Traveling Wilburys Vol. I (Warner Bros. '88) Rating: A-
Born out of mutual friendships among those involved, The Traveling Wilburys were the mother lode of all supergroups (for those of you who don’t remember: George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and ELO’s Jeff Lynne). Surprisingly, despite the legendary status of the likes of Dylan, Harrison, and Orbison, this album is a surprisingly modest, lighthearted affair, as each member’s thinly disguised pseudonyms enabled them to shrug off superstar expectations and simply have some fun in a band situation. These are simple, catchy pop tunes, and the ragtag harmony choruses (the band had quite the combination of voices, to put it mildly) fit the low-key, largely acoustic accompaniment. The songs were written collaboratively and each member gets to sing at least one song, with Dylan grabbing the most lead vocals at four, while Lynne and Harrison served as producers (Lynne's trademark big drum sound is ever-present) and therefore had the most to do with shaping the album's warmly inviting overall sound, which has a jovial, joyous spirit - this is an upbeat album that makes me happy when listening to it. It was a major hit, too; songs such as "Handle With Care," "Last Night," "Heading For The Light," "Tweeter And The Monkey Man," and "End Of The Line" all got some radio airplay, and though a few songs are of a lesser quality (Lynne's rockabilly number "Rattled," Dylan's cynical ballad "Congratulations," and the particularly filler-ish semi-instrumental "Margarita") and the album as a whole has an unserious, tossed-off feel, this was the best album that most of these guys had been involved with in years. The big single was "Handle With Care," and it's a damn good one, with typically serious lyrics and clever wordplay from Harrison, a great melody, and multiple discernible sections that add up to a greater whole: Harrison sings the main verses, Orbison sings the bridge, and they all chime in on the chorus. Elsewhere, "Dirty World" is a fun, funny Dylan song, “Last Night” is a pleasant Petty-led sing along, The Beatles/ELO-ish “Heading For The Light” has arguably the album's best melody and is one of several songs here enhanced by sax and/or horns, and “End Of The Line” is a catchy, folksy campfire sing along. But the album's best song is probably Dylan's dramatic “Tweeter And The Monkey Man,” whose story-based lyrics poke fun at Bruce Springsteen; the over-the-top effects and harmonies on the ominous chorus only add to what was quite simply his best song in ages. Again, by and large the band's many fans who had feared the worst were pleasantly surprised by this unassuming triumph, though sad news came soon thereafter as Orbison, who shines on “Not Alone Anymore,” would die soon after this album’s release just as his solo career appeared to be headed for a major revival courtesy of 1989's Mystery Girl and its Tom Petty/Jeff Lynne co-written hit, "You Got It." The remaining four members would reconvene for the illogically named and less inspired (but still worthwhile) Volume III before heading back to their more "substantial" solo careers.