On first listen, The River in Reverse, the collaborative CD
by genre jumper Elvis Costello and seminal soul master Allen
Toussaint, seems to belong musically to Toussaint's world and
lyrically to Costello's. But, The River in Reverse is, in fact,
a far more complicated musical phenomenon. Certainly, the bulk of
the material finds Costello and Touissant employing a heavy soul,
New Orleans blues, and R&B sound complimented by Toussaint's famed
Crescent City Horns, but the collection is also tinged with
something fresher, more contemporary that enigmatically belongs to
Costello and his backing band The Imposters (who serve as the
rhythm section on this project). Drawing from Toussaint's back catalog,
as well as more recently co-written songs, The River in Reverse
also showcases Costello's skills as a soul singer and interpreter
- with Toussaint taking lead on only one track - and Toussaint's intricate
piano work and sublime horn arrangements.
Toussaint's cynical tale of the downside of success "On Your
Way Down" opens the set with an incendiary rock and blues vibe
that slowly simmers behind Costello's vocals, while the lost love
anthem "Nearer To You" features a doo-wop arrangement and
backing vocals worthy of The Platters. The rousing "Tears,
Tears, and More Tears" finds Costello and Toussaint incorporating
a bit of Motown and funk into the mix, with Toussaint and The Imposters'
Davey Faragher providing Sam and Dave-inspired backing
vocals. Costello's lyrics and arrangement on "The Sharpest Thorn"
are reminiscent of "The Scarlet Thread" from his 2004 album,
The Delivery Man. The only thing that saves "The Sharpest
Thorn" from being hopelessly derivative is the closing New Orleans
horn section and Imposter Steve Nieve's B3 flourishes.
Toussaint's only lead vocal on the album comes on his classic, "Who's
Gonna Help A Brother Get Further?," with Toussaint and Costello
once again drawing on Sam and Dave for inspiration. "Who's Gonna
Help A Brother Get Further?" is a perfect meshing of styles,
featuring a crisp rock backbeat from Pete Thomas, rousing organ
fanfare, and a wailing sax solo from Toussaint cohort Brian "Breeze"
Cayolle. The title track is an equally engaging stylistic merger
with mournful horns, ominous fuzz guitar, and pounding bass riff.
While "The River In Reverse" is quite clearly a Costello
creation, this does not lessen the overall impact of the song's pointed
commentary on the US government's response (or lack thereof) in the
aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Toussaint's poignant gospel-meets-soul anthem "Freedom For the
Stallion" follows, with Costello making the song his own through
his plaintive, impassioned wail. At once personal and political, "Freedom
For the Stallion" is as relevant today as it was when Toussaint
wrote it in the early 1970s. The Costello/Toussaint co-written "Broken
Promise Land" is equally political fare, with the duo musically
mixing Southern soul with rock reverb and lyrics infused with disenchantment.
"Ascension Day" is yet another high water mark for Costello
and Toussaint. An apocalyptic tale centered only on Toussaint's classical-meets-juke
joint piano and Costello's soulful vocals, "Ascension Day"
presents a marked contrast to the rest of the album with its minimalist
production without detracting from the overall flow. The final four
tracks on The River in Reverse - the exultant juke joint boogie
"International Echo," the melancholy '50s ballad "All
These Things," the funky, fun R&B romp "Wonder Woman,"
and the Memphis soul-meets-blues guitar narrative "Six-Fingered
Man" - find Toussaint and Costello veering away from the political
with splendid results. In fact, "Wonder Woman" and "Six-Fingered
Man" are pure, booty-shaking delights.
In spite of the seemingly erratic musical and lyrical turns taken
by Costello and Toussaint, The River in Reverse works well
as a cohesive soul/R&B album. Costello and Toussaint have managed
to produce an album that is both timely and fun, thought-provoking
- Tracy M. Rogers
1On Your Way Down
2 Nearer to You
3 Tears, Tears and More Tears
4 The Sharpest Thorn
5 Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further
6 The River in Reverse
7 Freedom for the Stallion
8 Broken Promise Land
9 Ascension Day
10 International Echo
11 All These Things
12 Wonder Woman
13 Six-Fingered Man
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