Colin Meloy might have bloomed into a bespectacled, yarn-spinning scallywag by the time he found fame and fortune with the Decemberists, but with his first band Tarkio, he sounded like a blushing bride about to be stripped bare. If the ironies of that plot can sustain you, the double album Omnibus contains a wealth of messy, largely innocent early offerings from Meloy's pre-scamp era.
Based in Missoula, Tarkio was named after an even smaller Montana town, as if they knew the mission to break into indie rock success was doomed. Meloy's voracious pop connoisseurship and bookish charm might well have created a buzz around the University of Montana scene, and can be heard gathering strength over the band's early '70s drench of Americana strings, banjo picking and steel guitars. Through their 1998 full-length I Guess I Was Hoping for Something More and several EPs, one can hear Meloy move from quasi-populist acoustic indie rock ("Neapolitan Bridesmaid") to outright college-rock rip-offs ("Tristan and Iseult," a Belle & Sebastian genuflection) to flashes of overwrought tragedy ("Save Yourself"). If anything, Omnibus is evidence that the kernel of greatness was visible all the way from Missoula.
Even great singer-songwriters started off playing for gracious friends and free beer. Luckily for the rabid legions of Decemberists fans, that wasn't satisfying enough for Colin Meloy.