Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint
The River in Reverse
The Music Box's #13 album of 2006
First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2006, Volume 13, #6
Written by John Metzger
The destruction of New Orleans was caused as much by an act of God as it was by the inept behavior of the local, state, and federal governments, and in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, numerous tragic tales have come to the fore to reveal some very ugly truths about America’s dichotomous society of haves and have-nots. Despite the recent successes of its Mardi Gras celebration as well as its world-renowned jazz festival, the Crescent City unfortunately remains a long way from a full recovery. At least the French Quarter and uptown neighborhoods were spared the flood waters that destroyed the poorer communities, thereby supplying a foundation upon which to reconstruct The Big Easy’s tourism industry. Yet, this is hardly of consolation to the countless refugees, many of them musicians, who were forced to flee their homes. Among the artists displaced by the catastrophic collapse of the levees that had kept Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River in check was the legendary Allen Toussaint, who resettled in New York City. It was there, amidst a series of benefit concerts held last September, that he rekindled his friendship with Elvis Costello.
No stranger to American roots music, Costello most recently had explored traditional southern fare on his 2004 endeavor The Delivery Man. Long a devotee of Toussaint’s work, Costello previously had enlisted the New Orleans’ mainstay during the ’80s to produce his interpretation of Yoko Ono’s Walking on Thin Ice as well as to play piano on Deep Dark Truthful Mirror. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he had taken to performing Toussaint’s Freedom for the Stallion and All These Things as a means of paying tribute to the storm’s victims, and this provided a natural impetus for a fully baked collaboration between the duo. Moving quickly from stage to studio, they concocted (with the help of producer Joe Henry, The Imposters, the Crescent City Horns, and Toussaint’s regular guitarist Anthony "AB" Brown) The River in Reverse, an album that, from the driving funk of Wonder Woman to the gospel air of The Sharpest Thorn to the gritty, blues-oriented inflection of Six-Fingered Man, is utterly drenched in The Big Easy’s musical melting pot.
Initially conceived as a simple waltz through Toussaint’s storied songbook, The River in Reverse evolved into a far more complex and powerful statement that candidly addresses the socio-political climate in which the rampant devastation that followed Hurricane Katrina was allowed to occur. Although material originally penned for Lee Dorsey, Betty Harris, and Art Neville still lies at the album’s core, the six new selections — one tune was composed solely by Costello, while five pieces were co-written by the duo — furnish an entirely new context for the older fare. Tears, Tears and More Tears’ tale of a fractured relationship, for example, is transformed into a memorial for the loved ones and livelihoods that were lost after Katrina ravaged New Orleans, and, with its depiction of financial enslavement, the social commentary embedded within Who’s Gonna Help a Brother Get Further? assumes even greater poignancy given the current state of affairs in the Crescent City. Yet, it’s the three songs that form the collection’s center — the snarling directness of the title track, the prayerful mourning of Freedom for the Stallion, and the dark edginess of Broken Promised Land — that lend the set its cohesive focus.
Nevertheless, The River in Reverse is more than just bitterness and anguish. Within the proud majesty of the Gershwin-esque piano interlude that opens the collection (and undoubtedly is meant to signify both Toussaint’s home-in-exile as well as the scene of the project’s genesis); the sweet, soulful love song Nearer to You; and International Echo’s genuinely giddy celebration of the Crescent City’s cross-continental influence, the album also becomes a beacon of hope for the future. After all, as Costello and Toussaint seamlessly merge their signature styles together, a vibrant new chapter in New Orleans’ vast musical legacy is born.
Of Further Interest...
The River in Reverse is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box