By David Browne
Updated June 05, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

You know the drill by now: Another year, another chance for Elvis Costello to dabble in a genre that doesn’t come naturally to him. I know that sounds cruel; after all, we should be encouraging musicians to stretch out. But in light of his derivative classical pieces and torturous jazz experiments, you have to wonder if anyone around Costello has the guts to tell him his ideas aren’t always worth preserving on record.

The River in Reverse, Costello’s collaboration with revered New Orleans songwriter-producer-pianist Allen Toussaint, could have fallen victim to some of the same problems as his previous side projects: How easily would the Big Easy come to him? But Costello’s longtime love of R&B, dating back at least to the Stax-tinged Get Happy!!, saves it from self-indulgence (and the vocal strain heard on some of his other forays). The album is roughly divided between covers of old Toussaint songs and new tunes written by both men, and Costello sounds at home in Toussaint’s steady-rolling supper-club funk. The men have worked together on and off since the ’80s (that is Toussaint’s piano playing on Spike‘s ”Deep Dark Truthful Mirror”), and their camaraderie is evident in the record’s confident tone.

But what truly holds the album together is the ghost of Katrina hovering over it. In its original incarnation, Toussaint’s 1970 song ”On Your Way Down” was a fairly mild put-down; in Costello’s hands, it becomes a scalding tongue-lashing, clearly aimed at those responsible for the disaster. With its images of the impoverished and homeless, a buoyant remake of the 1970 tune ”Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” (the only track sung alone by the smooth-voiced Toussaint) feels like it could have been written last August. The same goes for a charged, Attractions-reminiscent run-through of the nearly 40-year-old ”Tears, Tears, and More Tears.”

Costello can still oversing and overwrite: The title track’s idiosyncratic melody distracts from his anguished, elegiac lyrics, and he’s not a natural soul belter. But even when he threatens to turn baroque, as in ”Broken Promise Land,” Toussaint rescues him. That newly penned collaboration, with its obvious flood references (”How high shall we build this wall?”), has more musical fits and starts than a jammed highway, but Toussaint’s sublime horn arrangement uplifts it. Moments like those are also reminders of what New Orleans once gave to music, and hopefully will again.

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