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Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint
The River In Reverse
EMI/ Verve Forecast

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 and enjoyable.

- Tracy M. Rogers

Track List:
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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