Once upon a time, Christmas tunes were all the rage. Elvis released a holiday album at the peak of his popularity, as did Nat King Cole and The Jackson 5. Even Bowie joined in on the Yuletide fun, collaborating with Bing Crosby for their iconic ’77 duet, “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy”. Seeing as how Nick Lowe censures Xmas albums as “tawdry and vulgar commercialism,” it’s a tad surprising that he’s offering up a dozen seasonal songs on his 14th studio LP, Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family. But, in crafting a “sleigh bell-free zone,” the English singer-songwriter swaps leisurely fireside doting for the chilling static of travel advisories (“Christmas at the Airport”) and sarcastic witticism (“A Dollar Short of Happy”).
Throughout the LP, Lowe jumps between genres with the restlessness of a hyperactive kid that’s just chomped through a heaping plateful of sugar cookies that were supposed to be left out for Santa. Opening track “Children Go Where I Send Thee” channels a rockabilly vibe that harkens back to Sam Phillips’ Sun Records. On sweet and wistful ballad “I Was Born In Bethlehem”, a reflective Jesus casually chats about his nativity and the two millennia that followed (“I’ve done what I can/ To be there when a man cannot find a friend”). In addition to these off-kilter contemporary cuts, Lowe’s quirky covers resuscitate dusty classics like Roger Miller’s “Old Toy Trains”. His bluegrass rendition of folk traditional “Rise Up Shepherd” features fluid banjo fingerpicking, while the horns and electric keyboard of “Silent Night” completely transform the dated ditty.
Quality Street is a much needed alternative to the banal, overplayed Xmas Muzak occupying Sears and Starbucks from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. Still, even well-executed wintertime tunes can grow onerous, especially around the holidays. Hopefully, Lowe’s will stay fresh – at least until January 2.
Essential Tracks: “Christmas at the Airport”, “A Dollar Short of Happy”, and “I Was Born In Bethlehem”