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Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2008

Roy Orbison

The Soul of Rock and Roll (Monument/Legacy)

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If Roy Orbison's career had ended after his 1950s rockabilly phase, he would still have been assured of a footnote in the history of music. Along with Sun Records peers such as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, Orbison's songs showed a sly, rascally character that put a fun spin on the fledgling movement called rock 'n' roll.

Of course, if that had been the end, he would have remained a cult act at best. And the music world wouldn't have taken full advantage of his lustrous voice.

To be sure, Orbison's run of hits in the first half of the '60s had moments of up-tempo lightheartedness. But he used his unique instrument to better effect on mournful, cathartic odes to loneliness, desire and love gone wrong on songs that sounded like miniature operatic soliloquies. If Phil Spector's Wall Of Sound productions acted as teen-centered Greek choruses of orchestral R&B splendor, Orbison was a lone voice of comfort and empathy triumphing over internal torture. His mix of string-laden pop, countrypolitan sophistication, Mexican folk and naturally rocking vibe made Orbison a singular figure in that time between Presley's Army stint and the British Invasion.

The years of Orbison's unrequited romantic and hormonal urges turning into a driving, preying growl culminated in "Oh, Pretty Woman." The hits stopped for a while after that, but not for a lack of creativity.

Smart alliances led to Orbison's career resurgence in his last years, including a hit country duet with Emmylou Harris and work with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty and ELO's Jeff Lynne for The Traveling Wilburys. He recorded soundtrack cuts, a sterling solo album produced by Lynne and a TV special with a band led by T-Bone Burnett. The cumulative effect was not to strip down his music, as with Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond's comebacks, but to enhance his sonically rich legacy.

That he died of a heart attack in the midst of that flurry of renewed interest adds poignancy to the final chapter of his life. The Soul of Rock and Roll captures Orbison's legacy with respect and enthusiasm on 107 tracks over four discs. The linen packaging of the first pressing adds a further touch of class to an already impressive collection.


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