I'M KINDA SHY when writing about Colin Meloy these days. So much has been said, so much mythology laid down, so much compartmentalizing and reductive rock writing. This, I guess, is a testament to how HUGE our boy's gotten. Which is not to say I'm all "fuckin' Decemberists get enough press" or anything. So the band signed to Capitol Records. So they left their old indie label behind. It was time. They were ready. And so were we. Progression is the key to survival. That's why indierock stagnates every few years; it's afraid to take the next step and leave its "little room," as Jack White sings.
But that's neither here nor there; this is about Colin Meloy the solo performer, not the bandleader. Accounts from Meloy's last solo tour say he did some Decemberists songs, and a few covers—mostly Morrissey covers. (He was selling the 1,000-copy EP, Colin Meloy Sings Morrissey at the time.) Tonight he's got a new EP with him—covers of British folksinger Shirley Collins. That'll be a limited deal too but Kill Rock Stars is taping this tour, and will release some of it as a live album later this year.
For now, there's Meloy's college band, Tarkio, whose early work will be released Tuesday by Kill Rock Stars as the Omnibus double-CD set. (If there's anything that charts an artist's level of success it's the mining of back catalogs, for good or ill.) Tarkio was Meloy's band when he lived in Missoula, Montana, in the late '90s. (Missoula scenester Andy Smetanka writes in the liner notes, "Missoula is like marriage: A great place to wind up as long as you've gotten a few things out of your system.")
Omnibus' 27 tracks hint at the Decemberists, with story narrative and old timey instruments here and there. It's also pretty realized and tight, though in the liner ex-band member Gibson Hartwell calls it "jagged and rough." If there's such a thing, the songs have a late-1999/early-2000 indierock feel, and by that I mean Dance 'Til Your Baby is a Man-era Sean Na-Na or Death Cab's Forbidden Love EP. It was something that was gone by the time the planes hit the Towers, and something that feels icy and disillusioned. It's at the tail end of '90s irony, but still pretty serious—which is kind of an identity crisis.
Tarkio is catchy and smart in a way that major labels like, that coffee shop crowds circa 1994 dug, and that—unfortunately—people into the D'brists' elaborate aesthetic might find a little too "normal." But they're good songs, sometimes twangy with sighing pedal steel, other times bleak as a Montana winter (I stayed there last winter for a while, and it was a hard one).
"My memory of Tarkio was that we were a populist band," writes Meloy in the liner notes. "We belonged to a throng of collegiate Missoulians and as long as they were showing up, buying the records, and maybe a T-shirt or two, we were all pretty happy." A lot's changed in the last few years since Tarkio broke up, Decemberists broke big, and Meloy started solo touring. Hopefully, in the midst of all this, he's still happy.