It’s been five years since Ed Gray last laid tracks to tape. That resulted in one of my favorite albums of the last 10 years, the lo-fi stunner The Late Gray Ed Great. The long-awaited follow-up to Gray’s 2006 masterstroke, Old Bending River is considerably more polished. Before you start bellowing “sell out” or some such nonsense, that doesn’t mean Gray is penning tunes for Train or Matchbox 20; River is still dark and gruff, it’s just recorded on some better microphones. On River Gray seems to be fixated on age and mortality. The album opens with the brooding, lap-steel-laced, “Chafe.” The first cut is a comfortable groove for the Iowa City troubadour, it occupies much of the same sonic and thematic territory as Late Gray.

With track titles like “Chafe,” “The Old Saw Blade,” and “Sallow” to single out half of the eight titles that already start to tell a pretty bleak tale, it’s easy to find the rough edges on Gray and the album. However, this isn’t a sappy set of sad-sack songs, it certainly broods, and isn’t light on introspection, but there’s levity to be found. “Away” has a bouncy, witty, biting Paul Westerberg feel, the kind that keeps buying rounds of whiskey and keeps you laughing or smiling at their misfortune. It’s easily one of the best tracks from the first half of 2011. The slippery guitar lick from one of Iowa City’s finest hired guns, Randall Davis, gives “Away” some serous replay value. After just over a week with Old Bending River, I’ve already logged nearly 20 listens to the album’s fifth cut.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the sweaty, Tom Waitsian closer, “Cold, Cold Man.” To cap River, Gray taps into a serious vein of dark, almost Gothic theatrics that’d have Rain Dogs-era Waits nodding his head in approval. Gray sprays a litany of creepy verbiage and veiled threats over a rumbling bluesy lick that should get shivers runnin’ down your spine or a smile creeping across your face (Grinch who stole Christmas-style). It’s all sewn up with the unbriddled sax playing from one of Iowa City’s best kept secrets, Pete Balestrieri. Balestrieri’s blowing is matched almost note for frantic note by [ed: former] Liberty Leg skin-thumper Josh Carollach, giving “Cold, Cold Man” and Old Bending River a wonderfully bombastic conclusion.

You can score all 8 tasty cuts from Gray’s bandcamp site for a mere $8 (that works out to a dollar per song for all y’all who didn’t get their Bachelor’s in math). You can also order Old Bending River on CD from Ed Gray’s site, here.