Travelling Wilburys review by Jackass Tom

In half of the psychology classes I have taken in high school or college I’ve studied the Asch experiments. In the original experiment (as I remember) there were a set of lines on a board with one line obviously longer than the next. When the professor asks a group which line is longer, all of them (who were told how to react ahead of time) say the shorter one is longer. Then the question comes to the one loan student who isn’t in on the experiment. He/she has to decide whether to give into the pressure of his peers even though his eyes tell him the obvious truth. Shockingly this experiment really does persuade many people to react against their senses revealing just how much our decisions as human beings are made based on the decisions of our peers. Now a handful of years removed from that education I find myself in my own Asch experiment.

In 1987 George Harrison called up his buddies Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and a few others for a jam session slumber party. Dylan was braiding Petty’s hair, Orbison told scary ghost stories with a flashlight held under his chin, and they went through 13 gallons of fudge swirl ice cream in one night. They also cut a number of original tracks and named their super star band Traveling Wilburys (I think a Wilbury is a term for a sort of studio Gremlin that messes up recording… feel free to misquote me on that). Now this is an album that I have no recollection of (I was 9 at the time) and apparently it gets high marks in a number of places including Rolling Stone,, and a number of reader reviews. So much has been written on their material already leading up to the 2007, two CD, one DVD set much of it being praise….

… and its tragically bland. Its awfully blah. Its painfully poppy. Its groaningly uninspired. It takes a walk to first base instead of swinging for the fences. I opened my mind and ears to the music hoping that this super group of artists that I admire (for the most part) would turn into the Voltron of bands. Alas, this is not the case.

I gave it some thought as I laughed through some of the tunes, again and again, and the answers to why this failed in my eyes now seem very obvious to me. First, this album happened in the late 80s. The 80s, in general, were an artistic desert filled with synthetic sounds, fake pianos that sounded like electric balloons decompressing, and dry lyrics that lead me to believe the drugs being used at the time were more mind numbing than mind expanding. If an album from the 80s is listened to today its usually because A) its one of the few survivors of a terrible music era or B) people love to relive bad music from the 80s. Even Eric Clapton put out some horrible music in the 80s. Remember George Harrison’s hit “Got My Mind Set on You”? Super bad… and by the way he is the guy who put this group together. Beyond that, the 80s were a time decades beyond the pique of ALL of these musicians. You could make an argument for Tom Petty and some of his later stuff, but all other musicians put out their BEST stuff about 20 years previous to this. Blonde on Blonde - 1966. Oh, Pretty Woman - 1964. White Album - 1968. It’s not as if these guys got together after making these albums…the got together generations later. By the time most of these guys hit the late 80s they were rich enough to half ass anything in the studios and were probably so artistically drained that pop music and fake love songs were about all they had left.

A deeper look at the musicians also alerted me to something else: Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison all have DRASTICALLY different voices and (light going off in my head now) getting them to play a melody in the same key and not sound like a bag of cats must have been tricky. Roy Orbison is a bit country-ish and twangy. Petty a little bit of the same but in a dreamy, sleepy way. Bob Dylan almost defies adjectives. George Harrison is used to playing big bands and probably does the best at bridging them al together but it doesn’t feel like it was meant to be.

And now for the obvious quote: Every single one of these musicians is much, MUCH stronger on his own (or with his original band in George Harrison’s case). After a listen through I couldn’t think of one song on either album that would find its way on to a “Best of” of Dylan, Harrison, Petty, or Orbison. These songs just don’t compete with their original stuff; it isn’t even close. Not that it was ever meant to, but at the same time you would hope for something within their collaboration that would stand out, something bold that you could say, ”Yeah these guys are clicking, this is something I would burn.” The one song, I would re-listen to in a mix would be Heading for the Light, a song that had a nice swing to it even if it did have the obligatory 80s saxophone backing up the tin-sounding guitars. It was just fun enough to listen to again, but might get old in the next couple of months.

The DVD included with the CD set gave a behind the scenes look at the recording process. It all seemed to be too coincidental that camera’s were rolling as these guys were putting together a “phenomenal recording session”. I’m all for a good behind the scenes, but this one didn’t reveal much aside from lots of self-congratulation and back patting. What was lacking was any interviews with the surviving band members talking about their opinions of what happened and how they view their music now. I wonder if they weren’t reachable or didn’t want to shed any ill opinions looking back. Also included were a number of videos (4-5) that are nothing spectacular. A live show or bootleg of a live would have been more preferable.

So the CD/DVD set that many seemed to like didn’t agree with me. I’m not buying into the aura or mystique of their super group and I’m not going to give them a pass for who they are. I have to call spade a spade and this one is worth taking a pass on unless you are a mega fan.

2 out of 10 Jackasses
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