Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited (Bella Union/Inertia)
There wasn’t enough Bobbie Gentry music back in the day. Not nearly enough.
With a career over by 1980 – voluntarily, happily, and so decisively that she’s barely been seen and certainly not heard since – and a recording career effectively done by the early ‘70s, we have only seven studio albums and a stray late single to keep us company.
And one of those albums is a “duet” album with Glen Campbell which in truth was really a Campbell album criminally underusing her as a glorified backing singer.
And yes, admittedly I say this as someone who spent a couple of hundred dollars recently to buy a smashing new box set, The Girl From Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters, even though I had almost all those albums already.
Nonetheless, even more objective people than me see that an excellent Mississippi songwriter and producer who captured many of the nuances and varieties of southern American music, and understood that it was as important to show its humour as its drama, Gentry was even better as a singer who had a voice that grooved naturally and whose sensuality was only rivalled by Dusty Springfield.
While her latter albums, in particular 1970’s Fancy - whose title track is a clear-eyed story of success as the best revenge, and a cracking country soul rave to boot - had many excellent moments, even as the record company pushed hard for covers and compromises, her most complete statements came in her first two records.
Inside Ode To Billie Joe and The Delta Sweete are some of the slinkiest soul songs, some of the most naturally loose country songs, and some of the earthiest music coming out in 1967 and ’68.
Heard now, those records still sound and feel superb. So to take on a Gentry album in 2019, as upstate New York’s Mercury Rev have done with The Delta Sweete, is a bold move. We devotees notwithstanding, she’s not exactly front of mind culturally. To do it with a cast of vastly different, mostly left of (commercial) centre female vocalists is a smart move. Even if it’s done without two obvious candidates who would have killed: Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer.
And finally, to approach these songs less as sacred objects than avenues to explore, through the styles and creativity of these vocalists as collaborators, is a very satisfying move.
Jessye’ Lisabeth in its original had a kind of stately progress, that late ‘60s fondness for quasi-Baroque touches (pseudo harpsichord, flute and strings) mixed with acoustic guitar and harmonica, while Gentry’s lower register soothed. Here, with Phoebe Bridgers’ voice presented in a kind of husky spaciousness, the strings have more tension, the bass is prominent, and the swirling sound presents something more claustrophobic but also more abstract.
The Big Boss Man done by Gentry was something you could imagine Elvis Presley sneaking into the 1968 Comeback Special: its snaky rhythm implied, its attitude casual, its naturalness evident. Mercury Rev and Hope Sandoval eschew naturalness for some slow settling nighttime, Texas open sky guitar, and keyboards that thicken the sound around unexpected mandolin and whistling.
Perhaps surprisingly for those who love the original as much as I do, this album’s take on Morning’ Glory, the achingly sensuous centrepiece of Gentry’s album (a pillow companion if you like to Dusty’s Breakfast In Bed, released the same year on Dusty In Memphis), is very appealing.
A closely-miked Laetitia Sadier, of Stereolab, sings from the chaise longue rather than a rumpled bed, more an observer than participant. The arrangement feels like something elegant and almost pastoral which might have come from one of Francoise Hardy’s late ‘60s records, ending in a rich, harmony pop tone.
Another good choice/surprise move is when Mercury Rev and Norah Jones begin Okolona River Bottom Band with the swing of the original now a base of moody atmospherics, then build on it with piano runs that feel like harp glissandos and layers of voices under and around her delightfully supine vocals. From that start you might expect it to reach some thundering climax, instead it holds its shape right to the end, giving the song a sense of humidity hanging over everything, and as the opening track, setting the tone for the rest of the album.
It’s odd that they’ve replaced Louisiana Man with Ode To Billie Joe. The questioning is not really because Ode wasn’t on the second album - being after all the hit song that was the title track of her debut. In the way of these things, putting the best known song of Gentry’s career on this tribute is a blunt but sensible commercial decision that any purists among us would just have to shut up about if we want Gentry’s songs more widely disseminated.
Plus, it’s Lucinda Williams, and she brings a cracked historical depth and a space rock vocal to Mercury Rev’s glistening psych folk.
The curiosity is because Louisiana Man is an integral part of the original album’s southern aesthetic, lyrically and musically, and a reflection of Gentry’s use of humour and enjoyment of day-to-day matters to bring naturalness to the mix. In other words, much as she had done earlier in the album with Reunion, which in its original version was child-like and lightly silly, and all the more fun for that.
The album wouldn’t have been overlong with 13 tracks, so the only thing I can think of is either they felt Reunion (here done quite trippy and yet also stomping, with Rachel Goswell) was enough lightheartedness for now. Or as it was written by Doug Kershaw and not Gentry, maybe they didn’t secure the rights. Odd.
Still, whether it’s Parchman Farm, with a semi-spooky vocal from Carice van Houten, offering a mix of dread and astral propulsion; Sermon carrying the compact energy of Margo Price in place of the brisk gospel R&B of the original; or Penduli Pendulum making itself more fragile and vulnerable around Vashti Bunyan than the light skip Gentry gave it, there are reasons to rethink how these songs can work.
And really, that sense of exploring other possibilities, of bringing something of yourself to the table, of adding a reason to play when the original is still available, are what distinguish a covers/tribute album you’ll keep, from one you’ll merely note.
This is one I’ll be keeping.