3 Mar 2019

Mercury Rev salutes Bobbie Gentry

From New Horizons, 5:00 pm on 3 March 2019

William Dart investigates the unexpected coming together of two musical forces: alternative rockers Mercury Rev and the reclusive Mississippi-born songwriter Bobbie Gentry.

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Photo: Capitol Records/Bella Union Records

There was a time, back in the early 90s, when Mercury Rev was the band to go if you wanted what one writer described as the “everything including the kitchen sink” aesthetic. You can hear why in its 1993 song "Boys Peel Out".

26 years ago, Mercury Rev’s Boces album wore its rather pretentious ambitions boldly on its sleeve or should I say CD booklet. They were summed up on one spread with a few hundred words, in closely leaded upper case, almost devoid of punctuation, and printed over an obscuring design. The clearest message came in the last three words, “Give Up Pop”.  

Vocalist David Baker did withdraw from the line-up after this album but, ironically, his bandmates headed down even more arcane psychedelic trails. The 1995 album, Paralyzed Mind of the Archangel Void is for hardcore fans only, being one almost 42 minute track of self-indulgent, heady improv.

The big break came with the group’s 1998 release, Deserter’s Songs, which picked up an album of the year plaudit from the NME, even if the stern American critic Robert Christgau  might not have agreed.

He allotted it a grudging C+, lambasting it as the new genre of soundtrack rock, thanks to the rock and rollers now discovering the new hip in the music of Ennio Morricone.

'Just don’t ask me what it’s the soundtrack to', Christgau jested, although its opening song "Holes", did end up featured in Henry Bromell's big screen thriller Panic.

At the time I wasn’t so much taken with this album.

The heavy record company hype was extremely irksome and the whole thing suffered from too many effects – such as the that theremin-like sound in "Holes" – being plastered onto material of alarming banality.

Deserter’s Songs does have its followers and, in 2011, in a frenzy of reissuing and remastering, aficionados were given an extra disc of mixes and demos as well as an instrumental recasting of the whole album.

When Deserter’s Songs was originally released back in 1998, some were privileged to get a promo EP featuring the group’s takes of other folks tunes, some of which turned up on a later double album retrospective titled Stillness Breathes.  

Which poses the question: is Mercury Rev a closet covers band? One certainly might have been forgiven for thinking that these young men were the last in the world that you might expect to find strolling down the streets of Laredo in their stetsons and boots.

But now, in 2019, after a rather spasmodic two decades, Mercury Rev are in the covers business again, paying a visit to Chickasaw County in the deepest Mississippi, home territory of the legendary Bobbie Gentry.

How could Mercury Rev avoid this song on its new Bobbie Gentry tribute, even if it doesn’t fall into the dozen songs of her 1968 album The Delta Sweete that has inspired their project Bobbie Gentry's The Delta Sweete Revisited?

And who better to catch the potential Gothic murmurs of the song’s soul than Lucinda Williams, passing around the black-eyed peas and biscuits as she tells her tragic tale?

"Ode to Billie Joe" was very much part of growing up for Jonathan Donahue of Mercury Rev. He heard it over AM radio as a youngster in the Catskills and now describes it as “a faded emotional Polaroid of the time, with an unresolved, enigmatic quality that hasn’t lessened with the passing of the years.”

There’s more Mississippi geography in Gentry’s Delta Sweete album. Instead of the Chocktaw Ridge and the Tallahatchie Bridge we’re overtured in by "Okolona River Bottom Band".

And, as the liner notes of the original Delta Sweete album promise, this and the songs that follow reveal the dust, the fragrance, the moisture, grits and grit, the love, sorrows and humour of the Delta Country.

Some might miss the zany arrangements of Jimmie Haskell and Shorty Rogers when Mercury Rev take over with its towering sonic monoliths —  catching perhaps what’s happened to idyllic countrysides with decades of building projects.

Here it’s Norah Jones on vocals, picking up on the slight huskiness of Bobbie Gentry, contrasting smoothly pasteurized cream with more astringency when the vocals go their different ways.

Just as you can chart Bobbie Gentry’s own trajectory through the songs of the original Delta Sweete, there’s also a sense of a journey being taken with the different women that Mercury Rev has called on. Why not imagine a Mississippi paddleboat cruise with a new guide at every turn of the river?

And the range of vocalists is impressive, probably the most startling when country singer Margo Price adds a touch of Bible Belt rhetoric when she lays out her sermon, taking it somewhere else altogether from Gentry’s discreetly funky talking blues.

But the song that always made the deepest connection with me all those years ago was "Penduli Pendulum", considering, with just the right mix of wry and wistful, the eternal cycles of life. A little like Joni Mitchell’s Circle Game, transported from California to Mississippi.

Mercury Rev achieves a coup of a sorts, coaxing the reclusive English singer Vashti Bunyan to take the microphone, along with Kaela Sinclair of the French band M83.

Gentry’s little waltz is even more fleshed out but Bunyan, now well into her 70s, brings the wistfulness of experience to the song — quite different from the 26-year-old Gentry a half century ago.

And the musical spells that are woven around the singers evoke their own visions of Charles Dickens’ Miss Havisham transported into a decayed Southern ballroom, eventually fading into the musical box tinkle of harp.

Music Details

'Song title' (Composer) – Performers
Album title
(Label)

'Boys Peel Out' (Mercury Rev) – Mercury Rev
Boces
(Columbia)

'Holes' (Donahue, Mackowiak) – Mercury Rev
Deserter’s Songs
(V2)

'Endlessly' (Donahue, Mackowiak) – Mercury Rev
Deserter’s Songs
(V2)

'Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp' (Donahue, Mackowiak) – Mercury Rev
Deserter’s Songs
(V2)

'Streets of Laredo' (Trad) – Mercury Rev
The Essential Mercury Rev: Stillness Breathes 1991-2006
(V2)

'I Only Have Eyes for You' (Warren, Dubin) – Mercury Rev
The Essential Mercury Rev: Stillness Breathes 1991-2006
(V2)

'Mississippi Delta' (Gentry) – Bobbie Gentry
An American Quilt 1967-1974
(Raven)

'Bobbie Gentry' (Edwards) – The Music Lovers
Masculine, Feminine
(Le Grand Magistery)

'Where is Bobbie Gentry' (Sobule) – Jill Sobule
Jill Comes Alive!
(Pinko)

'Ode to Billie Joe' (Gentry) – Mercury Rev feat. Lucinda Williams
Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited
(Bella Union)

'Okolona River Bottom Band' (Gentry) – Bobbie Gentry
An American Quilt 1967-1974
(Raven)

'Okolona River Bottom Band' (Gentry) – Mercury Rev feat. Norah Jones
Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited
(Bella Union)

'Penduli Pendulum' (Gentry) – Bobbie Gentry
An American Quilt 1967-1974
(Raven)

'Penduli Pendulum' (Gentry) – Mercury Rev feat. Vashti Bunyan
Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited
(Bella Union)