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Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint – The River In Reverse

It could be easy to toss The River In Reverse into that steadily growing pile of “politically-motivated hurricane response” records, but it possesses the inviting spirit of an impromptu jam session

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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)

Reviews

Alice Cooper – Breadcrumbs EP

Few frontmen of rock will ever be as enigmatic and as timeless as Alice Cooper

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Alice Cooper Breadcrumbs

For a large number of Alice Cooper fans who didn’t experience everyone’s favorite snake-adorned shock rocker at the height of his powers through the ’70s, most probably were introduced to Cooper through 1989’s hair-metal infused generational breakout album Trash. That was at least, my introduction to Vincent Furnier, at the age of 9 years old, seeking for something to satiate my love of hair metal and shock rock. Trash was everything Bon Jovi’s New Jersey was- big, radio-friendly- but had that added sense of danger and darkness that didn’t come with the pretty side of hair metal. However, as sure as songs like “House of Fire“, “Bed of Nails“, and the ubiquitous hit “Poison”, are still great today, long-time Alice Cooper fans know that Cooper is at his most enthralling is when he taps into his garage rock lineage, cut from the same mold that was paved by bands like the MC5.

So for those born in the early 80s like myself, the initial foray into the world of Alice Cooper meant that you had to work your way back into this long-running discography to find the rich, often timeless work Cooper is best known for. In 2019 Alice Cooper himself is working his way back on his latest EP, the aptly titled Breadcrumbs. The 6-song EP finds Cooper revisiting music and artists connected thematically by what ties them all together- the Motor City. This Detroit-centric EP features Alice Cooper’s take on songs by Suzi Quatro, The Dirtbombs, Motown soul singer Shorty Long, and of course, The MC5 (the EP also features guest guitar and vocal work from Wayne Kramer). Included in the mix are a reworked version of the 2003 Alice Cooper song “Detroit City” and one new cut, “Go Man Go”.

On his reworked “Detroit City”, the song is given a rawer makeover, sounding far less produced than the original. Gone are the orchestral overdubs with the song relying more on the loud bluesy guitars- perhaps the way it was meant to sound. Suzi Q’s “Your Mama Won’t Like Me” stays fairly faithful to the original, but Quatro’s vocal sneer is replaced with.. well, Alice Cooper’s vocal sneer. MC5’s “Sister Anne” is almost as great as the original 1971version, with the added benefit of today’s production qualities.

The EP’s one new track, “Go Man Go”, is very much Detroit, and very much Alice Cooper. It’s rock n’ roll roots are coated with a little bit of rockabilly, a little bit of garage, a lot of attitude. Like this EP, the track should be a precursor of Alice Cooper’s anticipated next album. The hope is that he continues this work of keeping things dirty rock n’ roll as the results are more often than not, pretty great.

Few frontmen of rock will ever be as enigmatic and as timeless as Alice Cooper. Breadcrumbs is a noble effort meant to tease and build anticipation than satisfy your craving for all new Alice Cooper material. It’s done just that, hinting at what could be around the corner. On top of which it shows that there are few rock stars who will ever reach the status and longevity of everyone’s favorite rock n’ roll snake charmer.

(earMUSIC)

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Reviews

Goo Goo Dolls – Miracle Pill

The Goo Goo Dolls have always just written good music for people who cared only that the music was good

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Goo Goo Dolls Miracle Pill

One of the most remarkable things about the Goo Goo Dolls is their steadfast consistency amongst the ever-changing backdrop of popular music. Six years ago when they released Magnetic, I wrote that the band remained unchanged in the face of their supposed “waning popularity” in the eyes of pop culture and radio charts. It’s true that many of their contemporaries that made it big alongside them in the late 1990s are long gone, but for the Goos, they’ve quietly continued to be above everything else, themselves, just older, wiser, and continuingly more refined. Miracle Pill is their 12th studio album and is the natural progression from 2016’s Boxes. Like their previous release, Miracle Pill continues their musical evolution away from alternative rock to the more serene territory of adult contemporary. Sure, it may sound like a bad thing, but like everything the Goos have done over the past 25 years, it’s supremely confident and composed.

They may not write songs with the caustic bite like “Here Is Gone” anymore, but they have been finding comfort in the more introspective pop-strewn melodies found in songs like “Lights”. Similarly, in the new album’s lead single and title track, the Goos tap into bouncy, easy-to-digest pop empowerment. Songs like “Indestructible” show that the band haven’t put down their guitars just yet, constructing songs that are still fond of their alternative rock roots but have found comfort in grander, more expansive sounds.

The album’s best moments are when the Goo Goo Dolls unashamedly tug on the heartstrings like they’ve done so many times before. The quiet jangly nature of “Over You” does this particularly well, while the bigger, electronic-infused arena rock of “Lost” shows that this type of music is just done extremely poorly by bands like Imagine Dragons. “Autumn Leaves” is a throwback to the kind of songs found on Let Love In and Dizzy Up The Girl, sounding organic and wistful, while the closing of “Think It Over” is the kind of song they’ve been hinting at since Something For The Rest Of Us. It’s part quintessential Goos, but contemporary and timeless at the same time.

Credit to the Robby Takac songs of the album too- “Step In Line”, “Life’s a Message”- both some of the finest songs Takac has written. He is often cast in the shadow of John Rzeznik’s more recognizable sound, but on Miracle Pill, his work is the best its sounded since Dizzy.

The Ringer recently wrote a piece titled ‘The Goo Goo Dolls Were Never the Cool Kids, but They’re Still Standing’. I echoed these sentiments in that Magnetic review years ago, but if there was anything long time Goo Goo Dolls fans know is that the band were never concerned about popularity or being “cool”. The problem with being cool in music is that it fades. The Goo Goo Dolls have always just written good music for people who cared only that the music was good. Not much has changed in that sense, and really, that’s much better than being cool.

(Warner Bros.)

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