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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Band: Northern Lights - Southern Cross


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 & Bones; 9*) Twilight; 10*) Christmas Must Be Tonight.

The first «proper» Band album in four years — and, as it turned out, the last to have any signifi­cant importance: Islands would be recorded a year later mainly to fulfill contractual obligations, and all the rest comes after the Robertson-less reunion. This time, though, Robbie pulls no pun­ches: everything, every single chord change and word is credited to him personally, setting the proper stage for the apex of self-glorification that would come with The Last Waltz. But on the other hand, this is still The Band — Levon's drumming, Hudson's magic rituals behind the key­boards, and Manuel's and Danko's singing count as much here as Robbie's songwriting.

On second thought, emphasize that — they count more than Robbie's songwriting. Because, frankly speaking, by the time they reached this point, Robertson was far from interested in the technical side of this business. Not a single song here shows the inventiveness of a ʽKing Har­vestʼ or even an ʽUp On Cripple Creekʼ — for the most part, this is pretty standard fare roots-rock, and you can easily get the likes of ʽForbidden Fruitʼ, ʽOpheliaʼ, ʽIt Makes No Differenceʼ, etc., on a million billion other roots-rock records released before and after November 1975.

So what does make the difference is the «Band treatment» of these, rather conventional, musical skeletons. And in 1975, that treatment was a little different. Northern Lights is nowhere near as ambitious as Big Pink — it never launches a full-scale assault on epic Biblical heights; instead, it channels the group's depressive, world-weary emotional side into smaller rivulets, and even subt­ly disguises all that darkness by means of playful rhythms that regularly invite you to dance along (ʽOpheliaʼ, ʽRags & Bonesʼ) or at least to join in with all the «group fun» on sing-along, clap-along choruses (ʽJupiter Hollowʼ). But in reality, this is probably the saddest, bitterest record they ever made in their entire career.

Sound-wise, there are two important changes. First, the record reflects Hudson's new-found pas­sion for synthesizers: there are lots of «progressive» synth textures here, generated with enough sense and taste so as not to sound ridiculously dated to the modern ear — and contributing quite highly to the overall cold effect of the album. Second, Robertson finally finds a way to compen­sate for his lack of singing voice — developing a new style of soloing, with emphasis on jerky, tearing, high-pitched, agonizing «scream-chords» (you can see a lot of it in The Last Waltz, with Robbie always pulling funny faces at the same time) that might be a bit «show-off», but are actu­ally delivered with grace and harmony (ʽForbidden Fruitʼ and ʽIt Makes No Differenceʼ are two prime examples of this new style). It all adds a bit of pizzazz, and it all works out.

Lyrically, ʽIt Makes No Differenceʼ is one of the simplest Band songs ever — just a regular old lost love lament — but it is the album's definitive highlight, I think, maybe Danko's finest vocal performance: the guy was born on this earth to lament about lost love, and, finally, here is a tune tailor-made for him to wail on, with Robbie on «shrieking guitar» and Garth on moody sax as the perfect counteracts. Slow, simple, lengthy, and quite beautiful — and note the utter lack of theat­rical, overwrought «desperation», particularly in the dirgey, but very much restrained chorus har­monies ("and the sun don't shine anymore...").

ʽAcadian Driftwoodʼ is usually designated as the album's centerpiece, because it is the longest, the most «epic», and the only directly «Americana-History-related» song on the record, and also because all three singers share lead vocals in turn (think ʽThe Weightʼ) — but in reality, its me­lan­choly is no more and no less impressive than on any other song here. It does urge one to self-educate, though (I honestly knew nothing about The /Great/ Acadian Expulsion myself before hearing the song), unlike ʽIt Makes No Differenceʼ, but then don't we all have Al Stewart for those sort of purposes?.. Anyway, Byron Berline plays a catchy fiddle and Garth is all over the place with accordeons and recorders, so it all sounds great in the end.

On other sides of the compass, The Band comes up with fabulous grooves — ʽRing Your Bellʼ toys with funk/R&B, but not in a «rip-it-up» manner (these guys didn't even have enough ripping power to properly play ʽHang Up My Rock'n'Roll Shoesʼ, how could they compete with a James Brown or a Funkadelic?), rather in a «let's find a nifty musical solution here» manner: the key­board / brass call-and-response bits are exactly that kind of solution. ʽOpheliaʼ is dance-oriented blues-rock at its simplest, but somehow, again, the brass/synthesizer arrangements coupled with Levon's snarly delivery make the whole thing really tense and snappy.

In a way, this is The Band's Abbey Road — not in terms of similarities in style, of course, or re­lative importance to the world of music as such — but in terms of working like a swan song from an old, wisened, very much self-conscious, yet still fully competent and proactive swan (the big­gest difference probably being that the Beatles knew very well this was going to be their last re­cord, whereas Robbie had no thoughts of cutting access to The Band's studio hours as of yet). Northern Lights sets out to prove nothing — everything that could be proven already was: it's just a bunch of songs gelled together by a common feeling of loneliness and abandon and wrap­ped in several layers of mature wisdom and professionalism.

