This is the best record of its kind ever made. Then again, it’s also the only record of its kind ever made. A low-key masterpiece, Volume One marks the auspicious debut of the Traveling Wilburys – Lucky Wilbury (a.k.a. Bob Dylan), Nelson Wilbury (George Harrison), Lefty Wilbury (Roy Orbison), Otis Wilbury (Jeff Lynne) and Charlie T. Jr. (Tom Petty) – one of the few rock supergroups actually deserving to be called either super or a group.
With tongue placed firmly in cheek, the author of the album’s liner notes (which are credited to Hugh Jampton, E.F. Norti-Bitz Reader in Applied Jacket, Faculty of Sleeve Notes, University of Krakatoa, East of Java, but sound suspiciously like Michael Palin, who is thanked elsewhere in the notes) explains the band’s origins thusly: “The original Wilburys were a stationary people who, realizing that their civilization could not stand still for ever, began to go for short walks – not the ‘traveling’ as we now know it, but certainly as far as the corner and back.”
In reality, this record came out of a dinner conversation in Los Angeles this spring between Petty, Orbison, Lynne and Harrison. (Former ELO leader Lynne, who was behind the boards for Harrison’s comeback album, Cloud Nine, was producing tracks for upcoming albums by both Orbison and Petty.) Harrison mentioned that he needed to record a new song for the B side of a European single and suggested they all pitch in and cut a number together. Harrison also suggested having Bob Dylan join in, and the next day they all wrote and recorded “Handle with Care” (now the album’s first single). When Harrison played the track for Warner Bros., both the company and the group realized it was too good for a throwaway track and decided the Wilburys should keep recording.
And it’s a good thing they did, because for all its off-the-cuff sense of fun, Volume One is an unexpected treat that leaves one hungry for Volume Two. Produced by Harrison and Lynne, the album has a wonderfully warm sound that is both high-tech and rootsy. Recorded at the home studios of Harrison, Dylan and Wilbury family friend Dave Stewart, Volume One has little in common with most recorded “supersessions,” which tend to be less than the sum of their parts; rather, it recalls the inspired mix-and-match musical fellowship found in the best moments of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame jam sessions.
Coming on the heels of Cloud Nine, Volume One is further proof of Harrison’s complete return to form. Throughout, Harrison not only sounds great, he also sounds happy, thrilled to be playing once again with a witty, wonderful band – albeit one with a rather unorthodox lineup: five lead-singing rhythm guitarists. (The Wilburys’ fellow travelers on Volume One include Jim Keltner on drums, Jim Horn on saxophone, Ray Cooper on percussion and Ian Wallace on tom-toms.)
But Harrison isn’t the only rock great who seems revived on Volume One. Never one for overdoing things in the studio, Bob Dylan is well matched to the Wilburys’ informal, fast-paced schedule – they wrote and recorded a song a day. And as on his recent stripped-down tour, Dylan sounds extraordinary, singing with the expert phrasing and wit of his best work. (Unsurprisingly, his tracks sound less collaborative than the others.) On “Dirty World” and “Congratulations,” his voice is loose and relaxed, free of the mannered whining that has marred some of his recent recorded work. Best of all is “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” a convincing little rocker that playfully parodies Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics. Littered with references to stolen cars, mansions on the hill, Jersey lines and a certain Thunder Road, the song comes off as Dylan’s wonderfully bitchy way of asserting who’s really the Boss.
Totally boss is the best way to describe two other Wilbury gems, “Not Alone Any More” and the closing “End of the Line.” The former is a gorgeous pop ballad on which Roy Orbison – assisted by some wonderful backing vocals from Harrison and Lynne – hurts as good as he ever has. It proves that Orbison has lost none of his tremendous vocal prowess, and makes one eager to hear Orbison’s upcoming solo album. “End of the Line” – which features vocal turns by all the Wilburys save Dylan – is a movingly upbeat ride-off-into-the-sunset song for these middle-aged rock & roll cowboys: “Maybe somewhere down the road a ways/You’ll think of me and wonder where I am these days/Maybe down the road when somebody plays/’Purple Haze.'”
Petty acquits himself well on “End of the Line” and “Last Night”; he and Orbison share lead on the latter song, a shuffling tale of good love gone bad. Jeff Lynne shines a little of his own electric light on “Rattled,” a romantic, retro-sounding rockabilly number reminiscent of some of the tracks he produced for Dave Edmunds a few years back.
According to Wilbury legend, all the Traveling Wilburys have different mothers but the same father. Yet none of the Wilburys knows the current whereabouts of Charlie T. Wilbury Sr. Chances are, though, that wherever the big guy is, he’s proud.