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Mercury Rev - Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited Music Album Reviews

A half-century after the release of Bobbie Gentry’s imaginative second album, the art-rock band revisits it as if in a daze but with the help of over a dozen brilliant singers.

Bobbie Gentry had unqualified freedom to record her second album, and she wasn’t going to waste it. Her 1967 smash, “Ode to Billie Joe,” not only introduced the breakout pop star but also gave listeners one of the era’s enduring mysteries: What exactly had she and Billie Joe McAllister thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge? For her follow-up to that hit and its best-selling album, she envisioned something unique and highly ambitious: an avant-garde country-pop record full of technicolor arrangements, oddball collages, and playful sexual innuendos. Mixing originals with Southern standards made famous by J.D. Loudermilk, Doug Kershaw, and Mose Allison, The Delta Sweete depicts the Deep South as a fantastical place: not how it was in the late 1960s, but how Gentry remembers it from her idyllic Mississippi childhood.

That feeling is one of the few things Mercury Rev get right on their full-album tribute to The Delta Sweete, which features a different singer from various generations and genres on each song. From the first notes of opener “Okolona River Bottom Band,” you get the sense of a place that exists outside of time and space. In this tale about a small town holding tryouts for the local band, the humid shimmer of the droning strings and sequencers, not to mention Norah Jones’ languid vocals, depict Okolona—a very real place in Gentry’s native Chickasaw County—as though it were Brigadoon. Gentry achieved a similar effect with a low, reverberating strum and some insinuating horns. The way Gentry sings those opening la la la’s and the leering male voice at the end give the original a strong sexual undercurrent, but that goes missing here. Without the subtext, Gentry’s wordplay falls flat, the cover becoming like a classified ad that reads “MUSICIANS WANTED.”

Mercury Rev remove these songs from their original settings, taking them out of the South and resituating them who knows where. That’s most apparent on “Reunion,” sung by Rachel Goswell of Slowdive. The original is one of the strangest and most impressive songs in Gentry’s catalog. Against a Bo Diddley guitar strum and some finger snaps, Gentry layered numerous samples into a quilt that captures the freneticism of a family reunion. It’s a remarkable piece of music, especially for 1968, and it’s practically impossible to cover. Mercury Rev seem flummoxed by the endeavor, reconstructing a more conventional tune out of all those voices and highlighting one aside about Billie Joe McAllister as a cheap bit of sensationalism. It’s a dull mess.

What’s more, Mercury Rev blanche these songs of their rhythmic complexities and musical quirks, slowing everything to a crawl and removing almost all of the blues, rockabilly, swamp rock, Southern soul, and country-funk touchstones. Hope Sandoval sings “Big Boss Man” so languorously you might think she’s passing out from heat stroke. Carice Van Houten, from “Game of Thrones,” delivers “Parchman Farm” without Gentry’s knowing wink, without that sense that the narrator is complicit in the crime that sends her man away. Margo Price tries to capture the ecstasy and energy of a lively church service on “Sermon,” but she’s burdened by another blandly lush arrangement. Mercury Rev end not with “Courtyard,” Gentry’s closer covered here by Beth Orton, but with a predictable bonus track. Lucinda Williams singing “Ode to Billie Joe” ought to be an event, but her interpretive strategy is to infuse the song with resentment, as though bitter about having to pass the biscuits please.

At least Chameleonic Norwegian singer/songwriter Susanne Sundfør gives the best and fiercest performance here with “Tobacco Road,” and Mercury Rev return the favor with one of their best re-imaginings. They turn the song into a march toward destruction, full of stomping percussion and menacing pomp. When Sundfør sings about bombing that shabby community of rusty shacks, you can almost hear her lighting the fuses on the stolen dynamite.

Still, Revisited is a noble undertaking. The Delta Sweete was a commercial flop that nearly derailed Gentry’s career, and only recently has she been reconsidered as a singular artist and as an influence on subsequent generations, including Kacey Musgraves, Neko Case, and ostensibly everyone on this tribute. Last year’s excellent box set The Girl from Chickasaw County collected all seven of the albums she recorded from 1967 through 1971, after which she relocated to Las Vegas and eventually excused herself from public life. For those unfamiliar with Gentry and her catalog, that’s a much better point of entry than this affectionate but misguided tribute that’s nowhere close to satisfying.

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