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James Carr
The Essential James Carr
Razor & Tie Records

James Carr is one of the few '60s soul men who actually deserved the honorific "legendary," if for no other reason than that for nearly 25 years he has existed only in legend. "Hard to find" doesn't begin to describe the unavailability of his discs -- he recorded on a small, not quite fly-by-night label; he hasn't had the benefit of reissues; and, because of a breakdown, he hasn't been performing much.

The Essential James Carr redresses this injustice. Remastered and smartly packaged, the songs and performances sparkle. Carr's particular gift was the ability to invest even the most banal lyrics with meaning and emotion; his voice never seems encumbered with artifice or mannerisms. Carr grew up with gospel and spiritual music, and it's his gospel training that accounts for the transparency of feeling in his vocals. When he was in full command of his faculties, Carr's dynamic live shows bore a heavy debt to the charismatic abandon of the hard gospel leads, particularly the Sensational Nightingales' Julius Cheeks.

In 1964, Carr released his first record, "You Don't Want Me," on Memphis' Goldwax Records. The next year he had his first hit in "You've Got My Mind Messed Up." Then, after a brief hitless spell, came Carr's masterpiece, "The Dark End of the Street" -- two lovers part, knowing that when they pass each other on the street again they won't acknowledge each other's existence. Carr's voice perfectly captures the sorrow and resignation of the song; his performance of this alone is worth the price of the new disc.

Carr continued to record with some success during the next few years, but by the end of the '60s he had started to fall apart. Six hours to get one vocal passage; frequently just sitting on a stool, saying nothing. Eventually, he couldn't countenance either recording or performing live. Then he pretty much disappeared, surfacing in 1979 for a disastrous tour of Japan, where he took too many antidepressants and went into a trance on-stage.

Two years ago, I saw him sing in New York. For the first half of the show he looked scared out of his wits, but the reassuring presence of Irma Thomas on some duets helped restore his confidence. By the time he closed with "Dark End," all the sweetness and sorrow of his voice was back. With his material finally available again, that voice, the force behind Carr's legend, can at last be heard by a new and widespread audience.

-- Peter Kelly

Various Artists
Hellhole
Justice Records

When Justice Records' producer Randall Jamail had some local Houston bands in the studio recording Hellhole, he probably wasn't aware that the band claiming to be the Keenlies was, in fact, not the Keenlies. They were extraterrestrials -- the real band had fallen victim to alien abduction and been temporarily replaced with doubles. And they weren't the only ones ... or something like that. Thing is, the majority of the songs on the mostly punk Hellhole compilation don't quite sound right; more often than not, they sound flat and unaffected. Some of the bands asked to participate in this supposed Houston showcase just plain suck to begin with, but it doesn't seem fair to slag them here considering how most of these groups have sounded better live and -- in the case of Man or God and de Schmog -- on earlier recordings. While there are a few listenable tracks here, such as Sad Pygmy's "G.O.M.B.," Violent Blue's "A&E" and the Jinkies' "Instant Kar Krash," this 14-song compilation simply doesn't -- if you'll pardon the expression -- do the bands justice. Which leads to the another theory, which is that Randall Jamail simply isn't a very good producer. Either that, or he was the one abducted by aliens.

-- Joe Hon

Doug Sahm
The Last True Texas Blues Band
Antone's Records

If they listen to Doug Sahm in the afterlife, it's a safe bet that T-Bone Walker and Bob Wills are sitting together, tapping their toes in approval and laughing their heavenly butts off at any earthbound scribes who have to pigeonhole this formerly faux Brit from San Antonio. Call it Texas jump music, somewhere within earshot of both big band blues and Western swing, but very much in its own horn-driven orbit. "My Dearest Darling" and Louis Armstrong's "Bad Boy" kick off with the kind of cheek to cheek waltz heard everywhere from prom night to last call, and establish this recording as another example of Clifford Antone's belief that every good song deserves a stirring horn section. Switching from studio to the stage at the label's home club, Sahm and his longtime Austinite entourage manage to zydeco the hell out of Fats Domino's "My Girl Josephine" without having an accordion in sight. With more bows to his teenage idols, Sahm remembers Ed "Guitar Slim" Jones with a faithful rendition of the blues standard "Something to Remember You By" before whipping the horns to a frenzy on "Loan a Helping Hand"; it's almost as though Joe Scott and Don Robey themselves were in the booth keeping an eye on their song. There's not a wrong sax note on the album -- Rocky Moralez has been trading leads with Sahm's piano for more than 35 years -- but all the honks are especially right on Clifford Scott's Western swing tenor-sax masterpiece "Honky Tonk." It's been a long road from Sam Houston High to Antone's, and Doug Sahm makes it plain that he paid attention along the way as he says thanks to his teachers.

-- Jim Sherman

 
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