True love is a blessing/True love is a curse, begins one song on Johnny Dowd's latest disc, The Pawnbroker's Wife, and though he addresses the highs (largely in past tense), he's more comfortable scraping emotion's depths. A discomforting collection of tar-toned tunes, The Pawnbroker's Wife explores a decaying relationship over a harrowing holiday season. (A robotic version of "Jingle Bells," which uses a drill gun in its percussive arsenal, appears at the album's midpoint.) Opening with a sweet, time-warped number that plays like a jukebox request singing its final strains in a burning building, the record's mood sours as it introduces a cowboy customer selling his wedding band -- to his former bride's unsuspecting pawnbroker husband; an estranged couple whose members mourn the pain of a dying love; and a repairman who, Dowd reports in a conversational tone, has information unavailable to most/He converses with the angels/And sleeps with the ghosts. Dowd's exotic instrumentation and shady characters recall Tom Waits' work without the mad-dog growls, but though his tuneful narration might be easy on the ears, his creatively creepy stories prevent relaxed listening.