional vocals, which seem to come from the deepest recesses of his soul. Indeed, there’s obviously more than a hint of truth to "You've Got My Mind Messed Up" (one of four tracks here written by O.B. McClinton; Carr was an interpreter, not a writer), as evidenced by his raw, visceral delivery, but again it’s Carr’s version of “Dark End Of The Street” that is his greatest contribution to deep Southern soul. Really, with its echoed guitar, ethereal female backing vocals, almost otherworldly late-night sound, and fantastic "sneaking around" lyrics, this would be a great song even without Carr’s legendary lead vocal, but of course it’s that bottomless voice, which some have compared to Robert Johnson due to its unremittingly dark, almost-frightening intensity, that really seals the deal. Although those songs are the obvious high points, You Got My Mind Messed Up is a consistent, concise (all 12 songs clock in between 1:59 and 2:54) collection containing other strong songs as well. For example, "Love Attack" is a smoldering Otis Redding-like ballad with those churchy keyboards I love so much, and "Forgetting You" likewise recalls Redding, with high-pitched horns and great staccato drumming also being standout attributes. Although he most excels on the ballads where his authoritative voice can really take center stage, lively tracks like "That's What I Want to Know" (which sounds like The Supremes’ “Baby Love” but with a faster beat) add some variety and showcase his tight, punchy backing band. The resulting album is an under-recognized classic of southern soul, and the reissue adds 12 worthwhile bonus tracks, some much more than merely worthwhile, such as "Life Turned Her That Way." Alas, James Carr lost his way soon afterwards as his demons overcame him, but this deeply soulful, rough beauty of a recording still boasts a timeless quality.
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