In past years the dB's have been known for putting out great records and putting on weak shows. Despite the departure of cofounder Chris Stamey, this North Carolina quartet (transplanted to Manhattan) put out another great hard-edged pop record this year. With the realigned rhythm section channeling its punchy attack through a tighter focus, the band delivered a much stronger show at the 9:30 club Friday night than it has on previous visits.

If this much-improved live show still didn't match the band's high studio standards, it's because there still isn't a natural stage singer in the group. Peter Holsapple, who writes irresistible pop melodies married to wryly sardonic lyrics, can nurse his voice in the studio but not in a pell-mell performance. On a few songs, especially the brand new, heart-questioning "Why Don't I Want You?" and the recent, ominous "New Gun in Town," his voice opened up and drummer Will Rigby pushed the band to a high emotional pitch.

The group's Manhattan friends the Wygals opened the show with just their sixth performance (their first in D.C.). Lead singer Janet Wygal and her brother, drummer Doug Wygal (both formerly of the Individuals), created a mesmerizing balance between folkish female vocals (supplemented by bassist Ilene Markell) and a tough, rock backing (supplemented by guitarist Dave Hoatson). Janet Wygal's songs, especially "With the Angels" and "True Happiness," supported their irony with airy vocals floating above a pushy beat.