Entertainment Weekly, June 9, 2006

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Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint


Whitney Pastorek

The genre-hopping rocker and the legendary New Orleans songwriter discuss Hurricane Katrina and The River in Reverse — the surprisingly celebratory collaboration it inspired.

EC: My idea of the record began as an Allen Toussaint songbook. I rang [producer] Joe Henry to find out if he had heard from Allen after Katrina. There were a lot of wild rumors about what had happened to different personalities from New Orleans. Joe heard that Allen was in New York.

AT: A day before the storm hit, I checked into the Crowne Plaza for as long as it took the water to rise. Three days. That’s when I knew that I wouldn’t be going back home.

EC: The next I knew, there was a message on my phone and it was Allen’s voice. Our first conversation was just me asking, "How are you doing?" I remember exactly the words that Allen said — if you don’t mind me saying, Allen — you just said, "Well, it was a biggie." I thought that was the greatest understatement of all time.

AT: Well, it was a biggie! ‘Cause I’ve seen them all. I’ve been in New Orleans for every hurricane that’s ever been there. So I had my methods down pat — my boards are numbered for what window they go on — but I was accustomed to, a day or so later, business as usual. Not this time.

EC: Wynton Marsalis had invited my wife [Diana Krall] and me to perform at what became the Higher Ground benefit, and I said, "Allen Toussaint is in New York. I’ve just performed [Toussaint’s] ‘Freedom for the Stallion,’ maybe he and I can do it together."

AT: A large part of everything that happened from there to now has to do with Elvis. It’s as if he grabbed one’s hand and said, "Meet my world." The time couldn’t have been better.

EC: The first day we went in to record, we cut "The Greatest Love," "Nearer to You," and "Wonder Woman" in 25 minutes.

AT: You always wish that something like that would happen. One time Elvis started "The River in Reverse," and nothing had been discussed — he just started playing it. And the others started playing it. That was one of those times when it wasn’t "One, two, ready, play." That was quite nice.

EC: We were setting up an electric piano in the booth, and [drummer] Pete Thomas started playing the rhythm, and I started playing along on guitar. If you play the raw tape, you hear me going, "Turn on the tape recorder!" We should have left that on the record. Then the second voice entered, as Allen came in with these horn figures. It’s really a duet. [Joe Henry and I] just looked at each other and knew what it was and what we felt. But Allen’s right. He said, "We should make a song, not a speech." "The River in Reverse" isn’t speaking about a river…

AT: Yes.

EC: …it’s speaking about a flow to a way of living which is wrong, in which we betray our worst impulses.

AT: I don’t think [this record] will always be tied to Katrina. That had a large part to do with the timing and all, but from what Elvis has said, he thought it was a good idea to do anyway. We may have done the same songs, but not with the meaning that they took on because of Katrina. But this music will far outlast Katrina, because Katrina isn’t forever. This is.

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Entertainment Weekly, No. 880/881, June 9, 2006


Whitney Pastorek interviews Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint.


David Browne reviews The River In Reverse.

Images

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Page scan.


Mourning after


David Browne

Reuniting with Allen Toussaint, Elvis Costello does his part to keep New Orleans alive.

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You know the drill by now: Another year, another chance for Elvis Costello to dabble in a genre that doesn't come naturally to him. I know that sounds cruel; after all, we should be encouraging musicians to stretch out. But in light of his derivative classical pieces and torturous jazz experiments, you have to wonder if anyone around Costello has the guts to tell him his ideas aren't always worth preserving on record.

The River in Reverse, Costello's collaboration with revered New Orleans songwriter-producer-pianist Allen Toussaint, could have fallen victim to some of the same problems as his previous side projects: How easily would the Big Easy come to him? But Costello's longtime love of R&B, dating back at least to the Stax-tinged Get Happy!!, saves it from self-indulgence (and the vocal strain heard on some of his other forays). The album is roughly divided between covers of old Toussaint songs and new tunes written by both men, and Costello sounds at home in Toussaint's steady-rolling supper-club funk. The men have worked together on and off since the '80s (that is Toussaint's piano playing on Spike's "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror"), and their camaraderie is evident in the record's confident tone.

But what truly holds the album together is the ghost of Katrina hovering over it. In its original incarnation, Toussaint's 1970 song "On Your Way Down" was a fairly mild put-down; in Costello's hands, it becomes a scalding tongue-lashing, clearly aimed at those responsible for the disaster. With its images of the impoverished and homeless, a buoyant remake of the 1970 tune "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further?" (the only track sung alone by the smooth-voiced Toussaint) feels like it could have been written last August. The same goes for a charged, Attractions-reminiscent run-through of the nearly 40-year-old "Tears, Tears, and More Tears."

Costello can still oversing and overwrite: The title track's idiosyncratic melody distracts from his anguished, elegiac lyrics, and he's not a natural soul belter. But even when he threatens to turn baroque, as in "Broken Promise Land," Toussaint rescues him. That newly penned collaboration, with its obvious flood references ("How high shall we build this wall?"), has more musical fits and starts than a jammed highway, but Toussaint's sublime horn arrangement uplifts it. Moments like those are also reminders of what New Orleans once gave to music, and hopefully will again.

Grade: B+



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Cover and contents page.

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