Omnibus – Tarkio
Kill Rock Stars 435
Tarkio fans are spoiled.
There's nothing like the college band, the band that serves essentially as the soundtrack for your college years. And no, I don't mean Phish, unless you were a Goddard kid back in the day. I'm talking about the college band that plays the weekly gig in town, the local celebrities who you see
around campus and bump into at the grocery store. They capture the atmosphere and the essence of your place at your time so perfectly that you lose all impartiality. Any sense of perspective is eradicated by last week's gig where they just tore down the walls of the local dive.
For me it was
Soulhat. I still have the tapes: the hissy beauties, the live radio performances, the second rate 4-track comp some dirtbag swiped, the leaked/unmastered album edit. For a while there, I swore that the second set of the Fitzgerald's '93 show was better than Abbey Road, which I then (and
often still) set on a radiant pedestal where it looms above the remainder of my unworthy record collection. Sure you had to be driving at night with the windows down to whisper out the hiss and you had to know where you stood and who stood with you — but when you did… when you did it was sublime freakin' beauty, and the Fab Four were never going to top it.
If the laudatory liner notes are any guide, a bundle of temporary or full-time Montanans (more specifically Missoulans) proselytized just as fervently about Tarkio, the college band of Colin Meloy who has found such whodathunkit success spouting tales of legionnaires and swarthy seamen and barrow
boys and trapeze artists with the Decemberists. Like all the college bands that never made the leap all their devoted fans knew was just around the corner, there are reasons Tarkio never burst out of the snow to grab the golden ring. Many of songs are overlong, underdeveloped, unimpactful, or
otherwise flawed. The material is released now not on its own merits but as a bone thrown at ravenous Decemberistas.
Omnibus collects a full-length, a follow-up EP, demo and unreleased cuts, and a radio broadcast. Musically, it's bland college-rocky fare — jangly pop and banjo with the
occasional pedal steel or fiddle. Lyrically, Meloy sprinkles narratives in amongst more typical first-person singer-songwriter stuff. There are flashes of the obscure old world quirkiness smattered across the debut LP, which comprises the first disc of this two-disc set, but Meloy really puts his
Victorian shoulder to the wheel on the follow-up EP, Sea Songs For Landlocked Sailors. The Decemberistas will storm "My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist" which fits neatly into the series of sprawling mini-narratives that have made Meloy the toast of the indie intelligentsia. Perhaps
Meloy's greatest gift as a writer is his ability to create what amounts to an alternate universe, an old world dreamscape populated by the drifters, the vagabonds, and the generally thwarted. Sure it's too much for most people to swallow, but for those who swim into the sweaty waters there's real
heart at the center. Meloy dabbles in the bizarre but, at his best, does so with simple emotion as his focus.
Perhaps part of the flaw to the Tarkio design that the Decemberists corrected lies here: as the Tarkio songs become increasingly bizarre and otherworldly lyrically, the musical accompaniment remains essentially unchanged — same bland old college-rocky fare. The last song of the EP, "Never Will
Marry" seems to best suit its instrumentation to its subject matter. The tale of doomed lover plods along at a funereal pace that's anything but the bar-band norm, and in many ways it's Tarkio's most effective track as a result.
And still the Tarkio fans are spoiled. They sat for years with worn out copies of limited release gems, battered little bastions of memory — split tapes and scratched cds without their cases taking on more wear and tear with each move. And then here come the good folks at Kill Rock Stars on their
white horse to save the day with this beautifully packaged compilation replete with lengthy missives from the band's principals and a dizzy fan. It's enough to make the Tarkio fans wet themselves with glee. Sitting here listening to my hissy, deteriorating copy of Soulhat's cassette only _Live
at the Black Cat_ with all the song titles worn off, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous.