Upstate heavyweights Mercury Rev and friends reimagine a Bobbie Gentry classic
Artist: Mercury Rev
Recording: Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited Label: Partisan Records
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Bobbie Gentry hasn’t been heard from since 1981, but her presence has increased in the past year thanks to a new project by New York’s Mercury Rev. That, of course, paired with a Record Store Day exclusive collection of archival BBC recordings arrived last April along with an exhaustive CD box set issued in late 2018. Now Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited, a covers project featuring the renowned rock veterans and an impressive cast of guest vocalists, adds to Gentry’s legend and allure.
While the better-known Ode to Billie Joe got thrown together in 1967 to sell more copies of its mysterious title track, the Feb. 1968 release The Delta Sweete was the ultimate, coherent marriage of Gentry’s Southern gothic songwriting and the pop production techniques of the time. Hopefully, Mercury Rev’s collaborative project introduces more ears to Gentry’s finest album.
Throughout The Delta Sweete, the horns and strings that took Nashville uptown merge beautifully with Gentry’s poetic phrasing. Original compositions and a handful of covers (childhood favorites “Tobacco Road” and “Big Boss Man” plus a solid rendition of Doug Kershaw’s “Louisiana Man”) paint a vivid picture of Mississippi Delta living on par with her better-known tale of death and dinner table gossip.
To honor Gentry’s best work, Mercury Rev recruited 13 talented vocalists for modernized renditions of all 11 album tracks, plus a treatment of “Ode to Billie Joe” featuring Lucinda Williams.
Collaborators go beyond fellow regional wordsmith Williams, “Sermon” guest vocalist Margo Price and others inspired by Gentry’s country songwriting. With the help of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, “Big Boss Man” becomes a layered slow-burner. Off-kilter call-and-response song “Reunion” sounds as gorgeous as ever with Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell on lead vocals. Better yet, another indie rock giant in Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier adds a touch of class to the alluring “Mornin’ Glory.”
Newer artists joining the fray include boygenius member Phoebe Bridgers, featured on the orchestral pop deep cut “Jesseye ‘Lizabeth.” Fellow indie genius Marissa Nadler tackles the strangest selection in Gentry’s catalog, “Refractions.”
The most unusual inclusion on the album filled with eclectic guests might be Game of Thrones actress Carice van Houten. She brings a heightened sense of tension to the musical crime drama “Parchment Farm.”
Mercury Rev’s mix of country, folk, Americana and indie rock guests speaks to more than the band’s wide range of colleagues. Each spirited vocal performance adds credibility to assumptions that the artistic and lyrical depth of Gentry’s hits and deep cuts speak to a wide range of artists from the past 50 years.