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The River in Reverse [CD/DVD]

The River in Reverse [CD/DVD]

3.0 3
by Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint

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Over the past decade or so, Elvis Costello has proved he can work wonders with just about any idea that pops into his head -- from composing classical arias to matching wits with pop icons like Burt Bacharach. But, as he proves on this riveting collaboration with New Orleans musical patriarch Allen Toussaint


Over the past decade or so, Elvis Costello has proved he can work wonders with just about any idea that pops into his head -- from composing classical arias to matching wits with pop icons like Burt Bacharach. But, as he proves on this riveting collaboration with New Orleans musical patriarch Allen Toussaint, Costello's at his best when pursuing notions that emerge from his heart, not his head. The River in Reverse is, by and large, Costello's reaction to the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina -- a storm that obviously hit home for Toussaint, one of hundreds of musicians to have been directly affected. The disc is split between new compositions and songs from the far reaches of Toussaint's vast catalog, which Costello mined carefully, unearthing seldom-heard chestnuts like "Nearer to You," a wistful love paean that's transformed here into a love letter to a place now gone. The two join forces just as effectively on Toussaint's older, often-overlooked socially conscious material -- notably the gospel-tinged "Freedom for the Stallion," which retains the seething passion of the mid-'70s original -- and they really kick up a storm on the newly crafted tunes. The best of those, like the acerbic "Broken Promise Land," steer clear of sentiment and survey the scenery with eyes that are steely and focused, not clouded by the mist of tears. Wisely, Costello allows Toussaint to take the reins in terms of melody and arrangements, which, on songs like "International Echo," are dominated by the sort of loping, insistent piano lines and burnished horns that are inseparable from the Crescent City firmament. Thanks to that vibe, The River in Reverse offers hope that, despite the pessimistic adage, it might be possible to go home -- to New Orleans -- again.

