Yeah, I've got a soft spot for holiday music -- why else would I be blogging about it? And, if you didn't already know, I've got a soft spot for Nick Lowe. But truly, I never expected that the two would converge they way they have since the Nickster released his holiday album Quality Street in 2013. Now, he's regularly touring every December with what he calls the Quality Street Revue, often with the bizarre and wonderful Los Straitjackets as a backing band. And crowds are turning out to watch Nick deliver Christmas songs -- both classics and a few snappy originals -- with nary a touch of sugary sentiment or corny sleighbells.
Take "Children Go Where I Send Thee," an African-American spiritual firmly ensconced in the gospel-folk tradition. But along comes St. Nick to give it a rockabilly spin -- and hey presto!
The form is a traditional counting song, with each verse adding in another Biblical element, all the way up to "Twelve for the twelve apostles," always ending up with one for "the little bitty baby" Jesus. And like "The Twelve Days of Christmas," each verse has to do a countdown back to one. (Though Nick wisely skips ahead in some strategic jumps.)
It seems simple and straightforward, although in fact some of the verses have some pretty obscure references ("Seven for the seven that never got to heaven"? "Eight for the eight who stood at the gate"?). Ah, how those old spirituals coded the hell out of the Bible, finding all sorts of correspondences between Israel's servitude and their own. But Nick gamely powers through it all with high-energy guitar strumming and a yodel-like leap on "How-ow shall I send thee?" No lugubrious weeping and wailing here -- he's sending those children out to do God's work, come hell or high water.
I love how he lays down his own call-and-response, with overlapping echo-chambered vocal tracks. I imagine him in a plaid coat, facing himself on adjacent Appalachian ridges, hand cupped behind his ear, shouting the good news back and forth.
Traditional, yes; sappy, no. Because in this day and age, if you're going to do a Christmas album, you'd better actually believe in it. And wonder of wonder, Nick Lowe does.