Friday, February 7, 2020

Archive Review: The Traveling Wilburys' The Traveling Wilburys Collection (2016)

The Traveling Wilburys Collection
Great music often occurs by happenstance, and never more so than with the intriguing story of the Traveling Wilburys. According to the tale told by former Warner Music chairman Mo Ostin in the liner notes to The Traveling Wilburys Collection, George Harrison was hanging around with a bunch of friends in Bob Dylan’s studio, working up a song called “Handle With Care” to use as a B-Side for “This Is Love,” the first single from Harrison’s Cloud Nine album. These “friends,” by chance, happened to include the Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, the legendary Roy Orbison and, of course, the greatest songwriter that rock music has ever produced, Bob Dylan.

This humbling assemblage of musical talents finished the song and Harrison hustled “Handle With Care” over to Ostin’s office for executive approval. Warner Music A&R chief Lenny Waronker listened in, and everybody agreed that the song was too damn good to waste as a lowly B-side. Featuring a wonderful Orbison vocal performance and Harrison’s vastly-underrated fretwork, the song became sign of bigger things to come. The superstar quintet reassembled in the studio and quickly knocked out a proper album, Traveling Wilburys, Volume 1 which was released in late 1988. “Handle With Care” was chosen as the album’s first single, just barely missing Top 40 status, but was a hit nonetheless. The album climbed to the number three position on the Billboard charts and subsequently sold over five million copies.

The Traveling Wilburys, Volume 1

Traveling Wilburys, Volume 1 and its 1990 companion, Traveling Wilburys, Volume 3, represented an accomplished musical collaboration by a group of rock’s biggest stars and brightest talents. As the friendly, pop-inflected rock of the Traveling Wilburys gave way during the ‘90s to the onslaught of Seattle bands and harsher styles of music, the two albums slipped out-of-print and the rights to both reverted to Harrison. By the end of the decade, though, as the millennium approached, people began to rediscover the charms of the Traveling Wilburys and the two albums became coveted collector’s items, fetching premium pricing on eBay and elsewhere. After Harrison’s death, his estate sat on the albums for a while, but now Rhino has licensed them both and slapped them together as The Traveling Wilburys Collection, a two-CD set with a bonus DVD and collector’s booklet with liner notes, photos, and credits.

Traveling Wilburys, Volume 1
What made Traveling Wilburys, Volume 1 so enchanting wasn’t the infectious video for “Handle With Care” that grabbed significant MTV airplay, or even the impressive pedigree of the superstar participants. No, what mattered most was the music, which sounds like it was created by a bunch of close buddies hanging around the studio. The songs are loose and ego-free, yet they showcase the talents of all the collaborators. To reinforce the group concept and downplay their individual star status, they all took on the “Wilburys” surname – Lucky (Dylan), Lefty (Orbison), Otis (Harrison) and Nelson Wilbury (Lynne) along with Charlie T. Jr. (Petty). An entire Wilburys’ mythology was created around the faux group, further creating an aura of mystery around the band and its music.

Every one of the Wilburys brought something to the table, each one singing and playing on every song. The material runs the gamut of musical styles, perhaps reflecting the individual group member’s tastes at the time. Lynne’s rockabilly-styled love song “Rattled” is a rollicking Carl Perkins/Jerry Lee Lewis hybrid, while Petty’s reggae-tinged “Last Night” offers staggered rhythms and great harmonies behind his tale of romance under the moonlight. Dylan’s “Dirty Word” pairs the bard’s penchant for oblique wordplay with sly, tongue-in-cheek humor. His other song here, “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” is a deliciously wicked Springsteen-styled story-song, a sordid tale of shady deals gone bad that features one of Dylan’s most electric vocal performances.

Handle With Care

The aforementioned hit single, “Handle With Care,” features a lush Jeff Lynne soundtrack behind Harrison’s romantic fantasy, the song taken to a higher level by Orbison’s transcendent vocal contribution. The album’s other hit single, “End of the Line,” offers up the combined harmonies of the five Wilburys behind strong lead vocals courtesy of Petty, and some intricate, intertwined guitars, each doing something different in the mix to great effect. Orbison’s “Not Alone Any More” represents, perhaps, his best performance since the ‘60s, his quivering vocals drenched with emotion, simply heartbreaking as they soar towards the heavens behind Harrison’s delicate fretwork. The Traveling Wilburys Collection adds two previously unreleased bonus tracks to the package: “Maxine” is an upbeat number with slight production but energetic Harrison vocals and fretwork, while the grand performance of “Like A Ship” is reminiscent of late-period Beatles, putting Dylan’s creaky vocals behind the epic instrumentation instead of John or Paul.

