The Band – Northern Lights-Southern Cross

Northern Lights-Southern Cross (1975)

B+ 

1. Forbidden Fruit 2. Hobo Jungle 3. Ophelia 4. Acadian Driftwood 5. Ring Your Bell 6. It Makes No Difference 7. Jupiter Hollow 8. Rags And Bones

 

What the…??? What in the heck are the Band doing releasing a good album at this stage in their career? I mean, by the time 1975 rolled around, they’d spent twice as long being washed up as they had actually being good, and their previous studio album was the worst record I’ve yet to review on this website! Though, to be fair, a lot had happened since then. They’d spent much of 1974 hanging out with their old buddy Bob, backing him on the slight but fun Planet Waves and accompanying him on a big blowout arena tour, Bob’s first full length tour since 1966, when he was, of course, also backed by the Band née Hawks. I’ll hold off on divulging all my opinions on Before The Flood, the live album that resulted from the tour, until I review Bob’s whole catalog (spoiler alert: Garth Hudson blows), but suffice it to say, a lot about Bob and the Band’s musical chemistry had changed in eight years. And it would seem that it was an awareness of that change gave the Band just the kick they needed to make one last decent album.

OK, now most critics usually spout some meaningless cliché about how after how both Bob and the Band had spent a few years in a creative rut, their tour together “was the creative catalyst they needed to get back on track and make great records again” or that “they gave each other raging boners” or some such crap. I guess I shouldn’t dismiss that line of thinking offhand, since after the tour Bob did end up producing the triple threat of Blood On The Tracks, Desire, and the Rolling Thunder Revue, and the Band mustered a return to form as well (though for the Band “return to form” just means “a B+-level album). Though in the case of the Band, I think the quality of Northern Lights-Southern Cross has less to do with magically being graced by the mighty hand of His Bobness, and more to do with the grand scale of the tour itself.

Basically, it seems like it made the Band finally realize what they’d actually been since 1970: bloated arena rock dinosaurs. They certainly hadn’t been the scruffy, bedraggled country rock troubadours they always marketed themselves since at least 1969, if they ever were. I mean, just listen to Rock Of Ages or Before The Flood. They’re playing Robbie Robertson’s simple, rootsy compositions as if they’re cumbersome, pompous power ballads while Garth Hudson wallows in a bunch of corny synth tones that sound he stole them from fuckin’ Brain Salad Surgery or something. The fact that it took Robbie until 1975 to actually start writing songs that suited this style is just one reason why he’s a moron, but I guess it says something that he finally embraced the particular skill set of his band.

And make no mistake, on Northern Lights, the Band are definitely under the total control of Robbie Robertson; the rest of the guys are acting as little more than hired hands filling in the parts on these eight songs, all of them solo Robertson composition (Richard Manuel in particular seems totally checked out, contributing a few tentative lines of lead vocals here and there and letting Levon and Danko pick up the slack). As a result, the rockers “Ophelia” and “Ring Your Bell” don’t have anywhere the same verve and looseness to them that “Rag Mama Rag” or “Up On Cripple Creek” did, but the hooks are a damn sight stronger than anything Robbie had written since then, and the playing, horn section and all, is impeccably tight without getting sterile. I’ll take it.

OK, so yeah, they do one rootsy thing here, and that’s “Acadian Driftwood,” which is sorta like a Canadian version of “Dixie Down,” all about the French-Indian War and what not. I think it’s just a bit overrated, mostly cause that passive minor iii chord during the verses bug me… that Robbie, always avoiding cool, edgy chord changes. Asshole. But the acoustic guitar tone is gorgeous, and the pennywhistle and fiddle lines give it a nice authentic feel.

The rest, though, is total mid-tempo mid-70s rock like you’ve come to know and love from your local classic rock stations with their daily Foreigner threefers. I mean, “Forbidden Fruit” practically sounds like what the Who were doing around this time – long, slow, lots of synths, basic riffs… and yet it totally rules! Yeah, even with all the synths, of which there are many more on Northern Lights than on any other previous Band album. Since I complain about Garth Hudson more than I complain about cancer, you may think this would drive me up a wall. And yet, this is first Band album on which the use of cheesy 70s synths actually makes sense. Ol’ Garth isn’t slathering inappropriate synth horns all over 60s R&B songs, he’s playing parts that actually fit the songs! I know, it’s shocking. What else? Oh! Speaking of edgy chord changes, that Ab chord in the bridges of “It Makes No Difference.” Oh man! It’s Heart wrenching! Powerful! AKA the kind of thing you rarely ever hear in a Robbie Robertson composition. If you’ve read of any of my previous reviews, you know that slow, lengthy ballads sung by Rick Danko are something I care for are about as I much as I care for hemorrhoids, but this one’s just an excellent song, and it’s taken from merely great to truly special thanks to Danko’s jaw-dropping vocal performance alone.

You know what the thing with this record is? It’s the only Band album without any bad songs on it! OK, “Rags And Bones” is kind of a drag, but at least it doesn’t want to make me barf like a dozen or so previous Band songs I could mention. Like I said before, for a band usually so maddeningly inconsistent, I’ll sure as hell take it.



2 Comments

  1. Robin wrote:

    Nice to have you back…….

  2. victoid wrote:

    So you like the horns on this, huh? Whadja say? Oh yeah..“the playing, horn section and all, is impeccably tight without getting sterile.” You do know that your arch nemesis Girth Hudson played all the horns on this LP, doncha? You inexplicably give him praise for his synth work here. How ’bout some props for reeds n brass too? And also LEVON!!

    And not to be niggling, but “Acadian Driftwood” is about the British expulsion of the French from Eastern Canada (Acadia) down the Mississippi River all the way to Loozeeana, where “Acadians” was transformed by local dialect into “Cajuns”, who left an indelible mark on the cuisine and culture of Bayou country that persists to the present day.


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