Sound: Twenty years have passed since the death of Roy Orbison, and a new retrospective box set drives home the effect he had on not only fans, but on the biggest names in music. Roy Orbison: The Soul of Rock and Roll is jam-packed (in a good way) with 107 tracks (on 4 disks) and 3 decades' worth of the vocalist/ guitarist's music, and it's hard to not be stricken at the power behind his singing - even in his last years. While his angelic, high-octave vocals may be lost on those who can't find their sensitive side, the fact remains that there are very few people out there who can relay feelings of heartache and loneliness better than Orbison did during his lifetime.
Before you even start listening to any of the 4 disks, it's recommended to take a peek at the extensive booklet included in The Soul of Rock and Roll. Not only can you read about how Orbison deeply touched artists like Bruce Springsteen, Bono, and The Beatles (apparently Orbison was the one act that The Beatles were scared to follow), you're also given much more insight into the tragedy that plagued the singer's life. Orbison's first wife died in his arms after a motorcycle accident, while 2 of his 3 children from that marriage perished in a house fire. So when you hear a ballad like Crying or It's Over, the heartache he relays is genuine.
Disk 1 of the box set goes all the way back to 1956, at which time Orbison was a member of the Doo Wop-driven group the Teen Kings. It's fascinating to hear his vocal style during these days because in many ways he seems to be emulating Elvis Presley (particularly in Tryin' To Get To You). There are traces of Elvis stylistically in his first solo recordings as well, with an overall rockabilly vibe heard in Go! Go! Go! and the rough cut Guitar Pull Medley featured on disk 1 as well. Quite a few solo demos round out disk 1, and it's right around the time that they were recorded in 1958 when you begin to hear hints of the classic Orbison sound.
If you're looking for a greatest-hits collection, all the biggies are included on disk 2 and 3. Running Scared, Crying, In Dreams, Mean Woman Blues, and of course, Oh, Pretty Woman make the playlist. If you weren't alive during the 1960s, you might not be aware that Orbison - who generally seems like a shy gentleman who wouldn't necessarily opt for the big screen - did in fact have a movie career. The Fastest Guitar Alive is taken from a film of the same name, which Orbison starred in back in 1967. All of the tracks are worthwhile listens on the 3rd disk, but definitely check out the demo track for Precious, which is a stripped-down acoustic number that brings Orbison's cherubic, crystal-clear vocals to the forefront.
Not much is included from the 1970s, but there's a simple reason behind it. Orbison was busy being a father and husband to 2nd wife, Barbara. Once you hit the 80s, Orbison's sound takes on a very different feel, primarily because he joined up with Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, and George Harrison to form The Traveling Wilburys. The supergroup churned out some infectiously melodic hits and gave Orbison's career a second wind. In terms of the Traveling Wilburys' material, the box set focuses on the tracks with Orbison as the sole vocalist (Not Alone Any More and You Got It). Jeff Lynne played a huge role in Orbison's sound elsewhere in the 1980s, working as a key producer, instrumentalist, and songwriter for many of the solo tracks that are also featured on disk 4. Even more interesting is the fact that Glen Danzig - yes, that Glen Danzig - co-wrote the song Life Fades Away, which is one of the last songs on the same disk. Reading Danzig's commentary alone is enough to relay just how far Orbison's influence reached throughout the years. // 10
Lyrics: People have described Orbison's vocal style in many ways throughout the years, but angelic and lonely are a couple that always seem to pop up. He had the perfect voice to deliver a heart-wrenching love song, and there are many to be found on the box set. Some might consider love songs to be mundane, but Orbison truly shone whenever he tackled emotional material. Although love songs abound on the box set, there is still a huge helping of other styles and themes. Everything from R& B classics (What I'd Say) and lighthearted fare (Candy Man) to the easy-going compositions from The Traveling Wilburys show up. So much of Orbison's music was wrapped up in the theme and lyrics, and he had fans believing (and crying) with every word he sang. // 9
Overall Impression: Even if you haven't been a huge Orbison fan in the past, it's amazing to hear the vocalist stay pertinent and musically intriguing decade after decade. It's hard to say if he would have remained the balladeer for ages to come had he not passed in 1988, but his vocals could have absolutely been up for it. In the last recordings his vocals sound as strong as they did back in the 1960s, and his version of the insanely high I Drove All Night (originally performed by Cyndi Lauper) is a testament to his otherworldly range. Once again, be sure to sift through the liner notes because it's only then when you can have a full appreciation for Orbison's body of work. // 10