I'm a big Elvis Costello nut, but I do get a bit leery when I see he's collaborating with other people or trying out a new genre. I love his variety and omnivorous musical mind, but it doesn't always pan out into fine music. Sometimes it's fab, like his country-influenced King of America or his smoothly cool Burt Bacharach duets CD. Then sometimes you get an album like 2003's limp North, toothless lite-jazz noodlings. He's even apparently put out an opera CD — and sorry, I'm not that dedicated.
So I didn't rush out and buy Costello's latest, The River In Reverse, the day it came out. A collaboration with New Orleans R&B legend Allen Toussaint, I wasn't sure about it. I'm ashamed to say I wasn't really familiar with Toussaint (whom I learned is the man behind classics like "Working in the Coal Mine") and didn't want to waste time on a pointless Costello side project. I apologize, Elvis — it's a great CD, your best since 2002's When I Was Cruel.
Costello's worked with Toussaint before, on EC's venomous classic "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" from 1989's Spike. Costello apparently approached Toussaint last year at some benefit concerts for Hurricane Katrina victims and Costello whipped out a little song for the duo, "The River in Reverse." It was written and debuted in a show the same day, and led the men to to decide to try an entire album together, dedicated to the revival of New Orleans.
Costello does a lot of things wonderfully, but "he's got soul" isn't something I normally think of him. Yet The River In Reverse is packed with a warm Mississippi Delta soul, awash in the ghosts of New Orleans. It's got a soul that doesn't feel forced or faux-ironic, and a battered optimism that's truly appealing. Toussaint is a terrific collaborator for Elvis, with his fluid piano lines and the loose swing his songs have (about half the songs on the CD are Toussaint's compositions alone, about half joint works, and a couple of Costello solo works). The music has the groove of a jam, but the discipline of solid songwriting backing it up. The men are kindred spirits, balancing each other's strengths and weaknesses.
Throughout River, a celebratory tone flows. It's not ignoring the recent devastation in the Big Easy, but it's looking back wistfully and what was and what hopefully will be one day again, in songs like "On Your Way Down," "Broken Promise Land," and more. There's certainly anger to be found about how muddled the human disaster was — "there's a place where words mean nothing or much less," Costello sneers in one tune — but Toussaint's lively arrangements balance out Costello's darker instincts.
One of the disc's best songs is "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further?" which features Toussaint on lead vocals and bounces under a kicky bass line, punchy trumpet, and organ. "What happened to the Liberty Bell I heard so much about?" Toussaint sings in a snappy couplet about the government's flubbed response to Katrina, "Did it really ding-dong? It must have dinged wrong / It didn't ding long." Sure, sounds silly written down, but trust me, it's a cool song.
"Tribute" albums often are more well-intentioned than truly good music. But by gently evoking the ideas and legends of New Orleans centered around some ripping fine tunes, The River In Reverse does the Big Easy proud.