CK Retro Review: Northern Lights-Southern Cross by The BandPosted: March 13, 2014
Jubilation was their last album, Islands their last with the original lineup, and The Last Waltz was meant to be their grand finale. But 1975’s Northern Lights-Southern Cross always felt like The Band’s proper farewell. The album reaffirmed all that made them great in the first place, and what it may have lacked in terms of the quintet’s original rollicking energy, it replaced with reflective, assured brilliance. Here is a song-by-song review.
8. “Jupiter Hollow”- There are many Band chroniclers much more knowledgeable than I who absolutely love this song. Interesting tidbits certainly abound, such as the off-kilter clavinet beat, Hudson’s swirling synthesizers, and Robertson’s musings on the fine line between mythology and madness. I just don’t feel like those elements ever quite lock in together to make this more than an oddity.
7. “Rags And Bones”- Even with Hudson’s synths weaving around the main melody and some punchy licks from Robertson, the music here never quite ignites. Luckily, Robertson’s detail-heavy lyrics, which draw on memories of his Jewish heritage and his keen eye for the ephemera of city life, carry a lot of the load.
6. “Ring Your Bell”- With a head-bobbing bass line from Rick Danko and a generally energetic performance by all, this tale of outlaws on a hard road would have been a standout on Cahoots. Here, it sounds comparatively minor.
5. “Forbidden Fruit”- Recalling the ominous vibe of Stage Fright, one can’t help but wonder if this gritty opening track was Robertson’s warning to his Bandmates about their extracurricular pursuits. When his lyrics get a bit precious, Helm is there to save them with the authenticity of his vocals. The groove is rough and ready, and Robbie tears loose with a pair of fierce solos which recall his gunslinging days with the Hawks and Dylan.
4. “Ophelia”- The Band’s music always meshed well with horns, as the Rock Of Ages live album memorably demonstrated. This is essentially a tale of a lovesick fool waiting for the title character’s unlikely return, but Hudson’s buoyant brass won’t let anybody get too down about it. Support comes from Robertson’s just-right lead guitar and Helm, who not only sings the stuffing out of it but provides a beat that stutters and hiccups yet somehow resides in the pocket the whole time.
3. “Hobo Jungle”- Manuel may have lost his ability to hit those ethereal high notes as the years passed, but he always maintained his talent for finding the soulful core of one of Robertson’s stories. The latter plays his heart out on acoustic guitar here, and this is a good place as any to mention his songwriting, which can get overlooked in the context of The Band’s musical chemistry (and because he wasn’t the one singing the songs.) On this wistful example, Robbie takes on subject matter that most others wouldn’t even consider and lends it dignity and grace, so that the demise of the protagonist, a homeless drifter, feels as momentous as the death of a world leader. Which is the point of this wondrous song, really.
2. “It Makes No Difference”- Rick Danko’s greatest vocal gift was his ability to convey emotion which always seemed on the verge of becoming unmoored and spinning off into a place from which it could no longer be successfully recovered. Never did he get a better showcase for this talent than on this colossal ballad. Robertson rarely wrote straightforward love songs, but he poured it all out on this one, allowing Danko to go to town. In the final moments, his voice trembles and shakes, a victim to the enormity of his anguish. As if that isn’t enough, Robertson and Hudson pay id and ego in the coda, the former playing as if he can pierce through the hurt with his high notes, the latter blowing resolutely on his sax as if to say that pain is the inevitable outcome of love.
1. “Acadian Driftwood”- From the opening acoustic guitar figure, you can tell something special is afoot, but you can’t possibly expect to have your breath taken away over and over as the song progresses. But then it happens when you consider the poignancy of Robertson’s lyrics and tune, proving, as he tells the tale of Acadians displaced from their Canadian homes in the 18th century and forced to make their way down to Louisiana, that no one in the rock idiom wrote historical material better; no one has ever really come close. It happens when you hear Hudson’s small army of instruments, including piccolo and bagpipes to go with his ever-evocative accordion, conjuring all kinds of wistful emotion. (Byron Berline gets an assist for his Creole fiddle part.) And, of course, it happens when Danko, Helm, and Manuel, oh, those three voices, come together in the refrains to sing of pride of place, of homesickness, and of loss, immeasurable loss. An absolute miracle of a song had it come from anyone else, but this was The Band, after all.
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