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The Albums of Winter : Posthumous Roy Orbison release leads the pack : **** Great Balls of Fire *** Good Vibrations ** Maybe Baby * Running on Empty

January 29, 1989|ROBERT HILBURN

ROY ORBISON "Mystery Girl." Virgin

*** 1/2

For anyone ever touched by the dramatic sweep and disarming intimacy of Roy Orbison's voice, there are moments in this posthumous release as magical as anything the late Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member ever recorded.

Working with a variety of producers and musicians (including T Bone Burnett, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison and Tom Petty), Orbison doesn't always come up with material that matches the haunting poignancy of such '60s high points as "Running Scared" or "Only the Lonely."

For the most part, however, the songs are both distinguished and finely tailored. In Elvis Costello's dark "The Comedians," Orbison retraces the eerie intensity of his most unsettling tales of romantic heartbreak, while the soothing "California Blue" (which he wrote with Lynne and Petty) recalls the innocence of "Blue Bayou."

"She's a Mystery to Me"--written by U2's Bono Hewson and the Edge--represents the greatest growth. Rather than the familiar Orbison roles of someone defeated by rejection or overjoyed by acceptance, the song deals with the confusion of a complex relationship. It's a difficult song, but Orbison's delicate rendition is as gripping as any of his more overtly dramatic exercises.

The album's most evocative track is "In the Real World," a graceful Will Jennings-Richard Kerr composition that enables Orbison to offer some comforting reflections about life outside of his trademark dream world: "There are things we can't change / And endings come to us / In ways that we can't rearrange."

The gentleness of the vocal on "In the Real World" reminds you that Orbison's greatness wasn't tied simply to the power in his voice or the intensity of his arrangements. Of all the great rock vocalists, perhaps no one sang with quite so much natural soulfulness as Orbison. That's why his tales of loneliness were so haunting. They didn't just approximate our feelings. They virtually duplicated them.

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