Reviewed: Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, Scott Walker and AFI

Critics fall for the new Scott Walker, plus Elvis Costello and AFI.

Published June 8, 2006 6:30PM (EDT)

Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint, "The River in Reverse"

The relationship between Elvis Costello and New Orleans music legend Allen Toussaint stretches back more than 20 years, with the duo's first collaboration coming on a 1983 cover version of Yoko Ono's "Walking on Thin Ice." That being the case, the release of their duet album, "The River in Reverse," doesn't come as much of a surprise, though the album's appearance is rendered bittersweet by the circumstances of its creation. It was only after Toussaint was forced to relocate to New York from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina that their collaboration came together. As Entertainment Weekly (rating: B+) notes, the album is haunted by "the ghost of Katrina."

As the critics have been almost unanimous in pointing out, it is Costello, an inveterate musical dabbler, and not Toussaint who seems to have gained the most from partnering up. Rolling Stone (rating: 3.5 stars out of 5) points out that it is Toussaint's "steady, rollicking piano that elevates the music -- and keeps the ever-elusive Costello honest." The New York Times has a similar take, praising how "the stubborn idealism and canny humor" of Toussaint's songs help to rein in Costello's "convoluted earnestness."

Costello was famously one of rock's angry young men, but perhaps due to Toussaint's influence, "The River in Reverse" showcases a more controlled sense of emotion. Phoenix's New Times applauds Costello's decision to shed "the vitriol [he] wore on the shoulder of his younger days" and instead take on the role of "explicator of Toussaint's gospel-grounded, mannered soul."

Scott Walker, "The Drift"

Don't be dismayed if the name Scott Walker doesn't ring any bells -- except for a brief spell in England in the late '60s, he's never been more than a marginal figure. But for the listeners who like to dwell in the margins, the arrival of "The Drift" is big news. A brooding, challenging piece of work, "The Drift" is Walker's first album in 11 years, but the Los Angeles Times explains that it's not just the wait that makes the album noteworthy: "A Walker release is an event, despite its tiny commercial reach, because his assault on the realm of artistic seriousness confounds fixed definitions of both pop and art."

But is it any good? The Guardian thought so, giving the album a perfect five stars and calling it "bleak, haunting, and disturbed" as well as "simple, human, and moving."

Even though it's been highly rated across the board, "The Drift" isn't likely to be everyone's cup of tea. Case in point: The Onion's A.V. Club (rating: A-) calls the sound of squealing pigs on the track "Jolson and Jones" a contender for "the most terrifying musical moment ever put to tape." Pitchfork (rating: 9.0) acknowledges the album's bleak worldview, but feels it rewards the effort required to listen: "Even at its most dissonant and abstract, this record is human to the core, and if you're ready to face a few demons, it's as inspiring as music gets."

AFI, "decemberunderground"

Contrary to the album's title, California punk rockers AFI don't want to spend any more time in the mopey teen underground. According to Billboard, the band won't have to wait much longer, as the album has enough popular appeal to become "the current soundtrack to your life."

"decemberunderground" has garnered high praise in some unlikely spots, with the New York Times calling the album "triumphant" and "vastly entertaining." But anytime a cult band makes a break for the big leagues, it does so at the risk of alienating its older fans. Accordingly, the Web is loaded with criticism of the "what have they done?" variety. A blogger at (rating 2.5/5) has some particularly harsh words, saying AFI has "lost everything that once made them a stand-out anarcho punk band" and has some special rancor reserved for the performance of the band's singer, Davey Havok, on the track "Affliction": "Whilst listening to this song, I felt like punching Mr. Havok in the face." Another blogger at the Mesh magazine offers only particularly backhanded praise, predicting that "in about a month and a half ... your mom will be singing along to some neo mall goth shit." Heaven forbid!

-- David Marchese

By Salon Staff

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