Human Highway (Nick Thorburn and Jim Guthrie) Moody Motorcycle

[Suicide Squeeze; 2008]

Styles: indie folk, singer/songwriter
Others: Islands, Bright Eyes

With best friends, some days you hit the open road, thrilled to be two against the world, while others everything seems played out and worn thin. Islands’ ringleader Nick Thorburn and folk-peddler Jim Guthrie embody this bipolar relationship on Human Highway’s debut release, Moody Motorcycle. When the two rely on instinct and swagger, the songs shine earnest and propel themselves. Regrettably, though, the engine starts to sputter, dragging through muddy melodrama and forced despair.

Opening with a swatch of lo-fi backwoods guitar, the duo merely jests with the antiquated before smoothing everything over with a sheen of crisp production. A spring in its step, “The Sound” bops along, oblivious to the lack of substance in its lyrics. Instead, Nick and Jim smile incessantly over marimba pomp and their own enthused harmony. When things get heavier on the album’s title track, they stick together till the heat blows over. Guthrie’s shifty-eyed rhythm provides the alibi while Thorburn’s lead paces, planning their escape, “Drove out to the city limits... No one will ever find me here.” Bitter and confrontational, the short strums suggest this isn’t their first time on the run.

Gleefully saying nothing, or reluctantly loose-lipped, the pair excel when engaged in emotional extremes, but falter when indecisively waltzing around overslept mornings and evening apathy. On Islands’ latest LP, Thorburn’s grasp of imagery was apparent, whether he was pleading for a lover to emerge from a coma or vocalizing slow death by stab wound. But here that same emphatic, billowy voice is wasted on strained metaphor and underexposed recollection. Nick disappoints with lines like “I love the sand on my toes/ Every grain of it/ You’re my beach,” which come off soggy and frail. Sharing lyrical demerit for the hackneyed self-reflection of “What World,” he stands by idle, leaving us to wince as Jim suggests, “I wait too long and then the feeling’s all gone/ Can I borrow some feeling from you?” Here, stagnant, ho-hum guitar lingers alongside cheap synthesizer, taking the album on a costly detour.

Named after Neil Young and Devo’s unlikely 1982 comedy about the apocalypse engulfing a gas station diner, Human Highway echo the simultaneously worrying and whimsical nature of the film. While enduring a few accidents, the group’s fresh folk approach shows promise. Applying some distillation and flair in the editing room, Guthrie and Thorburn could build some serious horsepower into Moody Motorcycle's follow-up.

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