It's appropriate that a musician who makes such a murky sound should adapt the name Smog as his nom de plume. Singer-songwriter Bill Callahan's penchant for spinning stark, world-weary ballads gives this River a languid flow, instilling a sense of quiet yearning and desperation that shifts only slightly from haunting (the spooky "In the Pines") to harrowing (the daunting and descriptive narrative "I'm New Here"). Callahan's low-key arrangements and parched sing-speak underscore his forlorn disposition; even the tentative attempt to perk things up via the rusty fiddle and spontaneous whoops of "Well" barely rises to the energy level of, say, Lou Reed or Nick Cave in their deepest doldrums.

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Lee Zimmerman