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Published on April 15th, 2019 | by voxx

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Mercury Rev – Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited

The psychedelic veterans dust down a beloved inspiration…

Though 2015’s The Light In You certainly had its highs (see ‘Autumn’s In the Air’), Mercury Rev’s last studio record seemed a little under-imagined. It’s not a criticism you could reasonably level at their audacious remake of Bobbie Gentry’s 1968 masterpiece The Delta Sweete, here rebooted with tender opulence, affectionate awe, and full commitment to a widescreen, almost transcendental experience.

Realised with 13 guest vocalists, including Norah Jones, Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier and country star Margo Price, it’s a curiously faceless venture for Jonathan Donahue, Grasshopper and new Rev recruit Jesse Chandler, erstwhile pianist and flautist with Midlake. Still, however magnificent the nod, all roads will inevitably lead back to Gentry, whose singular genius was celebrated on the 2018’s lavish eight disc box set, The Girl From Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters, which was recently crowned MOJO Magazine’s Reissue Of The Year.

Though certain elements of the original suite’s 1968 soundscape remain – hazy strings and Midnight Cowboy-esque harmonicas, for example – the Rev cart the restless spirits and eternal mysteries of Gentry’s eight originals and four carefully chosen cover versions off to dreamland. With judicious artistic licence, they also add ‘Ode To Billie Joe’, the 1967 US Number 1 single that brought Gentry the respect and autonomy she needed to make The Delta Sweete. Fittingly, Louisiana-born Lucinda Williams shepherds the song home here, all its unanswered questions intact.

The better to accentuate its extraordinary sensuality, most-likely, Gentry’s vocal on curiously dark lullaby ‘Jessye Lisabeth’ was mixed so loud she seemed to be above the vinyl, not on it, but where Phoebe Bridgers’ wonderful re-reading is concerned, the arrangement regains parity, offering a different thrill. Props are also due for the further reinvention of John D. Loudermilk’s ‘Tobacco Road’, piloted by Norway’s Susanne Sundfør, but all the women here rise to the occasion, audibly honoured to salute Gentry, and lost, as many have been for decades now, in The Delta Sweete’s evocative litany of place names.

If Norah Jones brings the requisite sass and authority to opener ‘Okolona River Bottom Band’, the Marissa Nadler-sung ‘Refractions’ – wherein Gentry recalled a disturbing dream of a crystal bird – is also magical, the Rev’s beloved saw suddenly wobbling into earshot. This is not a competition, and Mercury Rev are clearly not attempting to surpass the unsurpassable. Instead, The Delta Sweete Revisited is a signpost towards one of the great underrated records, and a further reminder that Bobbie Gentry, now 76, still walks this earth. Imagine her listening to this album in one of her LA or Deep South hideaways. Imagine the little smile that might play across her lips. Imagine the memories it might evoke for her.

- By Jake White


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