The Band, Rock of Ages, Moondog Matinee, Northern Lights — Southern Cross, Islands (Capitol Records): Nobody wants to sound like a curmudgeon, and right-thinking people have a positive horror of being so typed. The last guy you want to be is the one standing by the stereo at a party, shaking his head in disapproval while he holds forth about how music isn't as good as it used to be. You don't want to be that guy because not only is he a crashing bore, he's wrong — music is permanently exciting. Even in the darkest times, there is always something cool going on somewhere. It's always only a question of knowing where to look. In your heart you know that this is true, anyhow. But then somebody goes and reissues a bunch of records by The Band, albums so blindingly excellent that listening to them makes even a wide-eyed optimist like myself start grousing about how there aren't any bands around any more who put this much love into what they do. All four of these records are just tremendous; even Moondog Matinee, an album of '50s covers, is a revelation, its version of "Mystery Train" seething and throbbing with the otherworldly, sexual threat that makes rock 'n' roll the unstoppable force it can be in its finer hours. Northern Lights — Southern Cross, perhaps the most pleasant surprise of these new reissues, isn't perfect, but what's remarkable is that four of its eight songs are. The opener, "Forbidden Fruit," lopes along like a well-trained dancing bear, its bass fat and chunky, its contrapuntal guitars quietly but wickedly clever, its rhythm as catchy as a cold. "Ophelia," too, elevates the good-time C&W-inflected lost-love ballad to unpretentious high art — its verses bearing down on themselves toward the chorus like John Henry out-hammering the steam engine, the timbre of Levon Helm's rich, magnificent voice resonating with good humor flecked with painterly shades of sadness and regret. "It Makes No Difference," despite a maudlin lyric or perhaps because of it, climbs several minor-key verses to a summit so high and lonesome that the postmodern high-lonesome poster child, Morrissey, would be proud to call it his own. Above all there's "Acadian Driftwood," as perfect a rock song as is ever likely to get made by anybody, which subtly incorporates a zydeco feel into a story of Canadian exiles (some of whose numbers eventually made their way down to Louisiana and became known as "Cajuns") traveling south. Its pacing, its orchestration, its lilting melody, the way everybody takes a verse or two without making it sound awkward — you can call me a bore if you want. When the Band really hit their stride, they made music that even the best modern artists can only hope to someday match. — John Darnielle

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