Album Reviews: The River in Reverse by Elvis CostelloAs much as any album to date, Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint's The River in Reverse is a poignant post-Katrina snapshot, driven by the decimation of New Orleans and the hope of its rebirth. Even logistically, the album is inseparable from Katrina, as the seed for the album was planted at a benefit concert that reunited the one-time collaborators (the pair had worked together on Costello's Spike). In spirit, it's almost the domestic cousin of Neil Young's Living With War, both projects seeming to occur rather spontaneously, given life by veteran songwriters who haven't consistently been political voices, but are mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore.
But while Young took the road of ragged rock and roll, Costello and Toussaint play it smooth, mixing a batch of new material co-written together with some older staples from Toussaint's soulful catalog. Their bands are also deftly fused together -- Costello's Imposters providing the rhythm section and Toussaint's Crescent City Horns providing the swing. "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further?" is one of the liveliest results, featuring Toussaint taking a snappy turn with the lead vocals while the Crescent City Horns get a chance to wail. It sounds like fun for all parties involved, and the blue-collar sympathies of the song are conveyed in a simple and timeless fashion. Even here, though, the duo and producer Joe Henry get a little too sanitary, failing to channel what surely was an electric recording session.
Toussaint's older material provides the classic, pleading ballads to go along with the new, collaborative protest numbers. Partly because of this combination and partly because of Costello's natural vocal tendency toward world-weariness, the songs from decades past are given a fresh perspective. The track sequencing clicks together cleanly, and it would seem possible that the songs all stemmed from the same session. The political statements sometimes fail to find as much bite as they promise on the lyric sheet; on the Costello-penned title track, he writes "So count your blessings when they ask permission / To govern with money and superstition," but the vocal sounds too cool for its own good.
The same song, though, highlights one of the more compelling aspects of the album. Most of the musicians on The River in Reverse are playing squarely in their comfort zones, but Costello is hardly a natural vocal fit for New Orleans R&B dirges. He reaches down deep, and even when he falls a little flat, it still captures the essence of a successful collaboration: Both principals inspired by the other, reaching out and pushing themselves to find that common ground. - Adam McKibbin, The Red Alert
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