Editorial Reviews

All Music Guide - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
It's impossible to consider The River in Reverse without taking the devastation Hurricane Katrina wreaked upon New Orleans into account. Indeed, it's quite likely that this collaboration between Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint would not even have occurred if it weren't for that cataclysmic event. They've collaborated before -- Toussaint wrote horn charts for Costello's 1989 album Spike -- but neither had plans to work together until they appeared together at a September 2005 Madison Square Garden benefit concert for the victims of Katrina. That kick-started the album that became The River in Reverse. Initially, the plan was for the collaboration to be a songbook album, with Costello and Toussaint performing some highlights from Allen's rich songbook, and while the record bears some remnants of that blueprint -- seven of its 13 songs were written by Toussaint in the '60s and '70s -- the finished work evolved into an elegant, eloquent protest album crafted out of old songs and new. Costello alone wrote the title track, premiering at that benefit concert, and its angry account of the flood that wrecked New Orleans provides a touchstone for the other five new songs here, all co-written with Toussaint. "Broken Promise Land," "Ascension Day," and "International Echo" explore the aftermath of Katrina, while "Six-Fingered Man" is a funny acerbic take on a sinful sloth who is "always the first to blow his horn/His achievements multiply/Pity half of them seem to be lies." Toussaint's presence on these five songs tempers but doesn't dilute the churning anger that roils underneath The River in Reverse: "Broken Promise Land" drives along on a swampy funk rhythm, the spare and laid-back "Ascension Day" is a showcase for Allen's piano, "International Echo" revives the rolling spirit of classic New Orleans R&B, while "Six Finger Man" has a grinding, gritty blues backbeat. All five of these new songs are genuine collaborations, bearing the unmistakable stamp of both highly distinctive musicians, but the best compliment that can be paid to them is that they blend seamlessly with the classic Toussaint songs that comprise the rest of the record. When placed next to explicit songs of protest like "Broken Promise Land," such New Orleans R&B and soul staples as "On Your Way Down," "Tears, Tears and More Tears," "Freedom for the Stallion," and especially "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further" with its chorus of "What happen to the Liberty Bell I heard so much about?/Did it really ding-dong?/It must have dinged wrong/It didn't ding wrong" take on an entirely different, politically charged meaning. This undercurrent of protest gives The River in Reverse thematic cohesion -- and as politically minded pop goes, it trumps such other 2006 albums as Neil Young's Living with War, if only because it isn't so heavy-handed about its intentions -- but what makes the album rather extraordinary is that it's as much celebration as it is protest. There is joy and tenderness within the performances of Toussaint, Costello, his backing band the Imposters, and Toussaint mainstays the Crescent City Horns, all captured by Joe Henry's clean yet warm production. If Costello pushes his phrasing a little harder than most interpreters of Toussaint -- not only does Allen himself have an easy, casual delivery, but so did such singers as Lee Dorsey, Aaron Neville, Ernie K-Doe, and Lowell George -- it suits the spirit of when the album was recorded, and Elvis is balanced about by the earthy, natural sound of the band, and Allen's graceful harmonies. As pure music, this is impossible not to enjoy, and this rich blend of R&B, blues, soul, and funk illustrates exactly how important New Orleans is to America's culture, and that it needs to be embraced in the wake of the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. Ultimately, the greatest achievement of The River in Reverse is that it, like the music of New Orleans itself, can not be pigeonholed or reduced to one specific thing. It can seem like a party, or it can seem like a bittersweet elegy, which is only appropriate for an album borne out of tragedy but created as a celebration. [The River in Reverse was also released in an edition containing a bonus DVD. The DVD contains an excellent documentary about the making of the album, which has moving footage of the musicians arriving in New Orleans to record part of the album, but also has footage of songs that didn't make the final album, including a fine version of "What Would You Want the Girl to Do."]
Rolling Stone - Robert Christgau
1/2 The Allen Toussaint oldies Costello covers avoid the overfamiliar, and his delivery has a way of adding a post-disaster historical context to Toussaint's intended meaning.
Boston Globe - Stuart Munro
Altogether a whole that is more than the sum of its parts, ‘‘The River in Reverse’’ celebrates the music of Toussaint’s New Orleans by adding to it, even as it laments the destruction and incompetence that have been visited upon the city itself.
Los Angeles Times - Randy Lewis
Remarkably timely -- and relevant.... The album hits hardest in those numbers that take on the broad sweep of a cry for social and political justice.
Atlanta Journal Constitution - Nick Marino
[Grade: B+] Elvis Costello sings his guts out on this surprisingly successful collaboration album.... Let's call "Reverse" soulful pop music made by and for adults, a dignified rock album with plenty of rhythm and blues.
Los Angeles Daily News - Fred Shuster
Costello is at full strength in this bountiful, well-crafted set of syncopated soul with dark undercurrents.... The album illustrates the fruits of a songwriting partnership made in r&b heaven.
Hartford Courant - Eric R. Danton
The real reason to listen to this collaboration between Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint is for the depth of its soul.... One of the most rewarding collaborations of either artist's career.

Product Details

Release Date:
Verve Forecast


Album Credits

Performance Credits

Elvis Costello   Primary Artist,Acoustic Guitar,Electric Guitar,Hammond Organ,Tambourine,Vocals,Tremolo
Allen Toussaint   Primary Artist,Piano,Electric Piano,Vocals,Background Vocals
Steve Nieve   Piano,Hammond Organ,Clavinet,farfisa organ
Carl Blouin   Baritone Saxophone
Amadee Castenell   Soprano Saxophone,Tenor Saxophone
Davey Faragher   Bass,Vocals,Background Vocals
Brian "Breeze" Cayolle   Baritone Saxophone

Technical Credits

Elvis Costello   Composer,Executive Producer
Roy Byrd   Composer
Allen Toussaint   Composer,Executive Producer,Horn Arrangements
Jimmy Katz   Cover Photo
Hollis King   Art Direction
S. "Husky" Hoskulds   Engineer
Matthew Buzzell   Direction

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