Friday, February 27, 2015

Band 7: Northern Lights—Southern Cross

One of the things that made The Band so good was their ability to just play. Thrown into the most daunting of settings, be it hostile audiences or converted basements, they were never too slick to seem like sellouts. But by the mid’70s, it seemed everybody had moved out to Malibu, and that’s where even the Woodstock boys ended up, in their own 24-track home studio. Here they could craft their work in a more comfortable atmosphere.
Northern Lights—Southern Cross was the product of their first work there, and their first album of original material in four years. Robbie Robertson takes sole writing credit for all eight songs, just as he sits a little higher than the others, right there in the middle of the front cover. If he really did come up with all the lyrics, then he’d better take credit for the clunkers too. They may not have been sellouts, but now they were trying to be slick.
All over “Forbidden Fruit” (“that’s the fruit that you better not taste”, the chorus clarifies for those without a grasp of basic English) Garth Hudson fills seemingly every available track with more and more keyboards and synthesizers—likely groundbreaking in 1975, but excessively dated now—while Robbie pinches lines out for six minutes. Richard’s lonesome vocals on “Hobo Jungle” immediately provide a nice respite, and some needed restraint. Some may call it sacrilege, but we’ve never had much use for “Ophelia”. It does revive the New Orleans sound, with Garth providing real and fake horns, but still sounds like an imitation of a Band song. “Acadian Driftwood” is a little better, nicely melding the three lead singers throughout the verses. To continue the Louisiana feel (“Cajun” being colloquial for “Acadian”) the guest fiddle fights for space with the accordion.
“Ring Your Bell” is the closest the band ever got to disco, swinging the same plaid slacks one day heard on the Dead’s “Shakedown Street”, and the farting synth doesn’t help. It’s too bad, because there’s a good song buried in there. If one track redeems the album, that would be “It Makes No Difference”, an epic love-lost lament given the proper level of heartbreak by Rick Danko. Once again there’s a wonderful vocal blend on a few lines near the end of each verse, especially supporting Rick’s final statement. The solos taking out the song may be gratuitous, but just when Robbie gets too close to spew mode, Garth pulls him back with tasteful sax, just as the keyboards aren’t overdone either. “Jupiter Hollow” is kinda wacky, considering that Robbie’s playing clavinet and not guitar and both drummers compete with a drum machine. One of Garth’s keyboards sounds like a mosquito stuck in your ear, or one of your speakers on the fritz. All of this distracts from whatever story is in there. Finally, “Rags And Bones” has some lovely lyrical touches suggesting turn-of-the-century New York City—think the DeNiro parts of the second Godfather movie—but the modern production is, again, a distraction.
Northern Lights—Southern Cross divides fans to this day, but there’s no arguing that the rough-hewn qualities that made their first couple of albums so special have been smoothed out here. It just misses being worth the trouble, and we can’t say enough about “It Makes No Difference”, which is a contender for their best ever recording. (The upgraded CD boasts only two bonus tracks, both early versions of songs that would be redone later.)

The Band Northern Lights—Southern Cross (1975)—
2001 CD reissue: same as 1975, plus 2 extra tracks

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