What riles me about Laminar Flow isn’t so much that the LP is an embarrassing travesty ill-suited to one of rock’s minor masters, but that such a debacle was totally unnecessary. Laminar Flow is a labyrinth of wooden rhythms, lukewarm clichés and hackneyed arrangements. Still, despite a mountain of other people’s mistakes, Roy Orbison’s miraculously singular voice muddles its way through and hasn’t lost much of the edge that gave life to hits like “Only the Lonely,” “Blue Bayou” and “Running Scared” back in the pre-Beatles Sixties.
Because he was a star in rock & roll’s dark age, Orbison is rarely celebrated these days, though no one who was fixated on pop radio in the years between 1960 and 1964 has forgotten that bel canto hillbilly voice, the songs that all seemed to be one long crescendo or the unrelieved sense of paranoia the singer brought to the solemn ballads that were his specialty. In those years, Orbison created music of pure heart and complete terror, and sang it without a drop of self-pity. His art made romance seem continuously apocalyptic, and apocalypse seem commonplace.
Laminar Flow is a whimper, not a bang. Producers Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford deserve most of the blame because they’ve surrounded Orbison with music so tame and banal that it sounds as if he were invited to participate only as an afterthought. Ivey and Woodford add a jazzy cocktail lounge lick here, a trumped-up disco rhythm there, without any feeling for what might enhance the artist’s eccentric skills.
Twice, Orbison goes for something better. In “Movin’,” which tries to rock, the band remains tasteful when only vulgarity could have saved the day. Lenny Le-Blanc’s “Hound Dog Man” is probably the most moving Elvis tribute ever written, but having (or letting) Roy Orbison sing it makes a mockery of a career that can stand on its own feet better than most. Remember, when Presley came out of the army, it was Orbison who Elvis is said to have felt threatened his throne most severely.
All this may be news to Ivey and Woodford, who in addition to mucking up Orbison’s still-substantial talents have also made what may be the most soulless album ever recorded in Muscle Shoals. If this is the best this crew can do these days, they should pack up, move to Los Angeles and cut commercials.