Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint – The River in Reverse (2006)
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Okay, true confession time: I am not now, and have never been, much of an Elvis Costello fan.
Obviously, there are exceptions — if you have a pulse, I don’t see how you can deny Costello’s renditions of “Alison,” “Veronica,” “You Bowed Down,” and a handful of others — and the depth and breadth of his songwriting talent is close to peerless. However, by and large, I tend to think he’s one of those guys whose songs are best left to more talented vocalists.
If you’re a fan, I can see how this seemingly casual dismissal might offend, but please understand, I’m fully aware of Costello’s musical gifts. It’s just that I happen to think singing really isn’t one of them, and as his songwriting ambitions have expanded beyond his vocal range, this has become steadily more apparerent. This brings me to my real point, which is: The River in Reverse marks the second time (the first, of course, being Painted From Memory, Costello’s collaboration with Burt Bacharach) a preeminent American songwriter has chosen Costello as a collaborator and mouthpiece. The collaborator thing I can understand. Mouthpiece? Not so much.
Especially when it comes to Allen Toussaint, who is not only a genuine national songwriting treasure, but a fine, soulful vocalist — and who takes only a single complete lead on the entire album. Costello doesn’t ruin these tracks, doesn’t embarrass himself, and even as a presence that’s felt more than heard, Toussaint has an enriching effect. Still, though, listeners who know the original versions of these songs (seven of the tracks are covers of vintage Toussaint numbers) are likely to find River a frustrating listen; just knowing Toussaint was there, you can’t help but wonder why in the world Costello spent so much time in front of the microphone.
Still, it bears mentioning that the five Costello/Toussaint songwriting collaborations on the album blend seamlessly with the older stuff, and Costello’s title track is a scathing, brilliant condemnation of the federal response to Katrina (and, in a larger sense, the American way of life). Joe Henry, who is quickly becoming the go-to producer for modern soul records (not to mention Katrina-inspired sessions), does predictably solid work here, and again, even simply as a performer and arranger, Toussaint brings warmth and body to Costello’s reedy crooning.
The bottom line, though, is that The River in Reverse is a good record, and it should have been great. You may disagree — in fact, you probably do — but I’ve been up and down this album probably two dozen times now, and I can’t get past my disappointment. Maybe my quibbles are minor — I’m essentially bitching about a B or B+ record — but when you know an A+ was right there waiting, it’s still tough to swallow. Give “Tears, Tears & More Tears” (download) and the title track (download) a try and hear for yourself.