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Mercury Rev | Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited

Indie-rock eccentrics recreate a long-lost concept album from the ground up.

Strange but true: After becoming an overnight sensation with the enigmatic southern-gothic single Ode to Billie Joe, singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry’s sophomore album The Delta Sweete was a bizarre concept album about life in the Deep South, complete with spoken-word passages, strings, horns and cover tunes. Not strange but true: It bombed. Definitely strange and also true: Five decades later, New York indie-rock eccentrics Mercury Rev have remade the long-forgotten disc more or less in its entirety. And as anyone even passingly familiar with these iconoclastic experimentalists can probably guess, they’ve put their own unique stamp on the proceedings. On the one hand, they’ve stripped away most of the album’s cultural touchstones and trappings, replacing Gentry’s southern soul, gospel and blues with swirly psychedelia and sweeping orchestrations that elevate many of these cuts out of the swamp and into the stratosphere. On the other hand, they’ve expanded the disc’s vocal palette tremendously, replacing Gentry with more than a dozen female artists, including Norah Jones, Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier, country phenom Margo Price, folk-rocker Phoebe Bridgers and others. The strange and surreal results make for an interesting listen, but ultimately it’s hard to see who this album is for: Anyone unfamiliar with the original is unlikely to care, while anyone who appreciated Gentry’s versions will likely be turned off by these radical reinventions. The only cut that’s likely to get much play is Lucinda Williams’ elegantly haunted revamp of Billie Joe, but even it might be too dang strange to bridge the divide. Sad but true.

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