Just three months ago Islands dropped the epic Arm’s Way, a dazzling if slightly bewildering pop storybook that brought to mind the lovechild of Sgt. Pepper and Rocky Horror. Now Islands principal Nick Thorburn returns swiftly with another batch of vivid compositions, and yet the contrast between Human Highway’s Moody Motorcycle and Arm’s Way could hardly be more stark. Consisting of Thorburn and former Islands guitarist Jim Guthrie, who also played in Royal City and has released two worthwhile solo records of his own, Human Highway avoids the lyrical morbidities and musical ADD that have come to characterize Thorburn’s albums. Instead it opts for breezy harmonies, acoustic balladeering and an overall mood of simple, swaying peacefulness.
Beginning with the cheerily vague words of opener “The Sound” (“Got nothing left but it ain’t bringing me down/I’m just gonna follow the sound”), Guthrie and Thorburn perambulate through a series of largely undramatic tunes that serve their voices more than their senses of adventure. “The Beach,” with its gently escalating chorus and the tried, if true, conceit of love being like an ocean’s shore, is a standout, as is the aching “Get Lost,” of a piece with the lonely backwoods ruminations on the recent Bon Iver album. Although the majority of songs here seem to be the fruits of Thorburn’s imagination, Guthrie contributes enough to deserve equal billing. Vocally he melds with Thorburn better than did Alden Penner, the lesser known half of the Unicorns, and the songs on which Guthrie sings lead, such as “What World,” with its deft use of an orchestral-style bass drum, demonstrate a well-hued pop classicism.
Moody Motorcycle is easily Thorburn’s least ambitious effort, evidenced by the inclusion of song sketches like “Ode to Abner” and tracks that seem like outtakes from his Islands work (for example, the title cut and “Pretty Hair”), and yet in its many moments of off-the-cuff beauty the album proves, perhaps even more than the meticulously executed Arm’s Way, the extraordinary talents of this oft-misunderstood Canadian. That said, we will really be wowed if Thorburn can get the debut record by Th’ Corn Gangg out by Christmas.