"True love is a blessing/True love is a curse," begins one song on Johnny Dowd's latest disc, The Pawnbroker's Wife, and even though Dowd 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 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's work without the mad-dog growls, but although his tuneful narration may be easy on the ears, his creatively creepy stories prevent relaxed listening. See for yourself on Tuesday, October 22, when Dowd appears at the 15th Street Tavern.