Bobbie Gentry – Fancy (1970)

By Michael Strait

Once again, Bobbie sings other people’s songs – with one remarkable exception.

There are ten songs on this album. Eight of them are covers, one of which (“I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”) was also present on the last album. One of them (“He Made A Woman Out of Me”) was written for Bobbie by the minor pop songwriter Fred Burch.

And one of them is “Fancy”.

Gotta be honest: after “Fancy”, most of the rest of the songs on this album kinda just pass me by in a haze. I said before that “Ode to Billie Joe” is probably Billie’s best song, and that may well be true. But if it is, “Fancy” is nipping right at its heels, and there are certainly times I think it’s the superior song. It’s the only self-penned tune on this album, and the effect of hearing it after having last listened to the light-hearted, airy-smooth Touch ‘Em With Loveis resemblant of a brass-knuckled sucker-punch to the gut. Anybody who considers themselves any sort of country fan, feminist, or class-conscious leftist should have this song somewhere in their library, even if it’s the only Bobbie song they own. It’s incredible, and solidifies Bobbie’s place among the finest storytellers in lyrical history.

Melodically, it’s a return to the bluesy style Bobbie employed so much on her first album, complete with the usual aggressive acoustic riff, funky horns and shimmering strings. There’s a big, strong hook, powerful enough to propel the song into the billboard top 40 ( twice, in fact) despite the uncompromising subject matter. Unlike “Ode To Billie Joe”, there’s no mystery here to keep the public guessing; there’s just deep, deep misery, of the sort that’s been carefully designed to make anyone listening sit up and think for a while about the depth of crushing poverty throughout the richest nation in the world. Here we have the story of a mother who spends her last few dollars, and her last few days in this world, preparing her daughter for a life of prostitution because it’s the only option that doesn’t mean certain death. It’s not shy about it, either, and it doesn’t couch the misery in softer language – witness this verse and marvel at the fact that this song was a successful pop hit in two decades:

Momma dabbed a little bit of perfume
On my neck and she kissed my cheek
Then I saw the tears welling up
In her troubled eyes when she started to speak

She looked at our pitiful shack and then
She looked at me and took a ragged breath
“Your Pa’s runned off, and I’m real sick
And the baby’s gonna starve to death.”

There’s only so much I can actually say about this song, because after a certain point I’d definitely just be reduced to quoting all the lyrics and pointing at them, asking you to just goddamn see for yourself. Suffice it to say that the narrative is incredibly vivid, full of the memorable scene-setting imagery Bobbie has long been so fond of, and that this story contains enough depth, moral complexity, and narrative power for a full movie adaptation if someone got the notion. If you ever needed a reminder of why the working class must always remain a fundamental part of any feminist movement, this is it.

And then there’s the rest of the album.

In a way, this feels more like a debut album than even her actual debut album. I’m not sure what the actual timeline was, but it certainly feels like the rest of this thing was frantically thrown together in the wake of the title track’s unexpected success, just like Ode To Billie Joe. The other songs are almost all covers, and there are some baffling choices. None of the songs are bad, of course – Bobbie’s still yet to let me down there – but a lot of them feel a little out of place following the opener, especially “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”. Great song and all, but seriously, guys – did it occur to nobody that it’s difficult to appreciate this sort of whimsy with desperate prostitutes and starving babies still occupying one’s headspace? Maybe it was less of a problem in the vinyl days, since it’s on the second side, but I dunno. Listening to stuff like “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” and “Something in the Way He Moves” (from a musical and a James Taylor album, respectively) after “Fancy” really creates a whiplash effect that never goes away. I’ve certainly got no real desire to describe most of these songs – they’re all just uncomplicatedly good, smooth, string-laden pop tunes, pretty much indistinguishable from the stuff on her last album. No misfires at all, on a song-by-song basis, but the concept renders the whole end product a little screwy.

“He Made A Woman Out Of Me” is the only other one I really feel any urge to actually talk about, and it’s no coincidence that it’s the only other non-cover on the album. The funky organ riff is fantastic, and the way the verses transition into the hook is absolutely divine in exactly the way Bobbie loves. If I didn’t know someone else had written it, I’d have assumed right away that she penned this herself, what with its blues-soul feel and miserable, country-focused lyrics. She sings it with great passion, too, really showing off her soulful chops. It’s not truly much better than most of the generally solid songs on this album, but it’s possibly the only tune here that fits with the tone “Fancy” sets, and as such it’s the one I always end up remembering.

