Orlando Sentinel, June 16, 2006

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Costello and Toussaint
pay homage to New Orleans

Jim Abbott

It's another sharp stylistic turn by Elvis Costello, who can't seem to confine himself to rock — or piano jazz, opera or country, either.

The River in Reverse, his stylized foray into vintage New Orleans R&B, is a transition that he makes smoothly. These 13 simmering songs go down a lot easier than his subdued lounge ballads on North, even if they aren't as infectious as Costello's return to form on When I Was Cruel.

Written and recorded at a brisk pace late last year, the project was conceived as an appreciation of the songbook of New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint. It eventually evolved into something more, with Costello collaborating with the pianist on five original songs and adding another of his own.

The result is a collection that's a reverential nod to Toussaint's legacy — and, by extension, the legacy of New Orleans music in general — as well as a reaction to the destruction of Katrina and its aftermath.

The title track is a protest song, but not in the Neil Young Living With War mode. Instead, Costello's angry singing is tempered by Toussaint's understated horn arrangement, which slides underneath the vocals like the soundtrack to an old funeral procession.

"But the times are passing from illumination," Costello sings. "Like bodies falling from a constellation. An uncivil war divides the nation, so erase the tape on that final ape running down creation."

Seven of the songs are culled from Toussaint's catalog, and this older material fits into the album's theme. "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further," Toussaint's only lead vocal contribution, hits a timely note with lines such as "What happened to the Liberty Bell I heard so much about? Did it really ding-dong? It must have dinged wrong. It didn't ding long."

There's truth behind the humor, and Toussaint's less-strident delivery makes the message that much more effective. A few more singing opportunities for him would have lifted River even higher. Sometimes, Costello's voice isn't a natural fit in songs such as Toussaint's languid "Freedom for the Stallion."

As it is, however, the album is an eloquent combination of sounds that is a reflection of its times, alternately somber and joyous. The spirit of New Orleans flows in this River.


Orlando Sentinel, June 16, 2006

Jim Abbott reviews The River In Reverse.


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