The Traveling Wilburys Collection
George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison. George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison. And one more time for the folks in the back: George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison.
This was the lineup for The Traveling Wilburys...perhaps the only band in the history of rock music to really deserve the "supergroup" label. It's amazing that this group of world-changing musicians got together to record two albums in 1988 and 1990. A thousand times more amazing, however, is that they've both been out of print for over a decade. That all changed this past Tuesday.
At last, The Traveling Wilburys Collection has been released...and the fact that in all of these intervening years no major record label that represented the artists involved thought it would be worth releasing the recordings is just...mind-boggling. Rhino, at last, stepped up to bat...Rhino, which, it should be mentioned, represents none of the artists involved. Yes, I'm upset that I had to wait this long to own the material legally. As well I should be, as it's some brilliant, magical stuff.
The coming-together of Harrison, Dylan, Petty, Lynne and Orbison is discussed at great length in the booklet and DVD that accompany the set, so it'd be pretty worthless for me to recount it for you...suffice it to say it only happened because all five of them were friends...they'd never have been able to convince any record companies to set it up...not with the rights issues to contend with. What they had to do, basically, was just record and mix everything themselves, and then leave it lying around until someone decided to do something with it.
Which no doubt lends a lot of the Wilbury recordings their charm. There's a real effortlessness to it...they're having a lot of fun, yes, that's obvious, but it almost feels like they didn't have to do anything at all...it feels almost like someone locked these five brilliant musicians/singers/lyricists in a room together overnight and opened the door the next morning to find the album there...magically...summoned from the ether by the sheer combination of their creative forces...
The Traveling Wilburys Collection is a set of two CDs and one DVD, collecting both official albums (Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 and Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3), four bonus tracks, all five music videos and a documentary about the recording of the first album. There's also a booklet that contains recording information, a few personal reflections and the original liner notes. Which are hilarious. I promise.
The set itself isn't quite perfect...selling us a three disc set is slightly greedy, I'd say, as the material from both original albums can fit quite comfortably on a single disc. Of course bonus tracks bump the running time up a bit...but since there are only four of them total you are essentially paying for an additional disc containing fifteen minutes of music.
That said, there is such a difference in mood between Vol. 1 and Vol. 3 that, from a thematic and artistic standpoint, keeping them separate does have its merits. It's a mixed blessing...and it's hard to complain when you can finally hold in your grubby little hands the official recordings that have been out of print for years.
The DVD is stored between the first and second discs...and, yes, I know, it's funny because that makes the DVD Vol. 2, which never existed before...but, well, I don't like that. I don't like the CD - DVD - CD sequence. I want both CDs and the DVD on its own. I don't like dividing up the music...especially when you're not going to be reaching for the DVD nearly as often as the albums themselves...have I bitched enough yet? I sure hope so...
The real great stuff here, obviously, is the content. So let's deal with the DVD first...
The DVD contains a documentary that runs about a half hour, and it touches on all of the songs on the first album...most of them at great length. It consists almost entirely of archive footage from the actual recording of the album...the songwriting sessions...the early morning breakfast jams (when was the last time you saw Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and George Harrison performing Ghost Riders in the Sky in somebody's kitchen, anyway?)...it's fantastic, and a brilliant capsule of the moment. Whoever decided to record this stuff personally (I have a hunch it was George...) has done the world a great service by the sheer existence of this footage.
Bad points? Well, I'd like to have seen more about the songs...I'd like all of them to get a good amount of time devoted to them, rather than just most of the songs. Also, the second album deserves an exploration as well...I understand that the archival footage just might not exist...but why not stitch something new together? Anything...interviews with the surviving band members maybe? It's not impossible...and God knows Rhino's never been shy about stuff like that before...
Then we have all five music videos...none of which are particularly mind-blowing, but that's okay. Other than Talking Heads and R.E.M., who's really speckled their career with consistantly brilliant use of music videos?
The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 is the first album this band recorded...and it's...let's face it...one of the absolute greatest albums in the history of music. The sheer pleasure that oozes through every note is irresistable. The two weakest songs on the album happen to feature Orbison on lead vocals, but I think that's down to their themes rather than their quality, and--honestly--they're not half bad anyway.
But much more fun is Bob Dylan's Dirty World, a raunchy love song of sorts to a woman's pickup truck, and Tweeter and the Monkey Man, the longest song in the set that sounds like absolutely nothing any member of this band has ever been involved with before. It's dark, it's absurd, it's obnoxious, and it's pure joy. There's no shortage of recordings of Dylan dicking around in the studio, but here he strikes a balance between comedy and quality that he's never really matched otherwise.
On the more serious side of things, George Harrison and Tom Petty each turn in one of the best songs of their careers with Heading for the Light and End of the Line respectively--the latter of which is both dismal and triumphant at once...and contains probably the best-delivered vocal in all of Petty history:
Maybe somewhere down the road a ways
You'll think of me and wonder where I am these days
Maybe somewhere down the road when somebody plays
The entire song is an admittance that this group of musicians is...well...past their prime. They all realize that their biggest albums are in their past...that there's only so much left up ahead for them...but it's fuelled by such a driving satisfaction with a life well-lived that you can't help but smile...sing along...and, you know what? Everything'll work out fine. It's all right. We're going to the end of the line...
Dylan's Congratulations is definitely one of the finest songs of his career...it's an "I hate you but I love you but I hate you" song the way only he can write one, and the fact that he could write something like this overnight and record it the next day is one more testament to his career-long quality-streak.
My personal favorite is Margarita, which wears Jeff Lynne's influence more obviously than any other song here, and finds every member turning in a lyric or two that--intentionally or not--summarizes their song-writing style beautifully. Compare Dylan's entire contribution:
It was in Pittsburgh late one night
I lost my hat, got into a fight
We rolled and tumbled til we saw the light
Went to the Big Apple. Took a bite.
She wrote a long letter
on a short piece of paper.
It's James Joyce and Kurt Vonnegut, folks. And they're in the same band...
The second album, The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3, is a bit more spotty...and, yes, I'll say it, less magical. But that's only on the whole. A good portion of the album stands up just as well as the songs from the first...but this time around there was no more Roy Orbison...he passed away soon after the first record was released. Perhaps his sobering influence is what kept the first recording sessions focussed, because Vol. 3 does seem--just a little bit--like they're struggling to hold it together.
None of which robs the resulting album of its masterpieces. Inside Out is a pretty great choppy jam...Cool Dry Place is a Petty-driven shuffle that'll make you disappointed that he's not always this playful. And, on top of that, there are three genuinely beautiful love-songs sprinkled throughout: Where Were You Last Night?, New Blue Moon and You Took My Breath Away.
It's a flawed album, but that's only significant because the first was flawless. On its own it would have cemented the Wilbury magic, but held in comparison to the first it's doomed to be a very slight disappointment.
The Traveling Wilburys were a twice-in-a-lifetime shot...no tours, no nothing. They got together twice a few years apart, worked their magic, and made it clear that every one of them was capable of recording music offhand in somebody's kitchen that absolutely blew away the bulk of the stuff being churned out by their musical peers. If you let the initial releases pass you by, do not miss this collection.