Talkhouse Contributing Writer Peter Holsapple has sung and played guitar in the dB’s, Holsapple & Stamey, and Continental Drifters, as well as playing on albums and tours with R.E.M., Hootie and the Blowfish, Indigo Girls, and Nanci Griffith. He contributes to the New York Times‘ songwriter’s blog Measure for Measure, and has written pieces in several books on music. Peter is a charter member of Radio Free Song Club, a magnificent new songwriters’ collective. He considers himself among the luckiest people on earth.
The Christmas album, now a great, hoary tradition like fruitcake, crackers and that Jean Shepherd story, has been fueled by years of stabs by great and lesser artists, all of whom must have asked themselves how one approaches making something different from the few timeless winners (Phil Spector, Ze Records, the Beach Boys, the original Soul Christmas, etc.) and still make it relevant, listenable and at least somewhat celebratory. Granted, a Christmas album has the opportunity to sell year after year, but making it universally beloved is where the biggest problem lies.
You can do as Nick Lowe has done this year with Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family, and make something contemporary, consistent and cohesive, but who will get to hear it enough to make it actually become a classic? Likely, NPR will feature it and maybe some college and community stations, but the all-Christmas-music radio stations have playlists that are puddle-deep at best; their idea of “modern” is “Santa Baby,” systematically demystified by Madonna. Or maybe “All I Want for Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey, which came out 20 years ago. Yikes! Surely someone’s got in themselves a slightly more up-to-date Christmas album (I may even have played on one of those myself) or even a song that rates. Wouldn’t you really love to retire overplayed blobs like “Holly Jolly Christmas” or “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” sooner than later? Natural selection, anyone?
OK, well, those songs won’t go away just because Nick Lowe released Quality Street… . However great it might be if Nick had that kind of juice to obliterate a few of those ringers, it’s not going to happen. Radio will stay oblivious to the far more interesting and sincere tunes on this album in favor of steamrolling us with songs already considered “beloved” and thus “irreplaceable.” (Read: “overplayed.”) What a pity.
This is not a rockin’ Christmas record, in the Rockpile sense of the word. (I wonder if anyone calls him Basher any more.) Nick doesn’t play it that way anymore. It’s a gentle, adult take on the subject. Many tend to aim their recorded holiday offerings to the whole family, whereas Nick directs his more toward the grown-ups walking among us, a savvy move. Quality Street…, named after a popular line of British sweets, would not be out of place after Christmas dinner as the guests repair to the drawing room for liqueurs and conversation in fat leather chairs. It’s far more like Johnny Mathis than, say, the Ventures. The relaxed, smoky feel is very engaging in a positively child-free manner which is okay, too, because kids don’t have exclusivity over the Yuletide.
Yet the album does begin with an upbeat “Children Go Where I Send Thee.” His former father-in-law would have dug it, as Johnny Cash’s own version is a classic. The band, hard to identify by name from the cryptic notes on the sleeve, are tight and snappy, and Nick sounds comfy and confident in his delivery. He does the gentle Roger Miller song “Old Toy Train,” which is sung by a parent to a child, so it fits right in with the tone. A fine Lowe original is “Christmas at the Airport,” a frequent flyer’s perspective on the holiday. He’s got co-writes with Ron Sexsmith (“Hooves on the Roof”) and old bandmate Ry Cooder (“A Dollar Short of Happy”) that are both quite satisfying; there’s even a rippling pub-rock rendering of “Silent Night.” Nick’s take on Roy Wood’s 1973 “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” is a jaunty ride to close out the album that’s far more reserved than the Wizzard original (but then so is heavy artillery). In the press kit for the album, Nick mentions that he was angling for a “sleighbell-free zone” on Quality Street…; he succeeded, and for that alone he gets my thanks.
The songs all bear repeated listening, as the greatest Nick Lowe tunes have always demanded. That’s a particularly good quality since it’s what you do with Christmas songs anyway — see how many times you can listen to it throughout the ever-lengthening Christmas season before you want to scream aloud or change stations.
But you will need to buy this album and play it repeatedly yourself because unfortunately, you probably won’t hear a lot of Quality Street… on your Christmas radio channel — not when, apparently, there’s still an abundance of reindeer waiting to run over Grandma.