On first appearance, the travelogue for the whole of Elvis Costello’s career has played like that of a mad scientist, an enigmatic and sometimes erratic talent who stays in one genre just long enough to hawk his wares, get a feel for it and move on to conquer the next. The former Declan MacManus has hit up just about every style available to him under the sun, especially in the last decade or so, from straight up rock ‘n roll (2002’s When I Was Cruel & 2004’s The Delivery Man) to torch songs (2003’s North), opera (2003’s Il Sogno), classicist pop (1998’s Painted From Memory with Burt Bacharach & 1999’s The Sweetest Punch with Bill Frisell) and even big band (My Flame Turns Blue from earlier this year). Even the remarkable streak at the beginning of his career was marked by a number of dynamic, if slightly less disparate exercises in style jumping.
Mr. Costello’s most recent release, The River In Reverse, finds him collaborating with New Orleans R&B svengali Allen Toussaint, in a set made up partly of handpicked nuggets from Toussaint’s own back catalog, as well as a handful of originals written by the pair and one new song from Costello himself, the title track. River has the deck stacked with a crack set of studio musicians, Costello’s own part-time group the Imposters, and Toussaint’s mainstay Crescent City Horns, who together imbue the proceedings with a warm, rich tone that jogs between subdued and righteously funky. Joe Henry’s production feels a little tight and claustrophobic, free of any echo or reverb that could have lended a greater air of ease and free flow to things. As it is, the bands sound like they’re playing right on top of one another, which while intimate and direct, strangle the groove a little bit.
The songs chosen and written for The River In Reverse all obviously use the devastation and resulting fallout from Hurricane Katrina as a common touchstone. Aside from a few pointed moments, however, it avoids the one-dimensional, finger-wagging polemics that have become the weapon of choice of late for Vietnam-era retreads and irritable modern popsters alike. The mood is alternately joyous, meditative and even a little frustrated, a visible result of the search for an answer to a tragedy that really doesn’t have one. Costello’s title track and Toussaint’s “Who’s Gonna Help a Brother Get Further?” (the only song Toussaint sings by himself) are the angriest salvos on the album, while the pair’s co-penned “Six-Fingered Man” takes a lighter, more humorous tack.
Toussaint plays the role of ambassador for his beleaguered home region on The River In Reverse. The reinterpretations of his songs, which were already socially inclined to begin with, take on new meaning in a post-Katrina world. “Tears, Tears and More Tears” and “Broken Promise Land” play like all-new tunes, although placed next to the optimistic-by-comparison “Ascension Day,” it’s hard to get carried away by any of the implied recontexting that might resonate as the album goes on. Costello sometimes gets a little carried away with his role as the interpreter, stretching his vocals beyond what feels natural or comfortable. Rarely, though, does his earnestness and excessive efforting work against everyone else involved.
It could be easy to toss The River In Reverse into that steadily growing pile of “politically-motivated hurricane response” records (not to mention yet another episode in Elvis’s Worldwide Tour of Musical ADD), but it possesses the inviting spirit of an impromptu jam session, heard by unseen patrons out in the street through an open door or window. It plays best when it chooses to celebrate rather than denigrate, when Elvis’ occasionally overarching vocals serve to benefit a tune rather than to make it sound as if everyone involved is just not trying hard enough. It’s an imperfect album, but it’s admirable in the sense that its intentions are transparent even at its least. While some choose to bicker endlessly about who was to blame in the response to Katrina, Costello and Toussaint take the high road, and it’s a classy testament to what New Orleans has contributed to the world rather than what’s been taken away from it, flaws and all.
(Verve Forecast Records)
Berwanger – Watching a Garden Die
Josh Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter
At the height of Vagrant Records’ early success in the late 90s, the label was buoyed by the incredible draw of their two biggest names- The Get Up Kids and Saves the Day. And while those two bands took a chunk of the notoriety, there were plenty of great bands that called the label home. One of those bands was The Anniversary. The Lawrence, Kansas band shared musical similarities with both TGUK and Saves the Day, but were unafraid to branch off into slightly more synthesised terrain that gave their songs an added element. Coupled with their super easy to digest harmonies and fantastic male/female vocals, songs like “The D in Detroit” still has a place in countless “favorite playlists” all these years later.