So, there you have it. My lamest review? Maybe. But I feel like I’ve basically summarised this album as well as I can. It opens with one of the best, most affecting, and most powerful songs ever written, and then follows it up with a jukebox. It would be a malicious lie to call it a bad album, or even a mediocre one – but it is, to me at least, a misfire of some description, and I’d have loved to see a full album of self-penned tunes backing up the title track. As it stands, the song feels like an orphan, or an alien living among another species. Get it, for sure, and maybe get “He Made A Woman Out of Me” too, but the rest here is entirely optional.

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Bobbie Gentry – Touch ‘Em with Love (1969)

touch_27em_with_loveBy Michael Strait

She cedes the spotlight mostly to other songwriters on this one. Good thing she’s got great taste.

So, most of my reviews dealing with cover songs tend to compare and contrast ’em with the originals and/or other versions. That’d take me too long here, though, so I’m not gonna bother. Exactly 50% of this album is covers, and of the rest, only two are self-penned. That disappoints me a little, because Bobbie is one of my personal favourite songwriters, but I needn’t have worried too much – she’s not sung a bad song yet, and she’s not about to start now.

For the most part, this is a straightforward exploration of the soul end of Bobbie’s influences. The folk and blues stuff is mostly left by the wayside, though the fingerpicked “Seasons Come, Seasons Go” – one of the aforementioned self-penned ones – isn’t too dissimilar from her earlier lush folk songs. Still, it doesn’t take long for all the smooth soul elements to come in and remind you that Bobbie, on this album at least, really didn’t want to be mistaken for a country singer anymore. The song is lovely, if not particularly memorable; the second of her songs on the album is far more likely to stick with you. “Glory Hallelujah, How They’ll Sing” has one of her characteristically smart verse melodies and some of her most vividly visual lyrics, as well as brief, loud hook that stays memorable mostly on account of cleverly-built contrast with the verses. It always leaves me momentarily a little sad that she didn’t write more tunes on this thing, but truth be told it isn’t the best song on it anyway.

That honor, honestly, probably goes to the most obvious choice. “Son of a Preacher Man” was always one of my favourite songs in the endlessly-syndicated classic pop pantheon, and Bobbie’s take on it is stupendously excellent. That cool, badass riff that opens it sets the mood for the rest of the song, and the rhythm section maintains a strong, self-assured presence the whole way through as she sings those unforgettable melodies with her characteristic complete confidence. There’s no simpering dependence here, nor much weepy nostalgia; there’s just a woman proudly expressing her justly-earned love for a man who deserves it. I’m not a fan of the fadeout at the end, but other than that I’ve no complaints at all – it’s short, sure, but so is the original, so what can you do? The other super short track on the record, the title track, is similarly excellent and opens the album on a suitably arresting note. Bobbie didn’t write it, but I can see why she chose it – the hook comes swooping in out of nowhere in an incredibly memorable fashion in just the sort of clever way I can tell she really appreciated, and the lyrics, while a little nonsensical, are rife with the sort of intrinsically Southern religious imagery she loves. I also like how the guitar and organ take turns, on the first and second verse respectively, to do their little flourishes over the solid base that is the piano. The sonic variety on this album is a real treat.

There’s one more non-cover left on the first side, and it’s excellent. “Greyhound Goin’ Somewhere” manages to perfectly capture the strange mysticality of America’s vastness and the allure of losing one’s troubles in it. It strikes a difficult tone to hit – it’s regretful, especially the mournful, harmonica-assisted conclusion to the chorus, but it’s also full of undeniably yearning and not a little relief. That’s partly due to the excellent pacing – the way the hook is built up to and then segmented, cut apart by little instrumental moments – but also due to Bobbie’s excellent vocals, which manage to sound wistful in two ways at once, as if she simultaneously wants to be better at holding stable relationships together and wants to be going off somewhere and exploring. The first side is completed by “Natural To Be Gone”, which has possibly my favourite verse melody on the album and manages to throw in a softly cantering banjo in a way that doesn’t feel remotely out of place in what is otherwise a fairly straightforward smooth, string-based soul song. Bobbie was just as inventive an interpreter as a writer.

