Nick Lowe might just be the most kind-hearted curmudgeon ever to grace the holiday season.
On A Dollar Short of Happy, one of several clever original tunes from his new yuletide album, Quality Street, the veteran British songsmith pictures himself destitute on a street corner with his dog at the height of seasonal festivities. Lowe's primary comfort is that the dog doesn't know how penniless he has become or how willing he is to spin lyrics from familiar carols into tales of woe.
"City sidewalks, busy sidewalks turn a darker gray than any Russian playwright would allow," he sings.
Don't fret, though. Quality Street is by no means a holiday downer. In fact, A Dollar Short of Happy has a quiet elegance, with whispery vocals, fuzzy chirps of organ and a thin layer of hushed, brushed percussion over a slow jazz melody. Think of it as Lowe's answer to Blue Christmas, with its melodic warmth and unassuming sentimentality. There is just a little more of a reality check to Lowe's song.
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Quality Street turns out to be quintessential Lowe, from its quietly lush, blue-hued melodies (Christmas Can't Be Far Away) to its slightly sardonic lyrical perspectives (Christmas at the Airport, which is exactly the sort of snowbound saga that the title implies) to its light, but authoritative roots-music rhythms (the Sun Records-style update of the gospel standard Children Go Where I Send Thee).
That tune sounds like a nicely matured version of Rockpile, the quartet that Lowe co-led with Dave Edmunds at the height of the punk era. It is summoned again in the original I Was Born in Bethlehem, a straight-faced but subtle gospel workout with verses that suggest a less fanciful version of The 12 Days of Christmas.
Of course, Lowe remains, at heart, a pop stylist. You hear it in the rock-steady pace of I Wish It Would Be Christmas, which falls somewhere between ska and Tex-Mex, and a sleepy, steadfast cover of the Roger Miller reflection Old Toy Trains.
The latter offers perhaps the deepest holiday sentiment on Quality Street: "All is calm, all is well, soon you'll be hearing Jingle Bells." Like the rest of the album, it is told with regally reserved cool and perhaps the wink of a wary eye. But the result is the season's most refreshingly fetching new holiday album.