With Quality Street, Nick Lowe manages the virtually impossible, delivering a Christmas album that’s both inventive and irony-free, and seasonally warm without pushing any of the usual commercial buttons.
It’s a simple matter of imagination, whether it’s re-tooling old standards in unusual ways – like his Tex-Mex/New Orleans take on “Silent Night”, with a dipping, rolling groove studded with staccato organ and horns – or finding new material with a minimal cheese factor, such as Ron Sexsmith’s fingersnap-cool “Hooves on the Roof”, which captures the gentle, spooky magic of glimpsing Santa on his annual round. Or failing all else, writing new festive classics like “I Was Born in Bethlehem”, in which Jesus relates his own story in the conversational, strolling style of Johnny Cash.
“Children Go Where I Send Thee” kicks off the album with an infectious momentum, the traditional gospel number done rockabilly/skiffle style, with Geraint Watkins’ reedy Farfisa organ pepping up the rolling guitar riff. When Lowe’s band hits its groove, as here and on “Rise Up Shepherd” and “The North Pole Express”, there’s a swagger to their stride that’s utterly engaging, casually propulsive in a genial manner that entirely befits the seasonal demands.
The uptempo cuts are balanced by gentler songs with a suburban-cabaret feel, such as Boudleaux Bryant’s “Christmas Can’t Be Far Away”, crooned in Lowe’s cosy baritone, or “A Dollar Short of Happy”, the resigned ode to hard-times holidays co-written with Ry Cooder: “No more private schools, no exercise machines, no crazy nannies getting high in the SUV”. Best of all is the jaunty “Christmas at the Airport”, in which the prospect of being stranded by snow miles from home – “Don’t save me any turkey, I found a burger in a bin” – confirms Lowe’s knack for finding a new wrinkle on an old tradition.
Download: Christmas at the Airport; Hooves on the Roof; Children Go Where I Send Thee; I Was Born in Bethlehem; A Dollar Short of Happy