A gorgeously rendered re-imagining of an under-appreciated artist’s most under-appreciated work.
Even within Bobbie Gentry’s already somewhat commercially-overlooked, yet none the less excellent catalog, The Delta Sweete is largely forgotten. One of three (!) albums she released in 1968 following the surprising success of Ode to Billie Joe and its titular single, The Delta Sweete is made up of both originals and covers, all delivered in Gentry’s singular southern twang and idiosyncratic arrangements. Unfairly viewed as a stop-gap release to further the momentum of the success of her debut single, The Delta Sweete is, if anything, more coherent than any other album in the Gentry canon, this owed to its unifying themes rooted in a decidedly southern tradition. The trouble was, its concept album-like approach was not seen as a commercially viable follow-up to a song that, by rights, should never have been as big a commercial hit as it was.
In the decades that have followed Gentry’s relative blip of a career—seven albums proper, all released between 1967 and 1971—her influence has grown exponentially to the point where she is, like so many cult figures, seen as not only way ahead of her time, but also ultimately massively influential to entire generations of musicians of both sexes. That Mercury Rev, an often equally under-appreciated cult act, should tackle anything within Gentry’s catalog doesn’t come as much of a surprise given their track record of cosmic Americana and understated beauty. In truth, there are few acts who could manage to pull off a proper Gentry tribute/homage without coming off as mere pastiche.
Bobbie Gentry’s Delta Sweete Revisited very nearly follows the original to the letter, the only difference being Gentry’s best-known composition, “Ode to Billie Joe,” taking the place of the Doug Kershaw-penned “Louisiana Man.” But rather than adhere to the original’s spare, sputtering swamp funk and folk balladry, Mercury Rev presents the program with a series of lushly orchestrated arrangements that play more dreamlike than anything. Opening track “Okolona River Bottom Band,” here performed by Norah Jones, stands in sharp contrast to the original’s jagged edges and sparse instrumentation, quickly setting the tone for the remainder of the album. Indeed, it’s a fairly typical indie-style approach to reimagining an existing work, smoothing the sound, slowing the tempos somewhat and creating a more unified aesthetic.
Part of Gentry’s charm, however, has long been the idiosyncratic arrangements based around her distinct guitar style and decidedly Southern Gothic approach. This isn’t to say Mercury Rev’s interpretation is less-than or lacking in any way shape or form; quite the contrary, actually, as the album itself stands largely on its own as a complete, cohesive work that exists more as an homage to the source material than anything else. Viewed as such, Delta Sweete Revisited plays as another in a long line of fantastic Mercury Rev albums dating back to the mid-‘90s, the unifying factor being the sound of the album which, with a different vocalist on each track, has no right to sound as uniform as it does.
Indeed, for having a different vocalist on each track, Delta Sweete Revisited remains impressively unified throughout both in terms of quality and stylistic approach. Of course, it helps that each female vocalist present operates roughly within the same musical terrain, so much so that the performers themselves don’t necessarily stand out as individuals within the context of the album. That is until Lucinda Williams tackles the closing track “Ode to Billie Joe,” her voice a jarring exit point after 11 tracks of otherwise mellifluously-delivered, understated performances. You can practically hear her chewing her way through the lyrics, over-emoting in the extreme and doing a great disservice to the original. It’s the album’s one unfortunate—and rather massive—misstep, it’s only redeeming quality the gently rolling arrangement that smooths out the original’s stuttering, Bossa-like groove.
Admittedly, Williams has been and likely will always be an artist best suited to her own material, so her attempt to tackle such an iconic song in her own style was essentially doomed from the start. Her weather-worn vocals simply do not fit with the likes of Hope Sandoval (“Big Boss Man”), Margo Price (“Sermon”) and Vashti Bunyan (who, with Kaela Sinclair, takes on “Penduli Pendulum”), all of whom have a more aesthetically similar vocal approach. It doesn’t help that two of the album’s strongest tracks precede Williams’ performance. Marissa Nadler’s eerie read of “Refractions” is nothing short of remarkable, while Beth Orton’s read of “Courtyard” manages to be both the song closest to the original recording and yet wholly Orton’s own. In all, Delta Sweete Revisited is a gorgeously rendered re-imagining of an under-appreciated artist’s most under-appreciated work down by an equally under-appreciated band with a number of higher profile female vocalists in tow. With any luck, it will help further fan the already simmering flames of interest in Gentry’s singular, stellar catalog.