Record Review: Tongue-in-cheek Wilburys forge ahead
By Jeff Lucas
Tritonian — November 16, 1990
The Traveling Wilburys with Vol. 3, the second tongue-in-cheek collaboration involving some of the biggest names in the business. Although the liner notes list them as Spike, Clayton, Muddy and Boo, the Wilburys are respectively George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan. This collection of no frills rock ‘n’ roll is sure to be a hit.
As with the 1988 Vol. 1, the Wilburys offer a heaping helping of acoustic guitar-based rock. All four band members trade turns at lead vocals, with Dylan featured most often. His distinctive vocal style compliments the rugged acoustic sound of the band. Each musician plays acoustic guitar with Harrison adding electric guitars, Lynne playing keyboards and bass, and Dylan blowing the harmonica.
Despite the possibility of battling egos, the Wilburys operate well as a group. Though Dylan dominates the singing, producers Harrison and Lynne build in enough backing vocals to power a tabernacle choir. This is a characteristic of most Jeff Lynne projects. Surprisingly, no single member dominates any one song as was evident on Vol. 1.
The album’s title sets up the light-heartedness of the set, but isn’t the only joke on album. The liner notes were written by Professor Tiny Hampton (a.k.a. Eric Idle) of the University of Please Yourself, California, who’s searching for intelligent life among rock journalists. Hampton traces the Wilburys to “Ye Travelling Willyburys,” medieval chastity belt locksmiths.
Even the fine print contains jokes. The copyright line claims the Wilburys’ record company is a division of the Trans-Wilbury Corporation of Mongolia. Record pirates receive a warning that illegally copied CDs and tapes will damage stereo equipment.
The most obvious humor on the album is in the song “Wilbury Twist.” It may not be the latest dance sensation, but it gives the Wilburys a chance to poke fun at themselves. Some of the dance steps include falling down, putting false teeth in a glass and hopping up and down wearing only underwear.
The song “Poor House” is an obvious jab at country and western music. Petty sings about losing his job, his woman, and all his money. He wails, “They’re gonna put me in the poor house/And you’ll take all the rest.”
Despite the humor, Vol. 3 is not a novelty record. These guys are serious about their music. In “The Devil’s Been Busy,” the Wilburys chastise the middle class for ignoring environmental problems. They sing “While you’re strolling down the fairway/showing no remorse/Glowing from the poison they’ve sprayed on your golfcourse/While you’re busy sinking birdies and filling your scorecard/The Devil’s been busy in your backyard.”
The album is dedicated to Roy Orbison (a.k.a. Lefty Wilbury). The loss of Orbison did not cripple the group musically. There is more than enough talent to go around. In small aways, the Wilburys pay tribute to Orbison with “New Blue Moon,” as blue was a common motif in Orbison’s music. Added percussion on this new song helps evoke moods similar to those of Orbison classics.
As with the new music of most fine musicians, this album is not a carbon copy of previous work. Vol. 3 picks up where Vol. 1 left off, with the Wilburys in top form. Yet, this work lacks the subtle elegance that can be directly attributed to the absence of the ballads that permeated Orbison’s songwriting.
This loss means the Wilburys aren’t taking themselves as seriously as they have on their own records, or on the first Wilbury album. The result is a relaxed sound with a glint of humor.