Release Date: Feb 8, 2019
Record label: PTKF
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
Over recent years, Mercury Rev have concentrated on celebrating their seminal Deserter's Songs, either performing much of the album with the help of an orchestra or playing stripped back versions of the songs in smaller venues. However, in the background a quite different musical project had been taking shape, namely a cover of Bobbie Gentry's 1968 album The Delta Sweete. Singer Jonathan Donahue and guitarist Grasshopper had long held affection for The Delta Sweete and over time had courted the prospect of creating some form of musical tribute, initially just for their own pleasure.
Bobbie Gentry had a huge hit in 1967 with "Ode to Billie Joe," the haunting single that introduced her strong, sultry voice and flair for combining Southern Gothic drama with details so vivid that it feels like listeners are living her stories with her. She expanded on the world she built with that song on 1968's full-length The Delta Sweete, but unlike "Ode to Billie Joe," it was not a huge hit; its pioneering symphonic-country-folk-pop didn't even crack the top 100 of Billboard's Top LPs chart. Fortunately, the acclaim for Gentry's work grew as the years passed, and Mercury Rev's Bobbie Gentry's the Delta Sweete Revisited reflects her latter-day status as a country icon.
Mercury Rev are not having your typical late career. At the end of 2018 they embarked upon a twentieth anniversary tour for their classic 1998 album Deserter's Songs: not wacky in and of itself, but they elected to play wilfully tiny venues that they'd doubtless have sold out with little bother even if they were touting a new record. And now we actually have the new record and it's...
The Lowdown: Mercury Rev have played gently with other people's material before, picking material from the likes of John Lennon, David Bowie, and Nico that best suited their blissed-out psychedelics. Working with a full album originally recorded by Bobbie Gentry is another matter entirely. While they wisely left the wispy voice of frontman Jonathan Donahue behind and instead called upon an array of female singers that span multiple generations and styles, the sound that Gentry cultivated — a tight, lustrous braid that wound together the various strains of Southern music — was mostly eschewed and replaced with the band's usual plush dream pop.
T his thorough upending of Bobbie Gentry's 1968 masterpiece is like one of those nights in a prestigious concert hall where an album is recreated in its entirety by a fairly random combination of stars - the sort of thing where a Barron Knights record could be performed by Alexis Taylor, Cate Le Bon and Biff Byford out of Saxon. Hope Sandoval takes Big Boss Man in just the way you'd want and expect Hope Sandoval to take Big Boss Man - like it's an old Velvet Underground ballad she's just heard. Jessye' Lisabeth, sung by Phoebe Bridgers, is beefed into something agreeably redolent of a windswept teen gothic drama, which is a lot more seductive than that sounds.