COLIN MELOY - He’s, like, smart. Alyssa Scheinson

Musicians who cite literary influences are a suspect lot. It's hard enough to take Sting seriously as is; a recommendation that reading more Nabokov will enhance one's enjoyment of "Don't Stand So Close to Me" doesn't help.

Colin Meloy—the very literate songwriter and frontman for Portland ensemble the Decemberists—doesn't dissent. At least, not completely. "If that's a way a band deliberately makes themselves intellectually exclusive, I might be suspicious," he admits. "If it seems disingenuous, I find it insulting. But I grew up on Robyn Hitchcock and the Smiths, both of whom really wore their literary influences on their sleeves."

Meloy has always been an avid reader. "I went through a phase in elementary school where I would set the alarm, wake up at five in the morning, read until seven, then go to school, come home, and read until dinnertime," he recalls. When pressed politely, he names Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and Thomas Hardy among his favorite classical authors; Julian Barnes ("His latest novel, Arthur & George, is just amazing"), Nick Hornby ("I like him better as an essayist than a novelist"), and George MacDonald Fraser rate high on his list of contemporary writers.

Adopting titles from Meloy's personal reading list—which currently includes one of MacDonald's Flashman novels, Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey, and Dickens's David Copperfield ("for the first time")—is one way fans might gain better insight into his aesthetic. But an easier option is to pick up Omnibus, the new double-disc compilation (on Kill Rock Stars) of selected works by Meloy's pre-Decemberists, college-era band, Tarkio. The song "Neapolitan Bridesmaid" may name drop Albert Camus, but you don't need a diploma or dictionary to glean pleasure from these early efforts.

Tarkio took shape after Meloy returned from studying theater in London and traveling through Europe in the mid-'90s, and resumed his education at the University of Montana. In Missoula, he hooked up with future band mate Gibson Hartwell. "He played banjo; I wanted to be in a band with a banjo player." Their 1998 album, I Guess I Was Hoping For Something More, (reprised on Omnibus in its entirety) also features violin, mandolin, and pedal steel, and boasts a more traditional Americana vibe than Meloy's theatrical concoctions for the Decemberists.

Revisiting material he wrote and recorded between the ages of 19 and 24 dredged up an array of emotional responses from the artist. "After listening to the last EP we did, [1999's] Sea Songs for Landlocked Sailors, I feel a lot of that material is pretty strong. If I had moved to Portland just a little earlier, I think inevitably those would have ended up being Decemberists songs. I was getting more narrative with the lyrics, revealing more of a darker sensibility." His increasing fascination with traditional folk music is audible on these tracks, too. (The influence also pops up on his latest tour-only release, Colin Meloy Sings Shirley Collins, an EP featuring his renditions of songs recorded by the English folk legend.)

During the Tarkio years, Meloy was studying literature and writing at the University of Montana; ultimately, he feels this served him well as a composer. "It may not directly inform what I do now, but it certainly gave me a chance to just be immersed in word and writing, to figure out my voice and my aesthetic, and how I liked words to be strung together."

It also taught him the value of structure. "While your typical Poetry 101 workshop will churn out blank verse like crazy, I was writing really tightly metered, rhymed couplets," he says. "I've always loved using rhythm, meter, and rhyme in poetry. And, consequently, mine comes off as pretty naive."

But he stresses the importance of delineating lyrics from poetry. "Songs are intended to be performed, and listened to, not read as verse. I just don't think that should be done. Reading Bob Dylan's songs as verse makes me a little nauseated. Songs are intended to be married to the melody, and melody dictates a lot of meaning. Once you remove that, not only does it look a little stupid—like bad poetry—but you lose a lot of the emotionality."

kurt@thestranger.com