critic’s picks 304: nick lowe and los straitjackets, ‘the quality holiday revue’ and rhiannon giddens, ‘factory girl’

Normally, you wouldn’t catch me dead recommending a digital recording over a physical, CD version of a music product. It’s a matter of principle. Sadly, that rule goes out the window on two new releases by Rhiannon Giddens and Nick Lowe teamed with Los Straitjackets. Aside from a very limited vinyl run tied to Black Friday/Record Store Day promotions, both recordings have only been issued digitally. Then again, add in the convenience of quick downloading as opposed to another trip to the mall during the final days of the seasonal shopping marathon and it’s pretty tough not to recommend these two little gems.

quality holiday revueThe Quality Holiday Revue revisits British pop vet Lowe’s concerts this time last year with the instrumental party pros of Los Straitjackets. In part, it brings the music of Lowe’s 2013 Yuletide album Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family to Life in a performance setting. But with the surf-inclined sounds of Los Straitjackets at his back, new live renditions of the gospel-heavy and roots-rock saturated Children Go Where I Send Thee, the hapless crooner Dollar Short of Happy (performed as a solo serenade), the jolly rocking The North Pole Express and Lowe’s own jet-setting Christmas at the Airport possess an animated drive that wasn’t always registered on the studio versions.

But The Quality Holiday Revue has a lot more on the menu. Los Straitjackets takes the wheel for a surf and ska treatment of Linus and Lucy while Lowe excavates a few gems from his ‘70s (I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass) and ‘80s records (Ragin’ Eyes and Half a Boy and Half a Man) that the Straitjackets crew have a field day with. The highlight is a super fun reading of the 1965 Uniques hit Not Too Long Ago that Lowe and his masked men convert into a tasty hybrid of British and American pop.

giddens-factory-girl-450sqGiddens’ Factory Girl is an EP companion piece to her remarkable solo debut album Tomorrow is My Turn (which, in case it isn’t already, should be in every household). The five T Bone Burnett-produced tracks include Underneath the Harlem Moon (a regal version of the 1932 jazz celebration by Ethel Waters), a stark and sadly topical take of the working anthem title tune, the original Moonshiner’s Daughter (a kind of equal opportunity tale of a rum-runner) and That Lonesome Road (a jubilant slice of Sister Rosetta Tharpe-inspired salvation).

The killer, though, is Mouth Music, a cross-cultural mash-up of Celtic inspired lilting, American beatboxing and, at its conclusion, outrageous scatting. Leave it to Giddens, the breakthrough solo star of the year, to sound so confidently but profoundly soulful on a tune without uttering a single word.

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