Elvis Costello has spent the past decade dabbling in so many styles that it's impossible to say what defines his sound anymore, at least without lopping off everything from 1996's All This Useless Beauty forward. While some would claim that isn't a bad idea, and few would claim Costello's past decade is his least lop-offable, doing so would mean missing out on gems like the Burt Bacharach collaboration Painted From Memory and The River In Reverse, a new pairing with New Orleans eminence Allen Toussaint.
In a career stretching back to the '50s, Toussaint has acted as a producer, arranger, and performer. But here, Costello pays tribute to his songwriting skill, digging deep into the Toussaint catalog for the lion's share of River's tracks and performing them with Toussaint and a band that brings together Costello's Imposters and Toussaint's Crescent City Horns. That combination could have led to overcrowding, but the set remains intimate and reverent. Occasionally, it's a bit too reverent, but it's still a spotlight for first-rate songs like "Tears, Tears And More Tears" and "The Sharpest Thorn," one of several new tracks co-written by Costello and Toussaint.
That last song is one of several that references — either obliquely or directly — Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Costello wrote the title track for a benefit concert, and its dark, oblique imagery contrasts nicely with Toussaint's own pull-no-punches response song, "Who's Gonna Help A Brother Get Further?" With such strong material and talented performers, it's a pity that River frequently sounds too fussed-over. Joe Henry provides airy production, but neither the singers nor the players risk cutting loose, and the gravity drags the project down in the second half. The reverence sometimes overwhelms the passion, but when the ensemble gets the balance right, The River In Reverse sounds even better than the sum of its parts.