"Barely Breathing," Duncan Sheik's breakthrough single, was a gentle lament from the singer-songwriter's 1996 self- titled debut, and it's an apt description of the rapt response he gets from audiences enamored with his nuanced music. Expect an attentive crowd when he appears at the Birchmere, where he'll present favorites and preview new material from a CD set for release this fall.

Sheik spent his early years in South Carolina and New Jersey, where he started his musical training on the piano. In high school, he moved to the electric guitar to play in local bands, and as a student at Brown University he was a musical colleague of Lisa Loeb's.

After graduation, Sheik played with the band His Boy Elroy, which recorded an album in 1993 for Epic, but it took a few years of work as a songwriter before he signed as a solo artist with Atlantic.

After earning a minor hit with "Barely Breathing," he released "Humming" in 1998. Early copies of the disc came with an intriguing bonus CD on which he covered tracks by Depeche Mode and Nick Drake, among others.

Comparisons to Drake, the British folk singer who died in 1974, increased with Sheik's third album, 2001's "Phantom Moon." Working with dramatist-poet-lyricist Steven Sater, Sheik matched fragile melodies to sparse arrangements in what could be seen as a direct tribute to Drake's melancholy minimalism.

In recent years, Sheik has continued his musical explorations, bringing back some of his gentle rock style for 2002's "Daylight," collaborating again with Sater on a musical, "Spring Awakening," and scoring for film and theater. Though there is little advance word on what Sheik is planning for his next album, his track record indicates that listeners can expect a sophistication rare in most contemporary pop.

The evening's opening act, David Poe, is one of New York City's rising pop-rock stars. Poe already has three albums to his name: a 1997 self-titled debut, produced by T-Bone Burnett; "The Late Album"; and his most recent work, "Love Is Red."

According to Poe's press bio, he and his band recorded the CD after a European tour. "We found ourselves in this makeshift recording studio inside a Berlin bunker during the coldest winter in German history. It was dark and we were cold, but there [were] some nice microphones."

And so, he added, "we set out to make the saddest record ever made."

There's nothing sad about an album that sounds so stylish and covers cool territories. For example, there's the jazz-inflected "You're the Bomb," the lilting bossa nova of the title track, even a grunge ache that's reminiscent of acoustic Nirvana in "Settlement."

Poe was born in the Midwest and moved to Manhattan as a young man, where he ran the soundboard at CB's 313 Gallery, CBGB's quieter next-door neighbor.

After signing his record deal, Poe toured around the world in support of acts such as Tori Amos, Beth Orton, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Glenn Tilbrook. He spent much of last year performing and organizing concerts to register new voters and helped to launch Live at the Artists Den, a media company that promotes new artists.

He has also played in a band that may record in the future, with fellow songwriter Morgan Taylor, pianist Fil Krohnengold, drummer Matt Johnson and a guy named Duncan Sheik.

-- MARIANNE MEYER

The Birchmere is at 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. General admission tickets are $17.50 and can be purchased at www.ticketmaster.com or by calling 703-551-SEAT. Tickets may also be purchased at the box office from 5 to 9 p.m. on show nights. For more information, call 703-549-7500 or visit www.birchmere.com.

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Since emerging in 1996, Duncan Sheik has earned comparisons to the late Nick Drake because of his gentle delivery and melancholy themes.