James McMurtry, "Complicated Game" (Complicated Game)

For the sharply drawn characters portrayed on "Complicated Game," life is an uphill battle, even in a fishing boat.

James McMurtry's first release in six years is peopled with struggling crabbers, farmers, hunters and Long Islanders. The album title — also the name of McMurtry's new label — sums up their situations, and his eye for detail makes their stories fascinating, whether the topic is a relationship in need of repair, self-inflicted wounds or caring for cows.

Taut lyrics are nothing new for McMurtry, but he has switched up the sonics a bit, setting aside his electric guitar for more varied arrangements. "Forgotten Coast" would play in a tiki bar; "Ain't Got a Place" is framed with two drummers; and "She Loves Me" includes finger-snapping and doo-wop backing vocals.

Not that McMurtry's going soft; his lyrics make nearly every song seem like the blues.