By Shain Shapiro
I did not go to the University of Montana a decade ago. Actually, I have never been to Missoula, even though I have spent considerable time driving through Montana on my way out West. Yet, as I work my way through Tarkio’s double CD anthology Omnibus, I feel connected to Missoula, the quiet Northwestern college town and its itinerant population of incoming and outgoing students. Like most college towns, including the one in which I currently reside, life-changing stories are short-lived. Most students who come from afar to study usually leave after they obtain (or don't obtain) their degree, and their experiences and unique stories usually leave with them as the town prepares for its next transitory contingent. Yet, some stories are strong enough to last long after graduation. Tarkio’s effect on Missoula is one such story.
Colin Meloy, lead singer/songwriter of the critically acclaimed Decemberists grew up in Missoula, and after a tumultuous semester spent abroad in London and a stint in Eugene, Oregon, Meloy returned to Montana penniless (like most students) and enrolled at the University to study English and creative writing. After meeting several local musicians at open mic nights and free jams, Meloy formed Tarkio as an outlet for some of his work that had evolved out of scholastically driven creative writing sessions. In 1996, Tarkio debuted in Missoula and throughout their education years, became the soundtrack of college life. Yet, outside of Missoula, Tarkio remains unknown. While Tarkio never quite made it out of Montana, their legacy in Missoula has maintained epoch status, thankfully warranting Kill Rock Stars (The Decemberists’ label before they moved to the majors) to amalgamate several old demo tapes, EPs, and studio sessions to form Omnibus - a career-spanning retrospective of Meloy, along with Gibson Hartwell (guitar/vox), Louis Stein (bass), and Brian Collins (drums), among others.
Tarkio broke up in 1999 when Meloy graduated and moved back to Oregon to plant the seeds of what would eventually become The Decemberists. Still, to fully understand Meloy’s brilliance, this double set is a must. While Meloy had not quite donned the full pirate regalia to prepare himself for his lyrical blast back through time alongside his castaways and cutouts, his pensive nature, even at nineteen, abundantly dots each tune on Omnibus. Each song provides context into understanding where Meloy developed his then nascent songwriting skills, showcasing his unique creativity for blending the heartbreak of sea shanties, waltzes, and morose dirges with pure pop, storytelling folk, and bluegrass. From “Caroline Avenue,” an ode to Missoula, to the comedic yet politicized chorus of “Helena Won’t Get Stoned” and the gorgeous “Weight of the World,” Meloy’s confidence in dealing with emotions is boundless, accentuating each melody and exemplifying a songwriter well beyond his time, destined to achieve more. There is no bad song in this set, making me realize that I, and many others, missed out on something big a decade ago. Regardless, this introspective feast, from the beautiful “Devil’s Elbow” to the only track that has found its way into December, “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist,” highlights and illuminates the brilliance that took Missoula by storm in the late 1990s. I am thankful, almost a decade later, than I can be a part of the experience, albeit in quite a belated fashion.
Musically, Tarkio relies much more on alternative country than The Decemberists, borrowing elements from Uncle Tupelo, early Wilco, and The Old 97s to complement the pure, beguiling emotion sweating from these songs. However, music aside, it is the lyrics and Meloy’s attention to detail and creativity that dominate these reissues, and from reading the liner notes, Missoula’s heart as a whole.
Yet, I cannot escape the fact that I am reviewing these songs from the outside, unfortunately not knowing Tarkio until now, having never attended a show, and being ignorant of Missoula’s scene from 1996-1999. This is part of the fun though and partly why this collection has enraptured me from the onset. Forthrightly, these songs whisked me right into the relationship Missoula had with Meloy, understanding how university influenced his songwriting and fully explaining how Tarkio became the centre of an entire college town's music scene. With each listen of “Sister Nebraska” or the haunting “Tristan and Iseult,” I feel strangely connected - not only to Tarkio, but also to The Decemberists. Missoula is where Colin Meloy’s muse evolved, and Tarkio is how it flourished. As the saying goes, it is impossible to predict the future without knowing what went down in the past. A lot went down in Missoula. Decemberists fans take note.
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