New York Times, June 5, 2006

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The River In Reverse

Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint

Jon Pareles

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina brought sorrow, shock, anger, nostalgia and a cultural tenacity disguised as party spirit to New Orleans. They all run together on The River in Reverse.

After the storm, Elvis Costello shared benefit-concert stages with Allen Toussaint, the sage New Orleans songwriter, pianist and singer who had worked with Mr. Costello in 1983 and in 1989. Late in 2005, they collaborated for two weeks in Hollywood and New Orleans to record this album: writing together, remaking songs by Mr. Toussaint and meshing Mr. Costello's band, the Imposters, with Mr. Toussaint's Crescent City Horns.

It's Mr. Costello's project. He sings nearly all the lead vocals and provides the new lyrics. But Mr. Toussaint's florid yet precise New Orleans piano, the way he can make a horn section laugh or sigh, and the stubborn idealism and canny humor of his songs temper Mr. Costello's convoluted earnestness. True to New Orleans attitude, the album starts out accusatory and ends up having a good time.

New songs on The River in Reverse, are filled with images of destruction and loss, but they are parables and personalized hymns, not chronicles. In the title song, a disaster — "They're chasing shadows in the dark and counting widows" — leads to bitter reflections on 21st-century America. For "Ascension Day," Mr. Toussaint transposed a rollicking New Orleans standard, Professor Longhair's "Tipitina," into a pensive minor key, while Mr. Costello's words contemplate desolation and a chance to return. In "Broken Promise Land," Mr. Toussaint's pumping horns answered by Mr. Costello's shivering tremolo guitar make the anger start to strut. And the album doesn't stay downhearted. Mr. Costello and Mr. Toussaint also wrote songs rooted in New Orleans R&B and jovially celebrating music, "International Echo" and "Six-Fingered Man."

Still, Mr. Toussaint's old songs are a hard act to follow. There are devoted love songs like "Nearer to You," and philosophical songs written in other troubled times — "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further?" (with Mr. Toussaint singing lead) and "Freedom for the Stallion" — that hit home again. The New Orleans transmutation of trouble into revelry is most complete in "Tears, Tears and More Tears." Its mambo-funk beat is utterly danceable, though it's topped with jagged splinters of piano. And now, what had been a lonely lover's plaint becomes a plea for all the city's exiles: "Baby won't you please come home?"

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New York Times, June 5, 2006

Jon Pareles reviews The River In Reverse.


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