Elvis Costello/Allen Toussaint “The River in Reverse” (Verve 2006)
Two angry legends keep New Orleans’ spirit alive and produce one of the record’s of 2006
The cover of this month’s No Depression bears the image of a sharp suited but unshaven Elvis Costello looming over a sly looking Allen Toussaint. For Costello, the front cover follows 2005’s “The Delivery Man,” a diamond Americana album featuring duets with Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris but for Toussaint, its welcome recognition after 50 years in the business. He is a legend in his native New Orleans, bigger even than Fats Domino, but is criminally underappreciated outside the Big Easy. Costello, who has a reputation for revitalizing great American artists (see Burt Bacharach and Solomon Burke to name but two), played with Toussaint at last year’s Grammy awards, but the announcer mispronounced the jazz legend’s name. It’s ironic that one of America’s greatest living musical treasures, a man that wrote ‘A Certain Girl’ and ‘Working in a Coalmine,’ needs a leg up from the angry ex-punk Costello.
Toussaint has worked with Costello before, writing the horn arrangements and adding some classy piano on the album ‘Spike’ back in the 1980’s. The two legends lost touch afterward but Toussaint’s unhappy relocation to New York following Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans brought them back together. What started out as a review of some of Toussaint’s greatest hits quickly morphed into much more as anger over the New Orleans disaster blossomed into ‘The River in Reverse,’ produced by the masterful Joe Henry.
It’s a collaboration that works to brilliant effect, the vitriolic and often vicious Costello tempered by Toussaint’s trademark big-band style. The seven Toussaint originals on display take on a new relevancy next to the Katrina-influenced new songs co-written with Costello. Take opener “On Your Way Down,” written decades ago, which Costello spits out with contempt. A line like “You think the sun rises and sets for you but the same sun rises, sets and shines on the poor folks too…It’s high time that you found the same people you walk on, on your way up, you might meet up on your way back down,” sounds like it was written in response to Katrina. Likewise the funky “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further,” the only song Toussaint takes lead vocals on, asks: “What happen to the Liberty Bell I heard so much about? Did it really ding-dong? It must have dinged wrong. It didn’t ding long.”
But don’t assume that this is some furious attack on Bush or contemporary America akin to Neil Young’s incendiary ‘Living With War.’ This is a lush, rich album that you can dance to – see “Tears, Tears and More Tears.” It’s also a very soulful affair, most notably on classic cuts “Nearer to You,” and “Freedom for the Stallion.” New songs, particularly Costello’s ‘River in Reverse’ and ‘Broken Promise Land,’ disguise bitter, angry lyrics with thick, catchy horn-led riffs and terrific arrangements – perhaps some of the finest of Toussaint’s illustrious career. ‘International Echo’ could pass as a jazz-driven modern take on ‘Spinning Wheel’ without the 1960’s psychedelia. Backed by Costello’s versatile Imposters and the fabulous Crescent City Horns, this album is so rich, you’d be tempted to check the fat content in the linear notes.
‘River in Reverse’ proves to be one of the most compelling collaborations of Costello’s long career and should bring Toussaint’s significant influence on modern music into the limelight. An articulate and devastating comment on the New Orleans crisis, it rises above mere finger pointing and offers a fantastic blend of new-wave vitriol and top-drawer arrangements. Politically and musically, this is one of the records of the year.
Date review added: Saturday, July 15, 2006
Reviewer: Nic Fildes
Related web link: Elvis Costello Web page