The only non-cover on side two is “I Wouldn’t Be Surprised”, which has a very nice choir and some passionately-banged drums but otherwise is probably one of the less essential tracks on here. It’s still good, of course, but it’s good in a kind of unsurprising way, which makes it a lesser effort as far as Bobbie goes. “Where’s The Playground, Johnny” does the same sort of things, but it does ’em better, with its smooth strings backing up a hook so melodramatic that it should by all rights sound kind of silly. It doesn’t, though – it sounds very pretty indeed, even if it clashes slightly with the worriedly metaphoric lyrics. “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”, meanwhile, is her shimmeringly pretty take on a song from a musical, and she delivers the simple, slightly kitschy lyrics with such conviction that it’s difficult not to be at least a little moved by them. Finally, we come to the closer, “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”, which has possibly the prettiest strings and most tasteful rhythm work on the album, not to mention that beautiful moment when the hook sort of holds off on attaining climax for a second, repeating the same string motif a couple of times in anticipation before it blossoms into a full-blown chorus. She really belts in this one, too, showing off the singing skills she’s usually been content to let play second fiddle to her songwriting and lyricism. It’s another display of her outstandingly well-rounded talent, in other words, which is basically the story of this whole album and, really, her entire career.

I mean, don’t get me wrong – I’d still rather be listening to an album of Bobbie originals, so for the most part I tend to play individual highlights from this record (especially “Son of a Preacher Man”) rather than throwing on the whole thing. But whenever I do, I certainly enjoy it, and that’s ‘cos there’s nothing to really not enjoy here. On its own merits, this album is lovely indeed, and it’s only twenty-six minutes long anyway so it’s not like it ever gets tiresome. I’d have more problems with Bobbie spending this section of her career singing other people’s songs if those songs weren’t all so good. I’m not entirely sure what she’s wearing on the cover, but whatever, man. When you’re Bobbie Gentry, you can dress how you like.

Bobbie Gentry—Ode to Billie Joe (1967)

odetobillyjoeMichael Strait

I don’t really want to focus on music history here, so I’ll just hit you with the abridged version: Bobbie Gentry recorded the song “Ode to Billie Joe” as an intended B-side, ended up releasing it as a single in its own right, and was stunned at its prompt, immediate success. She proceeded to grab a guitar, a producer, and a bunch of string musicians, and together they set about frantically recording a debut album to capitalize on her success. The end result was barely half an hour long, and about half its runtime was occupied by either “Ode To Billie Joe” or songs that had almost the exact same chord progression as “Ode to Billie Joe”. In other words, it should, by all rights, be kind of a mediocre album at best, and it certainly has absolutely no business being this good.

To be fair, though, we might’ve expected that the woman who wrote “Ode to Billie Joe” would turn out to be an expert at doing a lot with a little. That song is fascinatingly, deeply brilliant, and it’s certainly not encumbered with an overabundance of moving parts. It’s got a few lovely strings to fill some of the space, sure, but they don’t do much more than basic textural work, and that’s all they need to do. The melody, too, is perfectly catchy and not a little haunting, but its real purpose is to direct as much attention as possible to the lyrics. The words are the real meat of this song, and they are, in my humble opinion, among the best ever set to music.

It’s one of those stories that’s more about painting an environment than it is about the actual plot itself, and accordingly the central mystery – the one that’s occupied so much popular discourse about this song – is never resolved. Why did Billie Joe throw himself off the Tallahatchie Bridge? We’ll never know, and that’s okay. What’s important is that you’re left with a fulsome picture of the world in which he lived and died, and it leaves you with the impression that life is rather transient around here anyway. The Mississippi Delta of this song is not quite a dystopia, but it’s an anachronistic relic from an earlier, less prosperous, more brutal era, full of backbreaking farm work broken up only by the weekly church visits and the occasional devastating virus. It’s no wonder the brother ends up moving to Tupelo; it doesn’t sound like there was much for him here. The most indelible mental image the song leaves us is of our poor narrator throwing flowers off the same bridge, no emotion described because no description is necessary. She’s surrounded by death, despair, and abandonment, and there’s little indication that she’s got prospects for anything else. In the end, I’ve always thought this in itself was, in its own way, enough of a resolution to the old mystery. This was the world in which Billie Joe lived, and it was all he had ever known. What more reason did he need to throw himself off that bridge?

