Several artists have covered the Beatles' songs "Fool On The Hill" and "Eleanor Rigby" (Sarah Vaughan, Sergio Mendes, Petula Clark & Joan Baez, to name but a few), and very well, but none have done so as beautifully as Bobbie Gentry. These are just a couple of highlights from this new CD release of Gentry's DELTA SWEETE and LOCAL GENTRY albums, both on this one disc. Years ago, I wrote to Capitol/EMI and Collectibles, suggesting this same combination, knowing that these two companies specialize in "twofers." I never expected it to happen, so it's a dream come true, thanks to Australia's Raven label.
Commercial failures at the time of their release, both albums featured here are GREAT, from start to finish. Here we have an original, creative artist at the top of her game, who, somehow, slipped through the cracks in the general public's collective imagination. "Ode To Billie Joe" and "Fancy" are but the tip of Gentry's iceberg, and it was smart of Raven to NOT use these songs as bonus tracks in order to attract buyers. Masterpieces though these songs are, they're on every Bobbie Gentry compilation currently available, and don't need to be here in order to bolster the release of these albums, presented here in their entire, original sequences. Instead, two of the bonus tracks are reprised from Capitol's expensive import compilation, THE CAPITOL YEARS: ODE TO BOBBIE GENTRY. The first, "Stormy," is a stunning, acoustic rendition of The Classics IV hit, and as far as I'm concerned, it blows the original right out of the water. Understated and just plain gorgeous! (only Santana's version comes close, but its style is completely different). The second bonus track is a surprising take on Donovan's "Skip Along Sam." The third is a lovely performance of "Away In A Manger" (this one's kind of rare), but I'm glad it's last, as I won't listen to it out of season. I would have preferred to have "Show Off" instead, from the same compilation, or "Steal Away," which would fit here perfectly, but mine is a very small quibble.
What we have here are two solid albums of wonderful, swampy country-pop music that are wholly unique, sung in a rich, smoky contralto voice that could not be mistaken for that of anyone else (Gentry does have a few things in common with Dusty Springfield: both singers might be classified as "blue-eyed soul," they each used a rather breathy technique; and both were entranced by the lure and lore of the American South).
The string arrangements used on THE DELTA SWEETE and LOCAL GENTRY have a distinctive flavor that I've rarely heard anywhere else; sweeping, grand gestures that seem to capture the very South itself, with all of its drama, contradictions, humor and very deep sadness. It's not quite "country" music, nor is it Cajun or folk, although one can discern mixtures of all three here and there. "Come Away Melinda" is a devastating post-apocalyptic scenario depicting the unearthing of an old picture album by a little girl who has survived, never having known the world as it once was. Spine-tingling. "Casket Vignette" is a bit of black humor set in an undertaker's office. "Refractions" is a spellbinding description of a beautiful nightmare, and "Parchman Farm Blues" is a prickly cover of a Mose Allison tune, about a man rotting away in prison ("...all he ever done was shoo' his wife..."). Bobbie makes a sassy "Big Boss Man" her own, while her original, "Ace Insurance Man," is a hilarious soap opera about sex and small town gossip, with a slapstick ending, set to a contagious Louisiana beat. "Courtyard" is a sparkling, sun-dappled ballad that is heartbreaking in its beauty.
The oft-covered "Tobacco Road" sums up the quality of both of these albums: mysterious, majestic, melancholy and joyous all at the same time. For me, it's a definitive reading.
Gentry's career may have been brief, but she rarely faltered, and these are her two best albums, in my opinion, without a single lemon in the bunch. Buy this CD while you still can!!! (Now, can we please have a CD release of PATCHWORK)?