Okay, here’s the short version of my take on The River in Reverse (after an inadequate 1 1/2 listens):
If you’re a serious Elvis Costello fan, you have to have it. (But if you are, you knew that already and probably have the album already, as well.)
If you’re a middling Elvis C fan, but like Allen Toussaint’s songwriting and arranging and have some feeling for the New Orleans situation, you also have to have it.
If you’re indifferent to Allen Toussaint and only want the A-list Elvis C albums, you might want to pass on this one.
If you don’t like Elvis C, this will not convert you and you should go ahead and skip it as you intended to.
Now here’s my extended comments:
I consider myself more of an admirer of Elvis C than an outright fan. In part this is because the guy seems to generate worshippers — those who have read my comments in here for a long time will know that, for better or worse, I’m suspicious of performers who attract a disproportionate percentage of worshippers.
I mean, to me, Elvis puts his pants on one leg at a time, but boy oh boy, the diehards don’t wanna hear that. Everything the man touches is golden golden golden.
Really, it’s like freakin’ blasphemy to point out he can’t sing very well. And that, unlike Lou Reed or Bob Dylan, he doesn’t compensate with enough vivid vocal mannerisms. No, he just belts ‘em out as though he had smokin’ hot pipes and (esp. on soul numbers) I wince from time to time. It’s bad news that you cheer when Toussaint — himself a notoriously weak vocalist — chimes in on this album.
Thing is, Elvis C is an excellent rock/punk singer — his delivery of snarls and shouts is top-notch. And that fits his very sour brand of humanism (even if you’re unfamiliar with the song, you know he didn’t write “Wonder Woman” without even looking at the credits).
The other thing is, Toussaint stood out among New Orleans songwriters of the golden era in that he wrote literate protest tunes as well as party tunes. “Tears, Tears and More Tears” and “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” are the vintage standouts in this program. (Really, he’s almost as sharp as Curtis Mayfield.) And this is the true common ground between Toussaint and Elvis C. The title track, by C, is quite good and two Toussaint-C collaborations, “Broken Promise Land” and “Six-Fingered Man,” are ass-kickers.
Finally, I’m always concerned that New Orleans albums these days seem so tangled in the past. The River in Reverse feels like a contemporary album all the way.
So I think it’s an interesting record and I’m keeping it, but sometimes the vocals suck. I guess you could say I have my standard Elvis C response to The River in Reverse. I admire it.