CD Review of The River in Reverse by Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint

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The River in Reverse
starstarstarstarno star Label: Verve Forecast
Released: 2006
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How politically incorrect would it be to start this review by offering up a big thank-you to Hurricane Katrina? Pretty bad, right? Okay, then, I won’t do it. But I will make the observation, as many other critics undoubtedly have, that this collaboration between Elvis Costello and famed pianist/New Orleans resident Allen Toussaint very likely never would’ve happened if the aforementioned hurricane hadn’t devastated the Louisiana coastline in 2005…and since the resulting album, The River in Reverse, is fantastic, well, I think you can see where I was coming from when I asked my initial question.

Costello’s been a fan of the New Orleans music scene for ages, and he and Toussaint had worked together before – Toussaint was responsible for the lovely piano work on Spike’s “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” – so it was no surprise when they paired up to do a few benefit concerts together to help the people of New Orleans. As a result of those shows, however, they were inspired to put together an album’s worth of tracks. It’s a mixture of old and new, with seven songs from Toussaint’s sizable back catalog, a title track written by Costello, and five new collaborations between the two (one of which, “Ascension Day,” is actually a rewrite of Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina”).

It’s pretty clear that the new songs were inspired by the tragedy on Toussaint’s turf, just as the selection of the older material was intended to make reference to recent events as well (“Tears, Tears, and More Tears” being the most obvious). Of the new tracks, Elvis’ title cut is inevitably the most powerful, with the chorus approaching the damage head-on:

Wake me up with a slap or a kiss
There must be something better than this
'Cos I don't see how it can get much worse
What do we have to do to send
The river in reverse?

Elvis takes the lead on most tracks – though Allen fronts the mike for “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” – and he’s in fine voice throughout, arguably at the top of his game. Although you can hear Toussaint’s piano as well as his backing vocals, more often than not, you’d be hard pressed to recognize this as anything other than an Elvis Costello album…not that that’s such a bad thing. If you had to make a comparison to previous Costello releases, take a fair amount of 2004’s The Delivery Man and the less experimental side of Mighty like a Rose; unsurprisingly, there’s a decidedly bluesy tinge to much of the material.

Costello and Toussaint have taken the passion they feel for the people and city of New Orleans and have crafted an emotional tribute that ranks among the best work in either artist’s discography.

~Will Harris