CK Retro Review: Northern Lights-Southern Cross by The Band

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.

TWO STARS

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.

THREE STARS

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.

FOUR STARS

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.

FIVE STARS

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.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books based on material that originated on this site, check out the links below.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bob-Dylan-Finest/dp/0810888238

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bruce-Springsteen-Finest/dp/1442230657

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6 Comments on “CK Retro Review: Northern Lights-Southern Cross by The Band”

  1. Ed McEowen says:

    Rags and Bones should trade places with Forbidden Fruit. Though a simple theme, It is a masterpiece celebrating the small things everyone takes for granted, until they are gone.

  2. Bob says:

    An uneven album, to say the least, but entirely agree with your 5 stars – ‘It Makes No Difference’ an intense and shattering declaration of bereftness – if there’s such a word – and Danko’s vocal soul-shaking.

  3. Shelley says:

    My favourite Band album, thanks for reviewing it. It’s lovely to hear Richard in his lower register on Hobo Jungle, and in his verse on Acadian Driftwood. Ring Your Bell is one of Rick and Levon’s best grooves since Don’t Do It. As a Canadian, I’ve always loved that line “set my compass north I got winter in my blood”. It’s very emotional for some reason I can’t quite pinpoint. The fact that it’s sung by the non-Canadian in the group somehow makes it even more poignant.

  4. […] CK Retro Review: Northern Lights-Southern Cross by The Band […]

  5. hans altena says:

    One more fine entry in your reviews of The Band Only Cahoots gets the all too expected but in my opinion wrong thumbs down treatment, the bleakness of it a proper depiction of the end of the sixties, especially as it is clad in the rough and tumble Band sound, with lyrics that touch stone. NLSC lacks a bit in that idiosyncratic ensemble playing but makes up for it with indeed superb ragged harmonies and heartrending melodies and lyrics, where Cahoots just was rockier but a bit distant in emotions. The whole album comes of too polished, as was usual in those mid seventies, but its brilliance shines through nonetheless. There is no bad song here, no filler, Jupiter Hollow in my opinion one of the greatest examples of weird approach they could have without becoming too intellectual cause it also works on a gut level, but I can understand that some people find it too left field, for me it soars off into the universe allright while it gives you the feeling you look at it from the campfire on the cover.


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