KEVIN DAVIS: I wish I was a better candidate than I am for penning a proper tribute to Allen Toussaint, who died of a heart attack last Tuesday while on tour in Madrid, but though my respect for him is huge (only a charlatan could possess anything less after reading the beautiful articles written in his honor last week), my qualifications are scant – I’ll spare you the copying and pasting of his many accolades from Wikipedia and admit I know him primarily through his work with Costello, most thoroughly documented on the 2006 collaboration The River in Reverse. As he explains in the documentary Putting the River in Reverse (the thirty minute bonus DVD included with first edition copies of the album), Costello conceived the project as a sort of “songbook” album for Toussaint after the two crossed paths at New York City’s Hurricane Katrina benefit in September of 2005, Toussaint being among the most revered of all figures in the vast New Orleans musical landscape, displaced to NYC after his home was destroyed by the storm. While I don’t necessarily count the album as one of my favorites in the Costello canon, time has been kind to it – particularly after revisiting the DVD, it is difficult to separate the album from its historical moment and the circumstances that birthed it, and to that end I find there to be a driving sense of purpose behind these songs now that wasn’t necessarily readily apparent to me in 2006 when all I cared about was getting a proper follow-up to The Delivery Man.
Costello and Toussaint co-authored several fine new originals for this record, but in honor of Allen we chose to focus on one of his songs: “All These Things.” This is probably my favorite of the Toussaint standards sung by Costello on the album, and presumably it’s special to Elvis as well – in the mid-‘80’s, he recorded an intimate solo electric version of it that appears on Rhino’s Blood and Chocolate reissue. The arrangement on The River in Reverse is decidedly grander, commencing with a horn passage that suggests a sort of military fanfare rather than a traditional R&B ballad, but the performance is the perfect fusion of the two musicians’ talents – Costello leans into the vocal with a modicum of care that recalls Painted From Memory and North, savoring every note of the melody, the light touch of Toussaint’s piano in perfect musical and emotional conversation with his phrasing. Costello is such a loquacious writer that one learns to appreciate the instances where he elects to perform songs that really give his voice room to breathe – to draw out vowel sounds, to revel in its own timbre without having to first negotiate the challenges of complicated language. Professional sympathizers to all forms of Elvis-voice by this point, the Imposters provide tasteful, restrained backing, keyed to the emotional weight of the chord changes, giving the spotlighted voice a meaningful place to land every time. It’s a simple but wise song that effectively communicates the complex relationship between love and loss, spoken in romantic terms in the song, but a sentiment that was no doubt as relevant to Toussaint during the recording of this album – as his beloved city was in ruins – as it is to that same city now as it mourns one of its most cherished figures.
JORGE FARAH: I love this album.
I love this album, though I often forget that I do.
First of all, it took me forever to even buy the thing. I was still snaking my way through Costello’s discography and assimilating those early albums, each one a more exciting discovery than the next. I had little use for what in my eyes amounted to little more than a covers album. Much like Kevin, I was largely unaware of Allen Toussaint, though I was familiar with a few of his songs through other musicians (as well as my Mom’s own broken-English rendition of “Working on the Coal Mine” from my childhood). When I finally did purchase The River in Reverse, it didn’t exactly set my world on fire; the songs were clearly good, but the recording itself felt a bit muted– like the whole thing had been run through some sort of hiss filter that removed a lot of its pop. It wasn’t until I listened to the 2006 live DVD Hot as a Pistol Keen as a Blade that it all clicked; the cleverness in the arrangements, the joie de vivre of the performances, the simmering anger beneath some of the political songs, the resolute resilience in others. Even after this album’s many charms revealed themselves to me, I very rarely play it. In a recent ranking of Costello’s entire oeuvre (the kind that obsessive-compulsive music enthusiasts are wont to do), I ranked it near the very bottom of the list. It’s only when I come upon one of the songs on Shuffle mode, or when I listen back for the purpose of writing blogs about them, that I realize just how enjoyable this collection is.
The album is made up of barnstormers and slow-burners and romantic ballads scattered throughout. “All These Things” is, to me, the most beautiful of Toussaint’s compositions featured here—“The Sharpest Thorn” would probably have my vote for overall favorite, but other people have already written about that one. What I really love about this one, beyond the sweetness of the sentiment, is the orchestration. Although Toussaint’s grand piano is the main melodic instrument here (as it should be), I want to point out three small elements that color the composition beautifully: Steve Nieve’s organ, which circles the harmony quietly in the background; Costello’s guitar, delivering brief melodic flourishes; and the Crescent City Horns, which punctuate the song’s stops and starts with a stately arrangement.
Finally, I’d like to highlight this amazing playlist, put together by music writer Stephen Thomas Erlewine. Containing some of Toussaint’s most memorable work as a producer and as a performer, it serves as a wonderful introduction for the uninitiated (as I am) as well as just a thoroughly enjoyable collection of music. It’s always a bummer when these legends leave us—especially people as warm and kind as Toussaint seemed to be—but there’s comfort to be found in the music they leave behind. It will outlast all of us.