String ‘Em Up: The Beach Boys and Roy Orbison Meet the Royal Philharmonic

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Among the more than 100 Elvis Presley compilation albums released since his 1977 death, two of the more successful are 2015’s If I Can Dream and 2017’s The Wonder of You, both of which pair his vocals from vintage recordings with new backing tracks from London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Both discs sold reasonably well in the U.S.; and in the U.K., both topped the charts. It was probably only a matter of time before someone got the idea to try this approach with other artists.

In fact, it didn’t take long. A Love So Beautiful: Roy Orbison with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra appeared some months ago; and this week brings the release of The Beach Boys with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

The two albums have more in common than the Royal Philharmonic: both run just under an hour, both contain 17 tracks, and both rely on a mix of old LP tracks and hit singles with freshly recorded orchestration replacing most or all of the original instruments. In addition, both were produced by Don Reedman and Nick Patrick, who also oversaw the two Presley packages.

One difference: the Beach Boys seem to have had little to do with the album of their music other than to offer gushing endorsements for it; the Orbison CD, on the other hand, finds Roy’s sons Wesley (guitar), Roy Jr. (guitar), and Alex (drums) playing with the orchestra on some tracks. (There’s also a dubious credit for guitar and tambourine work for grandson Roy III, whose age at the time of the recording was reportedly 10 months.) The late singer himself even lends a hand (sort of), touring the UK in support of the album—albeit in hologram form—with the Royal Philharmonic.

Orbison Royal PhilharmonicThe Orbison set includes classics like “In Dreams,” “Cryin’,” “It’s Over,” “Oh, Pretty Woman,” and “Only the Lonely,” plus such other gems as “You Got It” and the title track, both of which the singer cowrote with Jeff Lynne for Mystery Girl, the album that appeared only weeks before his 1989 death. The Beach Boys disc delivers smash hits like “Fun Fun Fun,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “Sloop John B,” and “California Girls” but also makes room for album tracks such as “Disney Girls.”

“How do these records sound?” and “Are they worth buying?” are rather different questions in this case. Both sound pretty great, largely because their foundation consists of some of the finest vocal work ever offered on pop records. Let’s face it, you could back Roy Orbison’s astonishing, operatic vocals or the Beach Boys’ sublime harmonies with the sound of a lawnmower and they’d still sound fantastic. The Royal Philharmonic, which sounds a whole lot better than a lawnmower, is just icing on the cake.

But is it “icing” that we need to taste? That’s debatable. On the one hand, much of Orbison’s material lends itself well to orchestration (and has indeed featured it on earlier recordings); so do a few Beach Boys tracks, particularly such introspective numbers as Pet Sounds’ “You Still Believe in Me” and “Here Today.” But aside from a few embellishments, such as new instrumentals intros, some of the recordings on both of these albums aren’t really that different from the originals; and in other cases, among them the Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda” and Orbison’s “Uptown,” orchestration does little but soften the punch of the rock and roll originals.

So these are mixed bags. As big fans of both Orbison and the Beach Boys, I think both experiments were worth trying: and I find it interesting to hear new takes on old classics, at least some of which benefit notably from the orchestration. Perhaps partly because I so thoroughly associate the original recordings with this material, however, it’s those that I suspect I’ll mostly be returning to when I want to hear these songs.

BRIEFLY NOTED

Circle of LifeKinky Friedman, Circus of LifeThe deftly written lyrics and impressive music-making on Kinky Friedman’s 1973 debut album, Sold American, foretold a promising future as a recording artist. In the decades that followed, however, his albums have been uneven, sporadically issued, and nearly always filled out with covers as well as reworkings of his own early material. It seemed his heart, or at least his mind, wasn’t in it—especially since he diverted much of his attention to activities ranging from novel writing to cigar manufacturing to running for governor of Texas.

Now, at age 73, almost a half century after his music career began, Friedman has finally delivered the record I always suspected he was capable of making: a well-sung, well-honed, all-originals collection of story songs that convey his distinctive personality. The humor that imbued his early work seems largely gone; in its place are often melancholy character portraits and observations about life. Also here: “Autographs in the Rain,” a tribute to longtime friend Willie Nelson, who reportedly convinced Friedman in a phone call to make this CD. Due out July 3, it marks his first new all-originals studio collection since 1976’sLasso from El Paso. Let’s hope there’s more where this came from.

Sparrow in a ShoeboxLiz Frame and the Kickers, Sparrow in a Shoebox. Sparrow in a Shoebox is the first full-length album from this Boston-area Americana quartet since 2011, when they issued Sooner, their debut CD. The wait was worth it because the music here is consistently first-rate. Frame—who wrote all of the tuneful material and produced—sounds like a cross between Stone Poneys–era Linda Ronstadt and 10,000 Maniacs’ Natalie Merchant. When her rock and roll side kicks in, on tracks like “Lookin’ for a Lonely Man,” you can also hear echoes of singers like Chrissie Hynde; and elsewhere, the guitar work and accordion suggest a penchant for Tex-Mex. With any luck, this fine album will allow Frame and her cohorts to wave goodbye to the day jobs that they all reportedly still hold.

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