CD Review: Roy Orbison: The Monument Collection 1960-1964 (Monument/ Legacy)

Roy Orbison’s unique ability to get straight to the heart of the matter is the reason his songs are featured in so many memorable film sequences involving people who have completely lost it – think of Dean Stockwell miming “In Dreams” in the middle of a prolonged torture scene in Blue Velvet, or Michael Caine in Little Voice punching out a karaoke host so he can sing “It’s Over” while his house burns to the ground. Orbison sings of longing and unmet desire with such urgency, such intensity, that his records have the power to inflict physical pain on the listener. This new release from Legacy puts his incredible run in the first half of the sixties in proper perspective, offerring the definitive mono mixes of his glorious A-sides, along with their B-sides, collected on a separate disc, and a DVD of a complete 1965 concert.

The string of singles collected here, recorded in Nashville over a five-year span, documents one of the first great leaps forward in the music of the sixties, a handful of performances that raised the bar for musical sophistication, creative use of the recording studio, and emotional impact. It’s a shame that Orbison and his Monument production team don’t often get acknowledged with sonic pioneers of the day like Phil Spector, George Martin and Brian Wilson; just listen to the epic “It’s Over,” and try to think of something anybody was doing in 1964 that was richer, more complex, or better sounding. Maybe it’s because the listeners have melted down so completely by the time the song’s finished, they don’t even remember the production, or the dynamics, or anything about how they got there. They just remember having been reduced to pulp.

Comparing the mono mixes here to the commonly heard stereo versions of the same sessions is startling. These records were produced with mono in mind, live in one room with no overdubs, and the extreme stereo separation heard on most available collections sounds unnatural and forced when heard next to these masters. As with the Beatles’ mono mixes, what you’re likely to notice first is more balls from the band. The vocals are still right up front, but better integrated with the richly detailed orchestration. The build-up of “Running Scared,” the band slowly rising to match the fear and desperation in Orbison’s voice until it collapses under its own weight, has never sounded this visceral. The good-time rockers like “Dream Baby,” “Let The Good Times Roll” and “Lana” benefit from the boost to the boom-chicka-boom of the rhythm section, taking on a Stax-like greasiness.

The B-sides disc contains a number of great performances and shows Orbison trying out new methods along the way, rocking surprisingly hard through the firey “Mean Woman Blues” and “With The Bug”, borrowing calypso elements for “Leah” and mariachi horns for “Yo Te Amo Maria.” While cheapskates might opt for the single-disc version with the hits and leave satisfied, there are more than enough exciting moments to make the expanded edition worth checking out. The highlight of the Dutch concert shown on the accompanying DVD is the sound of Orbison’s voice, floating over a small group, single-handedly making up for the missing orchestra. 

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