Bill Callahan has apparently dropped the recently acquired parentheses from Smog, but little else has changed over the past five years: A River Ain't Too Much To Love (Drag City) follows the line of somewhat diminishing returns that began around Y2K. While it doesn't match the emotional punch of Knock Knock or The Doctor Came At Dawn, the album (number 11!) still finds moments of deadpan beauty. "The Well" chugs along through the woods, stopping to offer "fuck all y'all" down an abandoned well; "Rock Bottom Riser" regains some of the sincerity Callahan seems to have distanced himself from in recent years; and "Let Me See The Colts" is plain and pretty. Elsewhere, Callahan gets too arch and distant, trying to find warmth from too far away… Maria Taylor jumps away from her longtime Azure Ray partner Orenda Fink for 11:11 (Saddle Creek), but she doesn't jump far. Fans of spare, indie breathlessness couldn't possibly argue with Taylor's electronic tweaks—made mostly with help from Omaha scene-player Andy LeMaster—since they just bolster the aura. The sonic variety (and slightly less weepy tone) might even help Taylor find new converts. If that doesn't work, a vocal appearance by Conor Oberst on the entrancing "Song Beneath The Song" should do the trick… With last year's In A Safe Place, The Album Leaf's Jimmy LaValle stepped far outside the shadow of his former band, Tristeza, creating his own intimate, mostly instrumental world. The Icelandic atmosphere-lovers in Sigur Rós invited him on tour and contributed to the disc. Seal Beach (Better Looking), an EP originally released in 2003, should satiate those looking for more of the same: It's gentle, almost classical, and sometimes completely engrossing. The disc, which was only available in Spain until now, is embellished with five live bonus tracks featuring members of Sigur Rós. Spacey… Scout Niblett deserves her million comparisons to Cat Power (another one-woman show wrapped up in an intriguing nom de rock), but that takes nothing away from the bracing power of Kidnapped By Neptune (Too Pure). Niblett generally starts off subdued, but she's absolutely unafraid to shriek when necessary, which makes comparisons to PJ Harvey apt as well. The listening is never easy, but it's often punch-in-the-gut engrossing… McSweeney's-affiliated magazine The Believer just released its annual Music Issue, and in addition to literary oddities (an ace essay on Danielson Famile by Rick Moody, novelist Steve Almond interviewing the indie-teens of Smoosh), it comes with a disc of "excellent bands covering excellent bands" that's easily worth the cover price. The Decemberists tackle Joanna Newsom's "Bridges & Balloons," Spoon does its best Yo La Tengo, and Devendra Banhart croaks through a song by Antony & The Johnsons. Look for it in bookstores or at believermag.com.

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