A great smoky, sexy and smart singer-songwriter, Bobbie Gentry has seemed doomed to be remembered as a one-hit wonder for, of course, the provocative international smash “Ode To Billie Joe”. The bulk of her work has not been available for years, and some of the limited “hits” packages that have been out haven’t shown her at her strongest. This Australian import goes a long ways toward fixing that, bringing together representative tunes from her key years with Capitol Records.
A number of these 26 songs work her famous “oppressed by the swamp heat” mode, so itchy she makes you want to scratch (“Fancy”, “Mississippi Delta”). Gentry also shows her stuff here as a versatile, southern jazz-influenced singer, able to hold her own against Dusty Springfield on a version of “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”, and influenced in her song attack by, of all people, Dionne Warwick.
In hindsight, her songwriting, always as much a strength as her unmistakable voice, shows signs of its period (a surprising Sgt. Pepper paisley Beatles influence on some of the pop sides, for instance). There are also those “Billie Joe”-style southern gothic touches stationed between the sexy and the creepy that are hers alone.
And she could be truly creepy when she wanted to be, halfway between a volume of Flannery O’Connor and a weekend with the Shiners. Who else would chronicle a dream of “breaking my crystal legs,” or offer a positively perky “Casket Vignette”, then add a very slinky, whispered, lullaby for the kids (“Jessye’ Lisabeth”), let alone a jaunty ode to another Billy (the Kid), swinging — from a tree!
Great, singular, highly influential stuff. Very alt — and very necessary.