New Zealand Herald, July 1, 2006

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The River in Reverse

Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint

Russell Baillie


You have to feel for Steve Nieve. Elvis Costello's faithful piano sideman has been with him since those skinny-tie days of the Attractions.

But when the bespectacled one has sought out collaborators — or even a wife for that matter — often their keyboard talents have made Nieve a little surplus to requirements.

So it was with the fine 1998 Costello-Burt Bacharach album Painted From Memory.

And while Nieve's Hammond organ playing frequently pokes through the mix on this — one of the first albums recorded in a New Orleans studio since Hurricane Katrina — it's the joyous rolling piano of Allen Toussaint that gets the close-ups.

Then again more than half of the 13 songs here are Toussaint compositions dating from the days when the now 68-year-old was pioneering the city's trademark blend of funk and soul as songwriter, producer and arranger for the likes of Lee Dorsey, various incarnations of the Neville clan and on his own 70s solo albums.

His career fortunes dipped in the 80s, though longtime New Orleans music buff Costello occasionally sought him out for his albums.

They duetted again at last year's Katrina benefit shows, their collaboration sparking the writing and recording sessions for this set which also involves Costello's rock backers The Impostors (including Nieve and original Attractions drummer Peter Thomas), the Crescent City Horns and producer Joe Henry.

Given the vintage of the Toussaint numbers and the barbed commentary of Costello's lyrics on the new songs — especially the brilliantly bitter ready-made classic of the title track, written amid the Katrina benefit shows last September — it might have risked incongruity.

But some of the old numbers sound like they were chosen to say something new — especially the swampy opener On Your Way Down, the pleading "Freedom for the Stallion," and the spiky Toussaint-sung "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further?"

Some of it is just piano-thumping funky fun, especially at the end with the old "Wonder Woman" and new "Six Fingered Man."

And even if he was sidelined again here, you can bet Nieve will be relishing the chance to get to grips with Toussaint's rollicking — and Professor Longhair-quoting — playing of the ballad "Ascension Day" when it comes to that next Costello tour.

Some of it does remind that Costello's voice has its limits, which he sometimes happily chooses to ignore.

But it's an album that engages on many levels. It updates the Toussaint legacy, allowing Costello to stretch out in yet another new and satisfying direction, while saying something considered about the wounded spirit of New Orleans.


New Zealand Herald, July 1, 2006

Russell Baillie reviews The River In Reverse.


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