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Old 05-24-2009, 04:19 PM   #86 (permalink)
Bulldog
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Starting to get near the end of this now...

Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint
The River In Reverse
2006, Universal Records, Sunset Sound (LA) & Piety Street Studios (New Orleans)



With another sizeable critical and moderate commercial success under his belt (seeing as the Delivery Man received across-the-board praise in the media), is wasn't so long 'til Elvis Costello and the Imposters finished touring and were back in the studio again. This time, again, there was a very different agenda to the whole thing.

Although Costello and Allen Toussaint (one of the most influential figures in New Orleans jazz and R&B for those not in the know) had worked together before on a song (the excellent Deep Dark Truthful Mirror way back when during the Spike sessions), it wasn't until late 2005 that they collaborated again. This was when Costello sang Toussaint's Freedom For the Stallion at the encore of the latter's concert. That November, the two took to the studio to record a full-length album together. Toussaint took his backing band, the Crescent City Horns, with him while Costello brought the Imposters along for the ride. As a result of the two-week sessions in LA and New Orleans, five co-writes were recorded, along with seven of Toussaint's old hits and one Costello composition, twelve of which saw Costello taking up the lead vocal and Toussaint the backing, and vice versa for the odd one out. Also, it's quite remarkable how well they both pulled it off.

1. On Your Way Down [Toussaint]
The piano lines which open the album set up what we can expect from the rest of it very nicely, wheeling into the silence as they do before the low key horns and rhythm guitar kick the song into action. It's also a sign of things to come in that Costello does a surprisingly good job of singing over an unusually jazzy backing track by his standards. It's a nice laid back opening to the album and a decent track overall. 7/10

2. Nearer To You [Toussaint]
From the smoky jazz of the opening track, this rendition of another Toussaint oldie shows us the other side of this album's sound, that being the much more soul/r'n'b-tinged one, which suits the sweet lovesong lyric nicely. Again, it's another surprise in how good a job Costello does in singing this kind of song, with the backing vocals from Toussaint and bassist Davey Farragher doing the soulfulness of this tune no small favours. 7/10

3. Tears, Tears and More Tears [Toussaint]
Yet another side of this album's sound would be a much livelier kind of New Orleans jazz, such as on this very impressive cut. Over an infectious horn arrangement and an interesting combo of good old Steve Nieve's hammond organ and Toussaint's marvellous performance behind the piano keyboard, it ends the opening show of the versatility of the sound that Costello and Toussaint had created (without even getting to their co-writes, which is quite something if you think about it). 8/10

4. The Sharpest Thorn [Costello/Toussaint]
The first Costello/Toussaint co-write is this slower-burning and kind of soulful number, and is a real show of the great writing partnership that the pair of them made, as together they fashioned a reined-in and tight yet interesting backing track. The fact that Costello had his part in writing the lyrics brings that side of the songwriting to one's attention for the first time, with fairly memorable pieces of wordplay, particularly...

'So Good and Evil were having a fight
It last much longer than any one night
It may last longer than a life
And turn a mistress into a wife'
8/10

5. Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further? [Toussaint]
Another very lively cut this, what makes this particularly unique is that it's the only song on the album for which Toussaint takes up the lead vocal. It must be said, he's got a terrific voice which really gives the music that much more swing and panache. It's a wonderful piece of music and, although the live version in the video lacks the horn figure that makes it that great, it's still nice enough all the same. 10/10


6. The River In Reverse [Costello]
The only song which Costello composed alone to be recorded here, it sounds pretty much as you'd expect it to (not that that's a bad thing at all). For the first time the guitar is brought to the front of the mix and is augmented here and there by the Crescent City Horns (to keep it in line with the album's overall sound presumably), as the focus of the title track is on a great ramble of a lyric;

'Are your arms too weak to lift?
Another shovel on the graveyard shift
Here comes the flood if you catch my drift
Where the things they promised are not a gift'


^ Just one of my personal highlights there. 8/10


7. Freedom For the Stallion [Toussaint]
As I mentioned way back, it was the pair of songwriters collaborating in this tune live which sparked off the whole full-length album idea. It's a beautiful piece of slow-burning jazz with a provocative blues lyric and it's one of the album highlights for sure. 9/10

8. Broken Promise Land [Costello/Toussaint]
From there the soundscape takes a turn for the more sinister, as the horn figure, Nieve's organ chords and Toussaint's piano give this tune a deceptive kind of jazzy swing before a superb Costello lyric comes into the equation. The melody for the chorus is just wonderful too. If it weren't for the fact it's a tad overlong I'd personally rate it higher. 7/10

9. Ascension Day [Costello/Byrd/Toussaint]
Seemingly the red herring of the tracklisting, given that it's Toussaint's piano and Costello's vocal by themselves, this actually makes for one the very best songs Costello's had a part in writing. The beautiful piano gives the song an almost wintry edge and does a world of good in tandem with Costello's lyrics;

'Not a soul was stirring
Not a bird was singing, at least not within my hearing
I was five minutes past caring
Standing in the road just staring'


Dunno what you lot think, but the imagery in the words really does elevate this song to greatness. One of my favourites this. 10/10


10. International Echo [Costello/Toussaint]
This cut again finds all the more uptempo elements of this album's sound full swing again (if you'll pardon the pun - you'll get it if you listen to the track I guess). The Imposters do a terrific job of providing the horns, piano and vocals to really make another great song their own. Supoib! 9/10

11. All These Things [Toussaint]
What holds this album back from being truly fantastic though are the two songs which follow it. For once the horn arrangements seem uninspired and the fact that Toussaint's piano is far too reined-in doesn't really make for a very good song. 5/10

12. Wonder Woman [Toussaint]
Ditto for this one unfortunately. 5/10

13. Six-Fingered Man [Costello/Toussaint]
And then there's this. I hate to sound like some randy fanboy here, but everything about this song is just absolutely magnificent. The playful wordplay in the lyrics, the soulful backing vocals from Farragher and Toussaint, not to mention the latter's piano contributions, Nieve's backing it up behind the organ keyboard, the brass augmentations - in tandem with Costello's brilliant rhythm guitar (he even indulges us a with a solo), it all makes for a marvelous and truly uplifting piece of music. This could very well be my favourite song that Costello's ever sung. 11/10

To conclude...
Probably the most successful genre experiment Costello had undertaken in years. Given that both he and Toussaint came from such different musical backgrounds, the ease with which they gel as performers and writers is amazing. All in all, this is definitely among the man's best. There are flaws though, which is why I won't rate any higher than 9. For a start, there are two duff space-fillers which really shouldn't have made the album. Secondly, if there's one glaring drawback when it comes to this album, it's that Toussaint only takes the lead vocal once. Given that he has such a terrific voice, had he sung more of his own songs this album could have been even better. Overall though, this is definitely among the finest albums you'll hear with Elvis Costello's name on it. As with a lot of his music though, I guess it all depends how much time you have for his vocal trademark.

9/10

This song was never recorded for the album, but I just love how it's executed and thought I'd share it anyway. For me it illustrates what a great partnership these two made.
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