Colin Meloy made his name as part of the Decemberists, but his distinct voice and literary lyrics have made him the group's clear centerpiece. With a catalog as dense as the Decemberists', the challenge for Meloy in assembling this live solo album, comprising acoustic performances recorded on a 2006 tour, lies in picking a set of songs that could stand alone from the rest of the band and prove that, underneath all the instrumentation, his writing is the shining core.
A few tracks on Sings Live! achieve just that. The precise guitar picking of "The Gymnast High Above the Ground" stood out in the full band version and therefore has no problem standing on its own. The same goes for "The Bachelor and the Bride," in which Meloy's writing holds all the tune's emotional power, with the band just filling in the empty spaces. But on much of Sings Live!, the empty space that Meloy's band would normally fill looms large. Anyone familiar with the Decemberists' catalog knows that Meloy's bandmates don't just follow their frontman, they fulfill his songs with a unique array of organs, accordions, and other unusual instruments. Without their lush orchestration, too many of these songs fall flat.
Meloy scores two great moments by effortlessly transitioning his own songs into covers: "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect" into Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams," and "California One" into "Youth and Beauty Brigade" into the Smiths' "Ask." Meloy explains to the crowd, in one of the album's many moments of banter, that his solo sets are meant to be like a campfire sing-along, but his Dickensian vernacular and love of historic maritime don't exactly make for timeless folk tunes. Meloy succeeds in creating a comfortable, intimate performance, but the result is lackluster, like a Decemberists record with most of the good parts missing.
Colin Meloy plays Fri May 2, Showbox at the Market, 8 pm, $20 adv/$22 DOS, all ages. With Laura Gibson.