Since their initial break-up, guitarist and vocalist Josh Berwanger has been busy writing and recording a bevy of music under the moniker Berwanger. His recent discography is a talented kaleidoscope of songs that traverse genres from folk and indie, to more rock and straight forward singer/songwriter fare. There was plenty to like on his 2016 album Exorcism Rock, an album that delved into a little bit of psychedelia and fuzzed out indie rock. His 2017 album And the Star Invaders saw a gradual move away from the more electrified to the imaginative kind of singer/songwriter we’ve seen from the likes of Devendra Banhart. True to form, Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter, and his latest, Watching A Garden Die, is the next chapter in his thriving songwriter cabinet.
The gloomily titled record is mostly upbeat and diverse. While he may have shown a kinship to indie/folk songwriting of the Banharts and Obersts of the world previously, Watching a Garden Die features the kind of seasoned and more classic toned work you’d find on a Crosby, Stills & Nash record, or even a Paul Simon record. Songs like the softly, almost whispered “Even the Darkness Doesn’t Know”, and quietly moody, introspective “Paper Blues” (until that electric guitar solo hits) harks back to a time long ago of unfettered hair and soulful folk music. The album’s best moment is probably a combination of the wistful, pedal-steel toned Americana of “When I Was Young” and the equally effective, spacey indie rock of “The Business of Living”. The latter giving Grandaddy a run for their money in that music department. These two songs in particular showcase an artist fully aware and capable of his abilities to craft music that’s personal but exhibits the kind of draw you want from a record this close to the heart.
The album doesn’t have the more ruckus moments Berwanger exhibited in his earlier work (outside of perhaps, the more upbeat power-pop, new wavy “Bad Vibrations”). At times the album takes just a few listens to grab you. But when you listen to songs like the spritely “Friday Night” and the somber reflection of the twangy “I Keep Telling Myself” a few times more, you find the depth of the record. There are elements that reveal themselves on the second, third, fourth listen, and that’s rewarding.
Berwanger’s songwriting ability was never in doubt, and his new material continues to expand his songwriting reach. Watching a Garden Die, while not a frantic effort, is quiet composure.
Fences – Failure Sculptures
Failure Sculptures is a steady outing
Christopher Mansfield, under his alter-ego, Fences, has made himself well known through the collaborations with Macklemore and Tegan & Sara. It’s set him up with well-deserved excitement for his new album Failure Sculptures. The genre of pop scores a good reputation with artists like Fences. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize this album as pop, but Failure Sculptures has catchy songs that will appeal to a large scale, however it keeps the integrity of accomplished music. Each song provides a story that allows you to drift into your own thoughts. He also uses idioms like there is no tomorrow.
“A Mission” is a lower-toned song that launches the album with an echoing sound of voice and guitar, and it sets an example of the whimsical type of music that is shown throughout the album. Mansfield has a way with words and was definitely listening in English class. A+ for storytelling. OK, you twisted my arm, I’ll point out some idioms: “body sways like trees in a storm” sung in “Paper Route” and “lately I just pass by like a cloud” heard in “Brass Band”. It’s a great way to paint a picture in your listeners head.
“Same Blues” exposes a folk side to Fences. It has a lovely addition of cello in the background. It is enchanting and flows so well, which makes a terrific inclusion to the album. The plucking and acoustic sound of “Wooden Dove” has a powerful effect, and suits the song well. It follows the theme of echoes and storytelling. Although “War Kid” is a song about divorce, it is a pleasant way to end the album, and it features more idioms; “tears falling like bombs“.
This type of music allows you to drift and flow in and out of your own thoughts. It’s a friendly haunting and emotionally driven set of songs (and don’t forget about the idioms), and while it is quite predictable in a pleasant way, Failure Sculptures is a steady outing.