Review Summary: A snapshot of a way of life in a pop record.
Considering the current zeitgeist, I wonder if Bobbie Gentry is still not getting as much recognition as is probably warranted. Multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, performer and variety host. More than this, Gentry claimed that she produced much of her early work, which was exceedingly rare at the time, but was denied the credit by her label. She would eventually get that acknowledgement on her final album Patchwork, but after that, she just upped and disappeared - the pop J.D. Salinger.
Gentry found early success with her debut album and title track, 'Ode to Billie Joe', a little slice of light Southern Gothic. This album followed, a deeper exploration of life in the South, and it creates the feeling of a modern mythical setting.
A standout would have to 'Reunion', a vignette of a family get together. Spare handclaps open the song, which quickly develops into a weird hodgepodge of call and response small talk, often with a counterpoint line which slyly subverts the innocent meaning of the previous or concurrent thought. The song becomes more layered as it progresses, capturing the craziness of a chaotic family do. It would be resurrected as half the basis for Rizzle Kicks' 'Mama do the hump', which isn't nearly as much fun as the real deal.
The covers slot in seamlessly; the blues-y swing of 'Big boss man' addresses the cruel harshness of life as a powerless labourer in the South, and 'Parchman farm' takes the spot of the obligatory murder ballad. Gentry's voice is not particularly powerful, but it cracks in the right places, and there's a fascinating texture to it. She connects to the spirit of the songs with her natural instincts as a singer, especially on 'Tobacco Road'. Later in her career she would revisit the theme of that track - growing up poor and doing whatever it takes to make it - on her signature song 'Fancy'. 'Louisiana Man' is possibly the most natural fit for this record - an overflowing Cajun country snapshot of life in Mississippi at the time it was written.
One of the weaker moments would be 'Morning Glory', a saccharine, easy listening track typical of the time. If only it was not drenched in strings; there is a certain charm to the simplicity of the song's final verse. Gentry, even on the forgettable tracks, has an ability to create a strong sense of place and moment.
'Sermon' is a fun gospel tinged number, and the opener is just a swampy blast. These offset the three dark ballads ('Jessye 'Lisabeth', 'Refractions' and 'Courtyard') near the end of the album, which conjure a vaguely unsettling undertone of paranoia, secrecy and dissatisfaction. These are good songs, but I find myself wishing she'd stuck to the Southern montage she'd crafted so carefully.
Gentry was unable to replicate the success of her debut with this, her finest record, and stacked her next four albums with more and more covers. This would probably prove a bitter pill as she had initially envisioned herself as a songwriter first. Often belittled in reviews as nothing more than a sex symbol, while simultaneously generating ire from the Feminist movement of the time, it's little wonder she decided to quit the game and live the quiet life. She'd already staked out a formidable, hidden legacy - she'd say "I ain't done bad" in 1970's 'Fancy'.
The Delta Sweete has actually been unearthed and re-imagined by Mercury Rev (released this year), and Bobbie Gentry is getting some respect as an influence on current mainstream and fringe country stars. To listen to this, though, is to see and touch a place which doesn't exist in the same form anymore - the Mississippi Delta of Roberta Lee Streeter, as it perhaps was in 1950.