Thursday, February 17, 2011

James Carr - You Got My Mind Messed Up (1966)

I wish I had the musical vocabulary to do a review of You Got My Mind Messed Up justice, but I don't. Which is a shame, I know. Obviously I am going to do this anyway, and you people will just have to write a better review in your heads, because this is my favorite soul album of all time, and you need to hear it.

It's an overlooked classic that deserved a heck of a lot more recognition than it got. Now, I am like a fussy baby when it comes to soul. Little things about the mix, or the instrumentation, or just the "vibe" in general can ruin whole albums for me. I know that might be funny to some of you, since my taste in other kinds of music is, ahem, a bit less discerning. But I really am very particular about soul, and I usually measure soul records by how similar they sound to You Got My Mind Messed Up.

Which is to say, I like soul bold, and brassy, with a clear vocal recording high in the mix. The horns are out front too. There are some nice rolling bass lines, but nothing that reminds me of funk. Some shimmery electric organ here and there. It's the epitome of the Goldwax/Stax records sound. So classy and infectious. I can't really hang with anything else.

We could go on about instrumentation, but the truth is a Southern soul album sinks or swims on the singer's voice. James Carr is ferocious; he's a soul tyrannosaurus. He's quite similar to a raspier Ray Charles in some respects, but with that emotive power more reminiscent of Otis Redding. Actually, I don't care about anything so I am going to go the extra step and say James Carr out-emotes Redding for the most part. This came out in 1966, and is supposedly a more restrained flavor of soul than the funk-influenced styles that would later dominate, but Carr is right out front throughout the entire record, howling and screaming and basically just bleeding all his misery out and not giving a fuck. Listen to the performance on "Coming Back to me Baby" and how even between verses he snarls and exclaims on time with the beat. Or on the title track where he goes from a near-whisper to a full-on wail, but never lets up. It's that kind of raw intensity that keeps me listening to this album over and over.

There are enough upbeat stomps on here ("That's What I Want to Know") for you to clomp around to in your boots and braces, if that's what floats your dinghy. But there is also a peppering of slow-dance numbers to keep the birds and the bees in business* at the end of the night. Speaking of, the album highlight, and Carr's best known song, "The Dark End of the Street", kills. Absolutely fucking kills. If you are going to listen to one song on this record to make up your mind about it, let it be this one. It's one of those songs that's been covered a million times and no one has even come close to duplicating the raw emotion of the original. Now, I love Percy Sledge, but in this case he shouldn't have even fucking bothered trying. Dan Penn, who co-wrote the song, has said that compared to Carr's version, there is no other version.

Even if this record was just "Dark End of the Street" followed by 11 tracks of Carr playing the didgeridoo, it would still be my favorite soul album of all time, just on the strength of that one song. Impossibly, however, the rest of the album is up to that standard. I find this is pretty unusual for hit-based genres like soul, but there you are. Every single song on this record elicits an emotional response from me. Honestly if you don't want to dance to at least one of these songs you need to report back to SkyNet to get an update patch on your emotion-simulating software.

In all seriousness, please give this record a listen. There isn't a lot of stuff I listen to that I would say has "universal appeal," and this is no exception, but it's the pinnacle of a sound I've fallen in love with of late, and it's brilliant.

*I stole this phrase from Spirit of 69. I'm sorry, everybody.

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