He may be a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but Allen Toussaint remains one of the most underappreciated giants in the history of American music. As a writer/producer, he had a hand in practically every significant record cut in New Orleans from 1960 to 1975, and his piano-playing defines a certain kind of elegant soulfulness.
Toussaint first collaborated with Elvis Costello in 1983 when Costello recorded a horn-powered cover of Yoko Ono's "Walking On Thin Ice." A few years later, Toussaint contributed a majestic piano part for Costello's ballad "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror." Now, in the wake of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina on Toussaint's home town, they've united for a cross-generational, cross-genre project that immediately invites comparisons with Painted From Memory, Costello's 1998 album with another of his longtime heroes, Burt Bacharach.
But unlike the Bacharach album, which was a full-fledged composing summit, The River in Reverse is part collaboration, part Toussaint tribute album. Only six of the songs are new, with more than half the album composed of secret classics from the Toussaint songbook, such as "On The Way Down," "Freedom for the Stallion," and the wistful lover's prayer, "All These Things."
On his quirky series of '70s solo albums, Toussaint often came on like a southern Curtis Mayfield: a questioning social critic who delivered his homilies with a soft voice that suited his innate humility. As sung by Costello, these tunes take on more urgency, but they lose some of their sly understatement. When wedded with the generally bleak and bitter lyrics Costello penned for their collaborative pieces, The River In Reverse occasionally feels like an elegy that refuses to end. But the R&B drive of "Broken Promise Land," "International Echo," and the wicked closer "Six Fingered Man" (directed at an unnamed, privileged loser who could be any number of government incompetents exposed by Katrina) brings out the best in this gifted musical-admiration society. If the album amounts to a footnote in both men's careers, it's the best kind of footnote.