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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. Of course, Mercury Rev also knows something about being underappreciated. During the '90s, their experimental rock and dream pop earned glowing reviews, but little in the way of label support or commercial success. That changed with their 1998 breakthrough, Deserter's Songs, which added touches of Americana that they return to on Revisited. Enlisting an all-star roster of established and up-and-coming female vocalists -- including Lucinda Williams, Vashti Bunyan, and Phoebe Bridgers -- Mercury Rev heighten the mystical qualities of Gentry's music as well as their own. Many of Revisited's best moments play like a beautiful dream of the original: "Okolona River Bottom Band" combines sweeping strings and brass and Norah Jones' dusky voice into a shimmering creation myth that sprinkles the album with stardust as it calls it into being. The band couldn't have chosen a better singer than Marissa Nadler to transform "Refractions" into a phantasmagorical reverie, and their collaboration with Laetitia Sadier on "Morning Glory" is truly inspired; her intimate performance and the band's sunny symphonic pop make for one of Revisited's sweetest standouts. Throughout the album, Mercury Rev skillfully balance their signature sound with period-faithful details. The swirling flutes and brass squalls surrounding Rachel Goswell on "Reunion" evoke Boces as much as they do Deserter's Songs. Later, the harmonica, glockenspiel, and whistling that adorn Beth Orton's reverent performance on "Courtyard" hark back to 1968 without feeling slavish. As the band puts The Delta Sweete through their prism, they filter out some of the album's earthy realism with mixed results. Hope Sandoval's hazy sensuality makes "Big Boss Man" subversively flirtatious instead of defiant like Gentry's version, and the ornate arrangement on "Tobacco Road" glosses over the song's tale of lifelong struggles. On the other hand, the band intensifies "Parchment Farm"'s foreboding with the help of a stoic Carice van Houten, while Margo Price's flinty twang makes "Sermon" a showstopper. Since "Ode to Billie Joe" is so inextricably linked with Gentry's legend, it's not surprising that Mercury Rev included it on their version of The Delta Sweete even though it didn't appear on the original. With its lavish arrangement and Williams' gritty performance, the band find new ways of celebrating one of the great underappreciated artists of the '60s and '70s -- something that's true of Bobbie Gentry's the Delta Sweete Revisited as a whole.
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