Amid the jingling bells and blinding lights, it's easy to forget that Christmas is a holiday of contrasts: darkness into light, cold into warmth, solitude into togetherness. This strand of earthly fatalism runs through the best carols: From "Silent Night" to "White Christmas," it's what makes the Christmas songbook some of the most resonant, emotionally loaded music around. Local trio Rough Shop understands the myriad joys and occasional heartaches that come around this time of year, and Just Because It Was Christmas outlines the season's promise and possibility with expertly played folk rock.
Springing from the band's annual Christmas concert (which takes place this Saturday at the Focal Point), the album contains a few dusty cover songs and no well-known classics, but it's the original material that shines brightest. Andy Ploof's title track, propelled by a Byrds-y twelve-string guitar and buoyed by spot-on harmony vocals, is a wonder: The song is hopeful, nostalgic and cheery, but with a real-world wisdom that keeps it from being cloying. Later in the disc, his spare "Lullaby Child" is such a tearjerker that, if there's any justice, Emmylou Harris will record it for her next holiday album. The whole disc is worth picking up, but these two songs are stellar.
Like all good Christmas parties, this disc is made merrier by the hosts' hospitality at letting their guests take the mic. Toby Weiss contributes "Little Wrapped Gift," her jangly rewrite of the Nightcrawlers' "Little Black Egg," and Kate Eddens sings about a cross-dressing, spliff-smoking, Schnapps-shooting Santa in the jazzy "Big Man Under the Tree." The Love Experts' Steve Carosello fits perfectly on this disc, and he takes guitarist John Wendland's "This Silent Night" out into the bitter cold. Even bleaker is bassist Anne Tkach's haunting reading of Low's "One Special Gift," which has the nihilism of a junkie's last prayer. Though the forecast occasionally looks bleak, Just Because is ultimately a celebration of the season's mysteries, both big and small.
Want your CD to be considered for a review in this space? Send music c/o Riverfront Times, Attn: Homespun, 6358 Delmar Boulevard, Suite 200, St. Louis, Missouri, 63130. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.