If you listen to the Decemberists’ recordings in chronological order, starting with the Five Songs EP and working through Castaways and Cutouts, Her Majesty, the Decemberists, The Tain, and, finally, 2005’s Picaresque, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Colin Meloy is giving way to his most extravagant impulses, taking his orchestral sound and baroque wordplay into ever more bizarre corners. It’s a trajectory that might end badly at some point; indeed, cuts like “Infanta”, to my ears at least, show signs of tipping under their own weight. Yes, Meloy can still pull off sublimely clear, emotionally resonant songs—“Angels in Your Angles” is one—but his heart seems to be with the ornate, theatrical pieces. So it’s bracing, refreshing even, to hear Meloy back at the very beginning, when his songs seemed simpler and more grounded in life.
This two-CD set collects EPs and demos from Colin Meloy’s first band, Tarkio, which formed in 1996 in Missoula, Montana. The band’s instrumentation was fairly traditional: Meloy on guitar and singing, Gibson Hartwell playing banjo, Louis Stein on bass and Brian Collins on percussion. There’s a fair amount of violin as well, giving the songs the heft and lift that the Decemberists derive from organ fills. The bulk of the first CD was recorded in 1998 and eventually released as I Guess I Was Hoping for Something More, while the second CD includes cuts from the 1999 EP Sea Songs for Landlocked Sailors, some early demos, and a live radio performance from 1998.
The first disc is better and more cohesive than the second, perhaps because all its songs were intended to be together. Even so, they show a fair bit of range, encompassing the rather ordinary alt.country swing of “Keeping Me Awake”, as well as the very proto-Decemberists “Eva Luna.” Meloy’s voice is wonderful as always, cool and pure and Britpoppy, even as he navigates rural thickets of banjo and fiddle. He was already intellectually ambitious at 19, weaving references to Camus into “Neapolitan Bridesmaid”, (though, ahem, pronouncing the final “s”). You can also see his love of difficult words emerging in couplets like “Lost inside the peleton / with the Jerry Lewis telethon” from “Save Yourself”. The songs are indifferently mixed, with guitar solos blaring in extra loud over subtle verses, and the overall sound a little fuzzy. There’s a quality to the songs that wins you over, despite the rough edges.
Disc two is more odds-and-sods, though its highlights include an affecting, early version of “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist”, which became a Decemberists song. “Tristan and Iseult” is quite good, too, a gentle, love song that incorporates the quotidian details of a date—movie, ice cream, desultory conversation about the opera of the title—into its glancing narrative. There are a couple of very traditional folk/country songs on disc two—“Mountains of Mourne” and “Never Will Marry”—that seem almost like set pieces, constrained and historically correct. You can see why the violence, archaic language, and minor-key moodiness of this genre might have appealed to Meloy, but you can also see how he could get tired of it. Why spend your college years pretending you’re a coal miner’s wayward son, when you can put on pirate suits and Civil War uniforms?
Meloy himself seems dismissive of his Tarkio years in the liner notes, summing up the whole opus with an offhanded, “As for the songs: feh. I like them pretty well.” Still you can see the seeds of what makes the Decemberists so compelling—the elaborate wordplay, the vivid images, the smooth, melodic largeness of song—along with a certain amount of appealing modesty. Recommended for fans, especially the ones who liked Five Songs and Castaways the best.