Back when he was a young geek storming pop through punk, who would have thought Elvis Costello's singing would end up more distinguished than his word-slinging? As his high baritone matured, however, its nasal angst gained technical command and emotional gravity, till eventually it could swallow a string quartet, an avant-jazz combo, a symphony orchestra — jeez, even Bacharach-David. So this meeting with the great Sixties and Seventies New Orleans hitmaker is more than its Katrina angle. It's one collaboration in a series, timed just right.
The Allen Toussaint oldies Costello covers avoid the overfamiliar, and his delivery has a way of adding a post-disaster historical context to Toussaint's intended meaning — not just with socially conscious material like "On Your Way Down" and "Freedom for the Stallion" ("They've made money, God") but with love songs such as "Nearer to You" (where the "you" could be his city) or "Tears, Tears and More Tears" (with its lost, well-remembered "walk in the park"). Although Elvis' title tune and the four co-written new songs are less winning, "Broken Promise Land" bites the hand that doesn't feed it with sarcastic gusto, and "International Echo" captures and holds the joy both men take in the record-making process it portrays. Costello's Imposters negotiate Toussaint's tricky rhythms jauntily enough, and the Crescent City Horns add warming coloration. But it's the master's steady, rollicking piano that elevates the music — and keeps the ever-elusive Costello honest.