I do demand that credit for all these songs be removed from «Robbie Robertson» and given to «The Band» — had Robbie Robertson hired himself The Eagles or Black Oak Arkansas to record the album, the results would most likely turned out appropriately mind-numbing. But in the end, it's all between Robbie and his former pals; my role in all this is strictly limited to providing a respectful thumbs up. And I do like the stylish bonfire cover, except that even there, they had to put Robbie on top. On the other hand, as legitimate head of the outlaw gang, he now gets the ho­nor of being hung highest of them all.

Check "Northern Lights - Southern Cross" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Northern Lights - Southern Cross" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. I think "Islands" is actually better than most people give it credit for, although no great masterpiece. "NL/SC", even if it marks the point where Robbie's ego got completely out of hand once and for all, is pretty much the Band's swan song, as you point out. In the end, I like this one second best of all the Band's works, save "Big Pink" itself.

  2. I really like this album.

    I don't understand why GS and others persist in blaming Robbie for being the only one capable of providing the group with material

  3. Because Robbie wasn't the only one capable of providing the group with material. He was the one who refused to include anyone else's material. He was also the one who hogged up all the credit, all the spotlight, and unilaterally decided that the Band was over (only after negotiating himself a cushy Hollywood soundtrack gig with Martin Scorsese that continues to this day).

  4. Do you really know that it was this way? As far as I know on the albums without Robbertson there's only very little self written material.

    I'm not really familiar with the story behind it but I also found that blaming Robbertson for being a good (and apparently the only) songwriter very strange. As lucky as he could be to have the others to help him play and arrange the songs... the other should be more than thankful to get songs from him that were that good!

    As I said - I don't know any behind the scenes stuff about The Band but I know how it is being in a band and what you write here sounds very unfair regarding Robbertson.

    Apart from that... I really enjoy reading all those new the reviews. Especially the ones about the older bands!

  5. The First Anonymous!December 6, 2012 at 7:13 PM

    Let us review the case:

    1. Robbie Robertson appears to be a natural songwriter and though he more or less withdraws from the music scene after The Last Waltz the music he does produce is in the majority self-written.

    2. Levon Helm - on the 3 Band albums post Robertson he has 9 co-writer credits over 33 songs, several with multiple co-writers. On his celebrated '07 and '09 albums, he has one co-writing credit. This hardly suggest a writer who was straining at the bit with material only to be held back by Robertson.

    3. Richard Manuel clearly something of a songwriter was, according to Helm, drinking 7 or 8 bottles of Grand Mariner a day around the time of this album. He was often in a bad way at concerts too. He was probably in no state to be making a big songwriting contribution if he could barely make it through singing the hits.

    4. Rick Danko again he had composing abilities but what state was he in with drink and drugs around this time? Hanging out with Clapton, Moon and Ron Wood? His memorable moment from the Last Waltz is listening to playback of his plantive Sip The Wine- excpet that Sip The Wine appeared under another name back in 1972 written by a Danko collaborator Tim Drummond.

    I find Robertson's ego in the Last Waltz and in general hard to suffer but let's be realistic about the songwriting.

  6. Dear All,

    (1) If you post as Anonymous, it is recommendable to at least sign the comment with something, otherwise there just might be one Anonymous too many.

    (2) I'd like to reiterate the point because I may have failed to formulate clearly. Robbie Robertson may have been the only songwriter here because nobody else contributed the songs - or because he did not allow anybody else - that's not the point: the point is, these songs only work, and only have some sort of positive effect, because The Band worked on them as a collective unit. These aren't fabulously great melodies, anyway, and at the very least, Hudson is just as responsible for making them work as Robertson, from first to last note. This is why my idea has always been that most of the songs should be credited to "The Band" in general.

  7. Pretty much what G.S. said; the arrangements that the group collectively came up with are basically the only reason most people have any interest in these songs, and I would argue that sharing songwriting credits with the rest of the group would be fair here for that reason. Robbie's own solo career, despite a couple of great songs here and there, is pretty lackluster, largely (IMO) b/c the rest of the Band wasn't there to contribute their arrangement, playing, and singing (especially :P) skills. I would also note that Rick, at least, was coming up with a fair amount of material at this time; his collaboration w/Robbie, "Twilight", was released as a single at around this time, and he released an entire album of music which was entirely self-written or collaborative in nature in '77, immediately Post-Waltz.

  8. The second AnonymusDecember 7, 2012 at 12:48 PM

    I totally get what you meant re the arrangements - they are a big part here what makes the songs and this record special. But arrangements are arrangements and not songwriting. It's just not logical to give someone a songwriting credit for arranging. These are two different things.

    And apart from that... who knows how many ideas came directly from Robbertson and the others were "just" playing what he told them to. In a band you need to have someone who is the motor and apparently Robbertson was the Band's one. This is generally a good and necessary thing, not a bad one.

  9. I heard "Jupiter Hollow" on the radio in the late 70's, and I was quite surprised by Garth Hudson's talent on the synths. Along with the atypically whimsical lyrics (for Robertson, anyway), I knew that I had to get a copy of the album eventually, since the song isn't on anthologies too often. The other classic is "Acadian Driftwood", this album's "The Night Old Dixie..". (Although I might be biased, since recent genealogical research shows that I'm related to descendants of the Acadian exiles). The rest of the songs don't rank up with the rest, but they're still pretty good. Otherwise, though, a good anthology (such as "The Definitive Collection) will do for most people.