On Smog's 12th album, A River Ain't Too Much to Love (Drag City), Bill Callahan fixates on water metaphors--water as a reflector, water as a chasm, water as a place to meditate on life's travails. Using austere arrangements rendered by Dirty Three drummer Jim White and bassist Connie Lovatt--along with occasional guests on hammer dulcimer, fiddle, and piano--Callahan spins modest yarns and ponders existential questions in his usual elliptical fashion. But though his narratives remain fractured and imagistic, his ability to get a story across--despite his limited vocal range-- has never been greater. He uses subtle shifts--the precise jump in pitch when he repeats the word "river" in "Say Valley Maker," the clipped enunciation of "fuck all y'all" in "The Well"--to produce strong emotional ripples. More than ever his lyrics focus on small events and gestures, taking clear snapshots of fleeting moments. In "Let Me See the Colts," he sits on a fence and ponders whether there's "anything as still as sleeping horses," while the drowning narrator of "Rock Bottom Riser" seems to tell his story in slow motion, as Callahan sings, "I looked up for the sun / Which had shattered in the water / And the pieces were raining down / Like gold rings / That passed through my hands." Callahan's dark mood occasionally gives way to a bit of wry humor, though: "It may be crazy but I'm the closest thing I have / To a voice of reason," he sings on "I'm New Here." For this show Callahan's backed by Lovatt and guitarist Jason Dezember; at press time the band's touring drummer hadn't been named. Feathers open. Thu 8/4, 9:30 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401, $12.