Covering their tracks
Mercury Rev's ode to Bobbie Gentry shows that revisiting old hits can be as captivating as the best new compositions, says John Meagher
If Bobbie Gentry is known at all to the casual music fan, it's for her 1967 single, Ode to Billie Joe, and for her debut album of the same name, which has the distinction of knocking Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band from the top of the US charts.
But despite displacing The Beatles at the Billboard 200 summit and delivering a batch of outstanding songs while still in her twenties, Gentry's remarkable legacy seems to have slipped under the radar and she's rarely spoken of today.
But that could change thanks to a new album from US band Mercury Rev, which sees them covering the country singer's album The Delta Sweete in its entirety.
It may have been the brainchild of frontman Jonathan Donahue, but he doesn't lend his distinctive vocals to any of the songs.
Instead, the band have recruited a veritable dream team of female talent - including Norah Jones, Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval, Beth Orton and, most impressively here, Rachel Goswell of those great shoegaze survivors Slowdive.
Lucinda Williams contributes, too - her version of Ode to Billie Joe is cobbled on at the end for good measure.
The result is, along with Sharon Van Etten's Remind Me Tomorrow, the most essential album released so far in 2019. And it's a reminder that cover versions can be just as captivating - in the right hands - as the best new compositions.
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The album works a treat in its own right, but it also encourages the listener to reacquaint themselves with the original source material. And listening back, The Delta Sweete, released in 1968, sounds well ahead of its time: one hopes it will open up a whole new fanbase for the Mississippi singer, who at 76 is still with us - even if she retired from music almost 40 years ago.
It's not the only album entirely comprised of covers to be released by an acclaimed American band this year. Weezer have got in on the act too with the so-called Teal Album (continuing the trend of their no-name albums being called after the key colour employed in the cover artwork).
It boasts 10 cover versions from an eclectic bunch of artists and came about after the unexpectedly huge interest that greeted the band's likeably earnest take of Toto's cheesy 1983 hit Africa.
It became their most-streamed song ever on release last May, and the Teal Album was dropped without advance publicity last month.
Africa appears alongside a slew of 1980s hits including Tears for Fears' Everybody Wants to Rule the World, Eurythmics' Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) and A-ha's evergreen Take On Me. Some of them have been staples of the Weezer live show over the years; others are favourites of frontman Rivers Cuomo.
Intriguingly, the Weezer versions remain very faithful to the originals - leading some critics to wonder why they bothered - but the band's reverence for the songs will appeal to many, especially when they take on something unexpected like No Scrubs. Weezer doing TLC shouldn't work - but it does.
LCD Soundsystem, also no strangers to covers, have three of them on their latest album, which was released last weekend.
Electric Lady Sessions - essentially a stopgap until a new studio album proper - sees them perform their own material 'as live' in the famed Manhattan studio built by Jimi Hendrix just 10 weeks before his death.
James Murphy has always had a thing for late 1970s and early 1980s pop - and here there are inspired covers of the Human League's Seconds and Chic's I Want Your Love, but best of the lot is a version of Heaven 17's debut single, (We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang. The original was banned by the BBC because it unfavourably referenced Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in a missive which lampooned the rise of the right. The song, sadly, is just as relevant today - just substitute Maggie and Ronnie for some of this era's poisonously divisive world leaders.
Few would have expected Ryan Adams to find common ground with Taylor Swift's career-changing, gazillion-selling 1989 album, but he did. And what may have sounded like a joke when it was first announced, turned out to be an utterly sincere homage when it was released a few months after Swift's.
Taylor herself seemed just as excited as the most ardent Adams fan, and she had every right to be: in his hands, some of the original album's less thrilling songs were given a stunning makeover and he also managed to coax something new from the big hits.
Shake It Off - one of the decade's most emblematic pop tunes - was reinvented as a downtempo country standard, while Out of the Woods saw Adams channel his inner Springsteen quite spectacularly.
The exercise worked a treat for Adams, Swift and Max Martin - 1989's chief songwriter, whose particular pop genius should probably be more widely acknowledged, not least because he's delivered more US number ones than anyone (after Paul McCartney and John Lennon).
While a great deal has changed in the record industry of late, there seems as much passion for cover versions as there always was. Much of the current vogue seems to be driven by Spotify.
The streaming giant's Singles platform - in which an artist is invited to record a live version of one or more of their own songs in Spotify's New York studio - has yielded some captivating covers.
A case in point is Hozier's quirkily soulful version of Destiny's Child's Say My Name, which he recorded together with his own song, Movement, just last month.
At present, there are 241 songs on the Spotify Singles: Covers playlist and several of them are inspired. Florence + the Machine does a fine rendition of Tori Amos' Cornflake Girl while John Prine and Americana duo Secret Sisters take Stevie Wonder's classic I Just Called to Say I Love You to a completely new place.
There's also a really impressive version of Rihanna's Stay by Scottish synth-poppers Chvrches. It may be on the trio's setlist when they play a pair of sold-out shows in Dublin next week.
And Phoebe Bridgers, one of the singers who appears on Mercury Rev's Bobbie Gentry album, has an exquisite version of that most covered of Cure songs, Friday I'm in Love, on Spotify Singles.
But back to Mercury Rev and their inspiration for covering an unfairly neglected singer.
Frontman Donahue says hearing Bobbie Gentry on the radio during his boyhood years in upstate New York left a lasting impression on him.
"I don't think it has ever left me," he said in a recent interview. "Looking back, I can see that those little string flourishes in Ode to Billie Joe… if I'm honest, they're in (Mercury Rev's best album) Deserter's Songs, too."
He only heard The Delta Sweete in the past 10 years or so. "I just kept playing it and thinking 'What a gem of an album'. It feels like an island that someone left off a map.
"It was always flourishing and is still vibrantly alive. It's just that people didn't know to sail over there to see it."
Thanks to Mercury Rev, many new music lovers will be making the journey to this promised land, too.