After years spent wrestling into submission musical genres ranging from pop standards to ballet scores, it was probably only a matter of time until Elvis Costello got around to making an R&B album.
The River in Reverse, a collaboration among Costello, venerated New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint and their respective backing teams, was, according to its press materials, the first major album recorded in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. Though its aftereffects can be felt in any number of recent releases, River may be the first bona fide Katrina set piece. It's as woeful and angry an album as you might have figured, helped along by several Costello-Toussaint compositions that speak either implicitly ("Ascension Day") or directly ("Broken Promise Land") to the disaster, and several Toussaint standards likely chosen for their ability to do the same.
There's a poignancy to even the simplest lines ("Baby won't you please come home?"), underscored by Toussaint's masterly piano-and-horn-centric arrangements, though River isn't any darker than it needs to be. Unlike many of Costello's other stylistic wanderings, the disc has a game, let's-put-on-a-show quality, though it's often more willing than it is great: River is fenced in by Costello's voice, which has grown in warmth since his sharp-elbowed early days but is still no match for Toussaint classics such as "Tears, Tears and More Tears," which have tested the limits of voices far greater than his.
Costello and Toussaint will perform at Wolf Trap on June 15.