“Ode to Billie Joe” is the best song on this disc, very probably the best song of Bobbie’s career, and one of the best songs of the era. It is not, however, the most memorable single moment on the album. That honor goes to “Mississippi Delta”, which is, on my 2007 re-issue, the opening track. I went into this album having been told Bobbie was a country artist, so I expected something like, I dunno, Patsy Cline. Imagine my shock when I throw this baby on and the first thing I hear is that aggressive r&b groove, complete with hard guitar stabs, ominous textural horns and that astounding harsh roar emanating from Bobbie’s mouth, sounding somewhere between an old whiskey-drowned bluesman, a passionate soul singer and a macho rock ‘n’ roll firestarter. She spends half the song’s runtime just repeatedly spelling out the name of her state, and it really has no business sounding as utterly badass as it does. But she makes it sound absolutely natural, and her charisma is instantly enrapturing. On this edition, the title track is the closer, so I spent my first few listens so wowed by the opening and closing tracks that I barely noticed the flaws in between. Sadly, they become more obvious on closer listens, but they’re still quite insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

You can slot all the remaining tracks into one of two camps. First, we have the songs that are basically clones of the title track, at least in terms of the chord progression; all have very similar bluesy melodies and open with the same little guitar motif, and it’s easy to get a little bored by the time you hit the last one. Second, you have the nice, pleasant folk ballads, usually played with intricate fingerpicking and full of lush string arrangements to add some extra sun. Of the former, my favourite is probably “Bugs”, which remains a song just about anyone living in any part of the South can relate to in the summer. It’s a silly joke song, I guess, but so what? It’s funny, and it works. The way the strings and drums do their best to evoke the motions of various insects in the second verse is highly endearing, and the hook is really very catchy. I’m also quite a big fan of “Chickasaw County Child”, which melds some of that lovely fingerpicking with the bluesy melody and throws in what may be the most optimistic lyrics ever written about Southern poverty. “Niki Hoeky”, despite fitting mostly the same template as the others here, is a cover, and while it doesn’t sound much like the (admittedly superior) original, I wouldn’t say it’s without any charms. I like the quiet piano underlying the whole thing, and those slightly exotic drums do sound quite nice. “Lazy Willie” is probably the most inessential of this lot, but I quite like that quaintly memorable Southern saying she throws in the last verse. “Don’t you remember, Lazy Willie, what Momma used to say?/ That all summer long the grasshopper would play/ The ant would work hard storin’ up his winter supply/ When the snow came, the ant lived, the grasshopper died.” I’m not entirely sure I could vouch for the ecological accuracy, but it brings a smile to my face all the same.

The fingerpicked folk ballads, meanwhile, are uniformly lovely on the surface, even if they aren’t all necessarily equally engaging on a deeper level. “I Saw an Angel Die” ties with “Papa, Won’t You Let Me Go to Town With You” for the title of best. The former is a gorgeous, placid sonic portrait of a sun-baked, lightly wind-kissed Southern meadow married to a very prettily metaphoric narrative that seems to suggest a devastating heartbreak, all grounded in Bobbie’s earthen, slightly raspy voice. The latter isn’t as layered, I guess, but it’s still lovely to hear the various instruments introducing themselves and building up as the song progresses, transforming it from a simple girl-and-guitar ballad to a swirling mess of crystalline strings and regal horns that give the father’s trip to town the air of some great royal expedition. “Sunday Best”, meanwhile, is probably the least essential, being just a fairly lovely-but-unremarkable love ballad. As for “Hurry, Tuesday Child”, well, I guess I’m a little mixed on it; I love the ambiguously tragic lyrics (is the child truly leaving to find a better life, or is he leaving this world altogether?), but the song itself kinda plods along without doing much to draw anyone’s attention. It’s nice, but I don’t find myself listening to it very often.

And… huh, that’s it. I always forget how short this album is! It’s all good, though, ‘cos it keeps the flaws from becoming particularly noticeable and allows you to listen in the briefest little windows of time. There’s a lot of promise here, and she’d largely go on to realise that with the albums to come. This isn’t her best record, nor her most interesting, but it’s a solid start to a career and contains a lot of lovely music nonetheless. I’m still not really sure I’m prepared to call it a country record, but I guess I can see why a lot of people do – she’s a white girl from the South playing acoustic guitar songs about poverty and heartbreak, and even if her particular brand of heartbreak is very different to that of most country singers it’s easy to see how one might make the leap. Myself, I’m not really sure where to properly file her, but I know she’s a goddamn great musician, and you should at least have her somewherein that library of yours.