The critical acclaim and commercial success enjoyed by Traveling Wilburys, Volume 1 was tempered by Roy Orbison’s unexpected death shortly after the album’s release. The singer’s passing made a sequel problematic, as Orbison’s powerful and unique vocals were an integral part of the first album’s songs. Two years later, however, the surviving Wilburys gathered together to honor their fallen brother and celebrate his life, recording Traveling Wilburys, Volume 3 (yup, there is no “Volume 2”), which would subsequently be dedicated to “Lefty Wilbury.”

Aside from Orbison’s death, a lot had happened in the two years between the 1988 release of Traveling Wilburys, Volume 1 and its 1990 follow-up. The Harrison album that inspired the entire Wilburys phenomenon, Cloud Nine, had also provided the former Beatle with a bona fide late-career comeback. Ditto for Bob Dylan, whose own Daniel Lanois-produced Oh Mercy album, released in 1989, provided the aging rock star with a third career, launching a never-ending tour that continues rolling today. Lynne and Petty worked together to fashion Full Moon Fever, Petty’s first solo album and a hit in its own right, while Lynne also produced the critically-acclaimed posthumous Roy Orbison album Mystery Girl.

So, by the time that the remaining Wilburys foursome returned to the studio to put together Traveling Wilburys, Volume 3 they all had other things on their mind. As such, rather than the easy-going camaraderie that made the first album so user-friendly, Lynne and Petty tend to dominate these sessions to the detriment of Dylan and Harrison. For one, the material isn’t as strong as that from Volume 1, and the vocal performances don’t revel in the laser-like focus that they previously shared.

Traveling Wilburys, Volume 3

Traveling Wilburys, Volume 3
That’s not to say that there are no good songs on Traveling Wilburys, Volume 3. You can’t go wrong with a group of this caliber talent, and the album has many memorable moments. “The Devil’s Been Busy” easily rises to the level of the first album, showcasing similarly magical vocal harmonies, with the guys swapping lead vocals in front of a wall of jangling guitars and rolling rhythms. Dylan’s “If You Belonged To Me” sounds like a Blood On the Tracks outtake, a lovely romantic confession that offers an extremely satisfying vocal performance, timely harp work and delicate rhythm guitar.

The album also yielded a pair of hit singles, the first – “She’s My Baby” – a rocking number that benefits from Lynne’s retro-styled production (with slight echo), shared vocals and a red-hot guitar lead courtesy of guest Gary Moore. The second single, “Inside Out,” also features strong harmonies, with the guys swapping vocal leads on top of a steady drumbeat and complex six-string play. Overall, however, Traveling Wilburys, Volume 3 falls short of the performances created for, and the expectations created by its predecessor. Keep on listening, though, and these songs grow on you. They don’t share the spontaneity and intimacy of the material on album one, but they’re certainly not without attraction.

The Traveling Wilburys Collection also adds two bonus tracks to the end of Volume 3, although both songs had been previously released. The first, “Nobody’s Child,” was originally included on a benefit album. A trembling country blues, the song is, quite frankly, not much to talk about. The vocals are inappropriately over-the-top and somebody forgot to tell Dylan, et al that you don’t have to affect a nasal twang to sound like an authentic bluesman. Much better is an inspired cover of Del Shannon’s classic song “Runaway” that was released as the B-side to “She’s My Baby.” The song cries out for Orbison’s soaring vocals, but Lynne does a fine job on the lead and the harmonies build impressively on the song’s fast-paced rhythms.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The set’s additional DVD includes a “making off” mini-documentary titled “The True History of the Traveling Wilburys” as well as the music videos for all four of the two albums’ singles and one for the embarrassing “Wilbury Twist.” A deluxe edition of The Traveling Wilburys Collection includes a larger CD booklet, presumably with more pictures and content for the extreme fan. For this listener, however, the standard two-CD set works well, presenting the music in all of its original glory, finally resurrecting the magnificent sound of the Traveling Wilburys for a new generation. (Rhino Records, released June 3, 2016)

Review originally published by the Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog

Buy the CD from The Traveling Wilburys Collection

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