So now that he just did an art-jazz project, it's time for another rock record from Elvis Costello, right? Alas, The River in Reverse, a collaboration with New Orleans R&B legend Allen Toussaint, is another genre dalliance intended to showcase Costello's supposed versatility. Well, here he throws himself headlong into Toussaint's back catalog, naturally selecting more obscure cuts (the guy did write "Working In The Coal Mine"), backed by the Imposters and augmented by Toussaint himself and NOLA horn players.
Yes, that's New Orleans, but this isn't a cash-in on recent tragedy: Costello has worked with the legendary Toussaint more than once before (notably on the piano part for Spike's "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror"). And while there is some back and forth concerning songwriting, it's meant to be a "Costello Sings the Songs of Toussaint" songbook record — a voice-meets-pen LP like those in vogue before the rock era.
Costello sings every song but one, Toussaint's "Who's Gonna Help a Brother Get Further." And that's actually sort of a shame: Costello's proven himself effective in plenty of contexts outside of rock, but all his vibratos and melismas and belted notes seem like so much flailing compared to Toussaint's effortless croon. He has a sharp ear for choosing songs that remain relevant, but this is one genre that eludes him as a performer. Granted, he's never seemed entirely at home on jazz and classical records, but the pairing has never been as jarring as it is here, with new Costello songs standing directly next to the traditionals.
While he belabors notes on the deep cuts from Toussaint's catalog, the Costello-sung covers that frontload the album fall short. Listen to the Costello-Toussaint collaboration "Ascension Day" to hear just how nimble Costello's voice can be, alternately skipping across and gluing together the fluid notes of the piano line. And looking past its crushing self-awareness as an anthem for Hurricane Katrina victims, "The River In Reverse" really works. Penned entirely by Costello, when it hits the line, "There must be something better than this / I don't see how it can get much worse," the song shifts from a percussive acoustic guitar pattern to a resigned sigh from the horns. Meanwhile, Toussaint's slightly dissonant piano dances low in the mix, Costello cramming in syllables with his usual verve — all hinting at a range of frustration and discontent bubbling underneath.
These, however, are exceptions. Most of these tracks merely feel professional or workmanlike, sincere recordings that sadly lack inspiration. The River in Reverse could have been vastly improved with more collaboration and fewer ostentatious performances, giving the two big names on the marquee more moments to shine than to strain.