SPIN — January 1989

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The Traveling Wilburys | TRAVELING WILBURYS VOL. 1 | Warner Brothers
SPIN — January 1989
Review by Rich Stim

TRAVELING WILBURYS VOL 1 poses three threshold questions: (1) Who are the Wilburys? (2) Where are they traveling to? and (3) What is the meaning of “VOL 1”?

According to their biography, the Wilburys are a remarkably sophisticated musical culture. As they began to go further and further in their search for inspiration they found themselves the object of interest among less developed species such as club owners, record executives, and booking agents. This contact with the commercial world was a blow from which many of them have never recovered.

Those who did survive managed (with the aid of attorneys familiar with the intricacies of cross-label licensing) to produce a six-figure field recording distributed by Warner Brothers. And if this is the primary artifact of Wilbury culture, we can assume that they are an eclectic band of guitar playing troubadours who favor a ’60s bar band sound filtered through mushy ’70s production and plated with ’80s digital recording techniques.

The result — like so much FM radio fodder — is the audio equivalent of an insect preserved in hardened amber, fascinating and somehow familiar.

As for where the Wilburys are traveling to, it is back a few decades to a simpler era of good-natured camaraderie among musicians. Charlie T. Wilbury, Jr. a.k.a. Tom Petty, paints the band’s middle-age portrait when he sings on “End of the Line”: “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 ‘Purple Haze.'”

The pathos of the Wilbury’s excursion is best evinced by the fact that this is “VOL 1” (sic). Even accepting the punctuational deviation of ‘Volume,’ the insistence in the title that this is the first of a series of the Wilburys’s travels brings a maudlin pallor to the project.

It begs us to believe that this is more than an HBO tribute or an Amnesty supergig. This is an ongoing band of nicotine-stained high-lifers (Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne), à la the Rat Pack, who can still party in between solo albums, soundtracks, production efforts, and interviews with Kurt Loder.

Hence the merchandising paradox. Will we buy VOL II because he long for the revisionist ’60s camaraderie and sound of VOL I? Or will be buy VOL II because we yearn for the real sound and camaraderie of the ’60s?

Can we really merchandise for the future by using something that reflects the past? By posing this paradox, the Wilburys do more than make music, they create an intellectually stimulating consumer dilemma. And that adventurous inquiry is far more exciting, and ultimately more rewarding, than their recorded document.

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