The River In Reverse represents the first major sessions to take place in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. Conceived after Elvis Costello met Allen Toussaint during a benefit concert in New York, where Toussaint currently lives while his home is rebuilt, this album is proof that it takes a lot more than a hurricane to break the musical spirit of New Orleans.
Neither artist needs much introduction, Costello having a career spanning over 28 years and Toussaint being a legend as a songwriter and producer, though he’s also has a solo recording career – his first album The Wild Sounds Of New Orleans was released in 1958.
This album should, then, be pretty hot. Sad to say, it’s lukewarm, though I must say that many of its subtleties only emerge after more than one listen. The opening jazz piano riff is promising, the guitars crash in with aplomb, the saxes in the background are superb, the trumpet adds spice and the song itself – On Your Way Down, a Toussaint classic, is great. And yet – it lacks oomph, the tempo just too slow for real engagement.
Many of these tracks are Toussaint songs, more soul than jazz, and not all of them are ideal vehicles for Elvis Costello’s voice. Nearer To You is a prime example of this – he just doesn’t have the vocal range to make the most of what should be a great song. Again, the musicianship is exemplary, but the result lacks something. Freedom For The Stallion is another gorgeous song where Costello’s voice just doesn’t work.
OK, enough of the downside. The title track is a Costello solo effort. It’s good, a bluesy, edgy song with minimal backing – just the occasional trumpet pointing up the vocals.
The Sharpest Thorn is one of the Costello/Toussaint collaborations, a curious Gospel anthem with a recurring refrain that could get lodged in the brain. International Echo is another and like the opening track, starts out with good intent and some splendid honky-tonk piano. Good lyrics too, great sax (Brian “Breeze” Cayolle and Amadee Castenell) and one of the best of the joint work.
Six-Fingered Man starts out heavy – Hendrix overtones – and grows on you. Great Costello lyrics on this one: “Six-Fingered Man / playing a seven string guitar / there are seven deadly sins / any one of them can do you in…”.
Ascension Day is a quieter, more contemplative blues, another real grower – just Costello’s vocals and Toussaint’s piano on this track. And listening to this it’s easy to understand why he is such a legend, because his piano is sublime, subtle, sensitive and exquisitely syncopated.
Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further is a Toussaint soul number featuring him on lead vocals, which helps greatly, and makes you wish he’d taken the lead on Nearer To You. Other Toussaint solo compositions include Tears, Tears And More Tears, Wonder Woman and All These Things. If you jazzy, bluesy soul so laid back it’s horizontal you’ll love them.
Recorded in Piety Street Studios in November-December 2005, it’s good to see this album released, but whether the meeting between Costello and Toussaint has produced anything of greater note that their individual achievements, I’m not convinced.