Rock & Roll Feature: The Traveling Wilburys Vol 1

This is the tenth in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.

When it comes to "super groups", I've always been partial to the short lived Traveling Wilburys. Originally coming together in the late 80s to record a b-side for one of George Harrison's singles, the band consisted of Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne as the Wilburys, and only released one album with all five members called Vol. 1. Roy Orbison died of a heart attack shortly after it's release, making these songs some of his last recordings. Although the remaining four would go on to record another album, Vol. 3, I've always felt that their first is the better of the two and is also a amazing album overall.

Musically, the Traveling Wilburys contain elements that are reminiscent of each of the members solo works (each is really a rock and roll legend in his own right), but they fit together to create something new. It's fun, upbeat rock and roll with a very earthy feel. I wouldn't really call it country as it's not really a country twang, but there are country elements. I also wouldn't really call it southern, Americana or folk, but there is a definite feel of all three throughout. The band has obvious songwriting talent what with the credentials of each it's members, but the songs are almost all deceptively straight forward pop rock songs in a loose and fun style. A deeper look though, reveals some great word play, lyrical lines and well crafted musical arrangements. Plus, with their sing along choruses and upbeat style, they're meant to be fun, even funny at times... that was the idea from the start. It's almost as if they really are a group of brothers, last name Wilbury of course, and each with more than a little life experience, playing music in a local bar, with people dancing, partying and singing along... just having a good ole' time.

Also worth mentioning when talking about the musical style is the mixing and production because this album has a rather distinctive style: that of Jeff Lynne. There are layers of guitars, all five members are also guitarists after all, but they don't sound heavy or "wall of sound esque". Instead, there's a lot more space with guitars almost merging with the rhythm, and yet although sounding open overall, there are lots of musical parts. Saxophones, horns, backing vocals and even electronic elements are all present, but don't overshadow the vocals or the songwriting too much. The combination of all the elements creates a sort of open sonic landscape that is full, but not really thick. That said, it's also a very slick production... glossy one might call it... with a lot going on... too much even... I always wondered how earthy these songs would sound stripped down to their minimal tracks. As I said, it's worth mentioning because some people like it, and others hate it. Either way, there's still some compelling music.

Opening with the warm and sweet pop rock of "Handle With Care", a soft rock classic that's maybe a little schmaltzy in a fun way, the album starts off right away with a good feel. The folksy stomp of "Dirty World", one of my favorites, puts more emphasis on the fun aspect with it's swaggering feel, country tinge and some amusing lyrics. "Rattled" is close to a country stomp as the group really starts to cook, and again there's some great word play and fun throughout as they channel some early, southern flavored, rock and roll. "Last Night" pulls back a little into a slightly disjointed feel thats light and airy. I'm really partial to the way this song seems to dip into the dark with a tonal shift after the verses and chorus. It's a subtle compositional and arrangement touch that really ads some depth to an otherwise light song.

"Not Alone Again" is very much in the vein of Roy Orbison as he takes lead and the other Wilburys sing backing vocals complete with the "Sha la las" of early rock 'n' roll and early 60s pop music. "Congratulations" is almost a counterpoint to "Not Alone Again" which is more dramatic of a ballad, while "Congratulations" is more of a folksy, grounded heart breaker. These two songs also serve as a bit of a break from the happier warmth of the rest of the album with their sadder feel. "Heading For the Light" is a tight little rock and roll song that gets the good feelings flowing again and is also the most straight forward rock and roll track. I really like the middle sections of this song as well as they soar with layered vocals.

The final three songs are all standouts in my mind, starting with, the at first glance out of place, "Margarita". Although it has a nice party feel that fits in with the rest, this song starts with some deep electric pulses that definitely seem a little bit out of place given their context and the earthy feel of the rest of the album. Still, I really like this song for it's pulled back, shadowy first verse, which has some subtle, but effective and interesting lyrics. The most recognizable song is easily the bluesy and dark "Tweeter and the Monkey Man". A story telling song emphasized by Dylan's husky voice, it's just a great bit of songwriting that sounds completely legitimate, but lyrically is laced with jabs, a bit of irony and probably a bit of social comment. It ends up being an engrossing story though, that's gritty and real, but also funny and lighthearted and has some of the best lyrical lines. Closing the album is another upbeat rocker ,"End of the Line", that really sums up everything in it's sing along fun. It's a great bit of songwriting as well and a great closer to the album both musically, returning to the fun feel of the opener. and lyrically.

I guess it's easy to overlook the Traveling Wilburys. Outside of the brooding "Tweeter and the Monkey Man", these songs might not standout or make a huge statement at all on first listen, but their fun, lighthearted feel really grows on you. It is easy to find yourself singing along, tapping your foot, or swaying without even thinking. It's completely contagious. I've been listening to this band since long before I knew who each of it's members were, and eventually got away from it for a while. When I came back to it though, years after, I still knew all the words to every song.

I think what I like most about this music is not just the uplifting grooves or the subtle lyrical word play and fun... It's the vocals. They really go the extra mile on songs like "Dirty World" and "End of the Line" where each member takes a line, or adds a little something themselves. Each Wilbury has such a distinct voice and style, especially Orbison and Dylan, that you can easily pick out who's singing what and when. It adds a spontaneous feel almost like they are just sitting around playing music, laughing and having fun, and would each take a turn singing in order around the room, giving a very authentic vibe.

Overall, when I'm in the mood for some uplifting, fun rock and roll, I listen to the Traveling Wilburys. I can get past the somewhat slick production because these are some genuinely catchy songs. Sure, it's not deep artistic progressive rock, but it is great songwriting. Although there are some memorable moments on their second release as well, Vol. 1, will always be the music of the true Traveling Wilburys in my mind, as well as just a fun album to listen to.

If this is your first real experience with the Traveling Wilburys, well, there really isn't anywhere else to start, as this was the only album with the original five Wilburys and in my mind it's far better than the second release. For fans and newcomers alike though, there has been a release of the entire Traveling Wilburys collection that includes both albums, a DVD and outtakes from the sessions that is worth picking up.

You can buy this album directly from Amazon here: The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1

Also check out the Traveling Wilburys Collection: Traveling Wilburys (2 CD / 1 DVD)

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