There was a seafaring theme at the sold-out 9:30 club on Sunday. With opening act Sons and Daughters, you had Scott Paterson singing like a pirate (and not as a joke, either), and the Decemberists, who headlined, seemed to feature a nautical reference in every song -- not to mention the cheap whale prop the band brought out during "The Mariner's Revenge Song."
The Scottish punkabilly quartet Sons and Daughters features two singers, but Adele Bethel left all the shiver-me-timbers stuff to guitarist Paterson, who was likely just affecting a gruff voice but ended up sounding like Captain Ahab after a long night of whiskey and whaling. The highlight of the band's lackluster set, which was decidedly unrocking due to a mix that buried the guitars, was when Bethel's keyboard collapsed just before the band could play its "Johnny Cash" single.
The Decemberists had no such malfunctions, and with six people onstage there was little chance that the sound would be underwhelming. Bandleader Colin Meloy has a voice that recalls the Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano -- all reedy and nasal -- but what he lacks as a singer he more than makes up for with his lyrics and layered arrangements. Like his hero Morrissey, another artist who makes the most of a limited vocal range, Meloy writes some of the smartest, most literate songs around.
A large part of the Decemberists' 17-song set was devoted to their strong new album, "Picaresque." That CD's melodically rich and lyrically captivating "16 Military Wives," "The Sporting Life," "Of Angels and Angles" and "On the Bus Mall" were all standouts, but at the conclusion of the main set came the big-finish audience participation number, "The Mariner's Revenge Song." Meloy told the crowd to watch for its cue and "scream like you're being swallowed by a whale." No problem, matey.
-- Christopher Porter