Review Summary: Quite possibly the album that the term "hidden gem" was created for.
James Carr should be a household name. His debut album, with the eerily foreshadowing title You Got My Mind Messed Up
, came out at the perfect time. The album was released in 1967. Otis Redding--the absolute closest comparison you can find to Carr--was popular, as was soul music in general at the time. In fact, Carr had ten charting singles on the R&B and pop charts. Unfortunately, severe bipolar disorder and anxiety issues derailed his career before it could take off. After his second album, he basically vanished for over twenty years before recording two more albums in the nineties, and eventually succumbing to lung cancer in 2001. Fortunately, what he left behind is an album that's often been called one of the greatest (if not the greatest) soul albums ever made.
The album opens with the country-soul track "Pouring Water On A Drowning Man", with Carr's booming, pained voice (which is made even more haunting knowing what he was going through personally) turning what could've been a fairly light and standard "woman does man wrong" track into something with more pathos. This theme continues on all of the tracks on the album, which might explain why most of them have been covered by a multitude of artists in the years since the albums release. None more so than "The Dark End Of The Street" , which has been covered by Bruce Springsteen, Dolly Parton, Elvis Costello, Ryan Adams, Teenage Fanclub, and Cat Power, to name a few. The reason for the song's universal appeal (aside from being a gorgeously produced, fantastic song) is in its lyrics. It's a song about an affair that doesn't sugarcoat the situation. The narrator speaks from a point of view of someone who knows what he's doing is wrong, and that nothing about it can end well. Simply put, it's stunning.
Pointing out album highlights is pointless, since the entire album is full of them, front to back. The album is sequenced perfectly, moving fluidly between slower tracks like "Love Attack" and faster fare like "Coming Back To Me". This juxtaposition makes the album move by at a brisk pace, because for every down-tempo "These Ain't Raindrops" there's a danceable track like "That's What I Want To Know" to counter it. And while there are definite reference points for some of the tracks--such as the very Otis Redding-esque title tracks as well as the aforementioned "That's What I Want To Know"'s similarity to "I Can't Help Myself"--Carr's voice and energy gives each one a distinct stamp that would have made for a lot of great music had it not been suppressed by personal demons he couldn't quite control. And while it's too bad he never got to quite follow up on the potential he showed early on, the "one of the greatest soul albums ever" tag is hard to argue, and that alone is worth something. If you're a fan of the genre and you haven't heard this, you owe it to yourself to check it out.