The 'Omnibus' has left the station

For the Daily
Published February 8, 2006

Missoula, Montana doesn't come to mind as a birthing ground for new musical talent. That type of nurturing environment for fledgling musicians is usually associated with places like Portland or Montreal.

Colin Meloy was well aware that Montana was no place for a band to spread its wings, and left his college group Tarkio to head for Portland, where college-rock favorites the Decemberists were eventually conceived. Ten years after Tarkio was formed, the only place to find old Colin was through bootleg MP3s or a lucky find at the record store.

That is, until now.

Tarkio has been revived through Kill Rock Stars Records's rerelease of the band's three-year-long catalog. Omnibus, a double-disc, 27-cut album, shows off pre-Decemberists lead singer Meloy who, joined by Gibson Hartwell, Louis Stein and Brian Collins, set out to play the alternative country and indie-rock scene in 1996.

The relics of Meloy's lyrical skills are uncovered on Omnibus. "Tristan and Iseult" is a snappy narrative describing two troubled lovers that sounds much like the Montanan's later work. "Neapolitan Bridesmaid" states beautifully, "I can't stand waiting while the lights are changing on me," and resonates with themes of growing up and moving on. But lines about girls flipping off cop cars and summer-reading lists shows that Meloy isn't immune to lyrical pitfalls.

Elsewhere, "Helena Won't Get Stoned" presumably tells the story of a Catholic school girl who just won't get stoned. But dig a bit deeper and Meloy's disdain for the capital city's addiction to weed becomes clear. It would be a stretch to find a title like this on any new songs from the Decemberists, but the concept works. The quick guitar and twangy country sound blends well with the song's subject matter.

Most tracks on Omnibus have a Wilco-like feel to them: a mix of slow and somber storybooks and fast-tempo wonders. Some even take advantage of the band's alternative-country prowess - banjo and violin add head-bobbing spark to "Caroline Avenue," and "Weight of the World" places optimistic thoughts ("I got two feet on the floor / I guess that's all I need") against a finger-picking guitar riff that makes for a pleasant, toe-tapping tune.

Perhaps the greatest pitfall of Omnibus is its size. Most tracks clock in at around five minutes, some even pushing seven. With so many tracks, the album feels like a marathon. "Never Will Marry," a melancholy midtempo tune that showcases Meloy's descriptive storytelling style, drags and loses strength toward the end of its near six-minute track time.

Just because Tarkio's name derives from a dot-on-the-map town in Montana doesn't mean the band's music is lacking. Omnibus has a few too many songs that sound alike: a shortcoming typical of a young band. But a combination of alternative country, drug use and college rock rarely disappoints, even if it comes 10 years after the trend has faded.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Kill Rock Stars