Many lonely roads lead to Montana, roads seemingly untrammeled by man. Its immortal mythology has been reinforced in both writing and film: Norman Maclean, Ivan Doig, even the broader Western landscapes of Wallace Stegner have been stenographed by many onto the Big Sky Country. Certainly, it is a place that exists somewhere in our hazy, collective nostalgia: the last great bastion of the American West. The sweeping desolation of the steppes and timeless hollows has done much to soothe us. But, it's neither my place nor purpose to analyze the impact of the West on our psyches in this review.
Nevertheless, it is all connected. Tarkio existed from 1996 to 1999 in the mountain vale of Missoula. Omnibus is a double-album document of their recorded output a record that most likely would never have been released, had it not been for the success of the group's former leader, Decemberist Colin Meloy. Some critics have derided this release as uninspired by dragging Meloy's subsequent work into the equation. But Tarkio are not the Decemberists and should not be assessed as such.
"Summer it came like a light across the highlands…" Thus begins the album's opener, "Keeping Me Awake." Introduced with a rolling banjo and mandolin line, the instrumentation soon swells to include bass, drums and fiddle. Every instrument has its place, rarely veering into hyper-intricate arrangements. But instead of bland, this simplicity is comforting. Imagine a dusty back road if you will, grasslands rippling in the wind, and a July sun high overhead. You pop in a cassette for lack of radio reception, and know exactly what you'll get. That's the kind of comfort I'm talking about.
At many points, Tarkio manage to evoke the sound of a band like Merle Haggard & the
Strangers not the Haggard band's later Western swing, but a song such
as "I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am." Tarkio may not be as technically proficient
as the Hag, but they are effective at communicating a similar drifter aesthetic.
The Singing Brakeman would be proud.
Speaking of brakemen, "Save Yourself," is an interesting precursor to the Decemberists' own "Engine Driver." "Where is the life-line here on the high line?" pines the Tarkio Meloy; as a Decemberist he croons, "I'm a county lineman/ On a high line, on a high line." The song is more than a railworker's lament; in fact, it's not even a railworker's lament at all. It's an ode to having circumstance dictate your situation. "Leather chaps and cattle drives/ This is not the life I'm meant to lead…/ Came back here at 24/ My friends all say whatcha doin' this for?/ Then my father died and passed this shit to me." Heart-wrenching and resolved, "Save Yourself" is a solid example of country songwriting.
Elsewhere, the band deviates toward a louder, electrified sound, grafting almost punk-rock riffs onto "Eva Luna" and "Helena Won't Get Stoned." But it's the banjo/fiddle combination that serves Tarkio best; the fiddle interjects melodic accents while the banjo fills out the rhythm.
Disc two is an eclectic collection. The perky "Weight of the World" births another Decemberist phrase by referencing the "ambulance chasers" who appear in "California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade." Here too, we begin to see more obvious assertions of Meloy's affinity for ancient folk forms. "Mountains of Mourne" and "I Never Will Marry" are traditional songs. Both utilize sparse arrangements to stunning effect. The former, a tune from 1896 by William Percy French, employs only banjo and guitar, while the latter relies on close harmony vocals and a solitary acoustic guitar as its main support. Then there's "Tristan and Iseult," Meloy's modern take on the Arthurian legend, and probably his most bookish effort.
I don't expect people outside the shadow of the Rockies to understand this music. It's music of place more than subject matter, songs from one landlocked sailor to another. The prairie and the ocean each have their own appeal. When I moved back to Colorado, a freshly christened Naval Architect, I knew all too well about landlocked longings and wanting to work in a bakery. And so, that's why I took a job selling five-dollar bread to total strangers. These things are universal, you see.