On the cover of Human Highway’s excellent debut album, Moody Motorcycle, co-leader Nic Thorburn (he of Unicorns and Islands fame) appears looking like Bob Dylan, circa his debut album’s cover, while Jim Guthrie, the other half of Human Highway, is pictured just as obtusely. Both look like they’re in the small corner photo studio against their will. If the cover (and the liner-note art, for that matter) is a winking tribute to the covers of iconic early-‘60s albums, then the music is full-blown revival. Moody Motorcycle is a deft reappropriation and re-imagining of the harmonic pop of the Everly Brothers, Simon and Garfunkel, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
Thorburn is sure to get top billing in Human Highway (what with everyone still praying for an unlikely Unicorns reunion, and Islands still being on the indie-rock block), but the band is a strict collaborative effort. Moody Motorcycle’s first song, “The Sound,” is the easiest example: Thorburn and Guthrie’s voices (Guthrie’s a rough soprano, Thorburn’s a smoky whisper) from one uniform voice that splits and reforms over the course of the track.
The harmonies on Moody Motorcycle are so dense and lushly constructed that it’s hard at points to discern who’s doing the singing most of the time (I liken it to the first time you hear Apologies to the Queen Mary and can’t decide who is Dan Boeckner and who is Spencer Krug. Or listening to Clipse and trying to tell who’s Pusha and who’s Malice).
Moody Motorcycle had its genesis at Hotel Congress in Tucson, Ariz., the hotel that John Dillinger burned down while on the run during the Great Depression. Guthrie and Thorburn were on tour with Islands, and the two just started playing together in front of a recorder, and laid down the wilting “My Beach,” a song about wishing you were at the beach, but replacing the feeling of sand between your toes with a close friend or lover and finding happiness.
Most of Moody Motorocycle plays like a wish for fulfillment of the type that the protagonist of “My Beach” achieves, and the task of trying everything (and giving everything up) to get it. “All Day” is a luau campfire ode to the temporary nature of feeling good, and wishing it could last at least all day, “What World” examines chasing the one thing you think can make you feel happy, then watching the rest of your life fall apart, the title track imagines hitting the road and never coming back, and “Ode to Abner” questions what you leave behind afterward. But no track mines the despair of loneliness (or depression) better than the tender and desolate album highlight “Duties of a Lighthouse Keeper,” a song about desperately trying to keep happiness constant “like sea fog in the air.”
Moody Motorcycle ends with a cover of Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free” (titled “Wish I Knew” here, it was also covered most famously by Nina Simone), which serves as a perfect finale to its antecedents, as the song is about breaking free of the chains that hold you back. Human Highway’s version ends with birds singing and a motorcycle firing up and driving off into the distance, as if the group members are finally ready to go for what’s theirs (whether it be fame, love, happiness or companionship). And after the wonderful ride of Moody Motorcycle, they’re more than ready.
Nick Thornburn has always enjoyed tooling around in multiple musical projects. He first came to renown as the leader of Unicorns, a band that, with slightly reworked membership, is now known as Islands. He also occasionally trots out the more hip-hop influenced side project Th' Corn Gangg. Human Highway is a new Thornburn venture that also features Jim Guthrie, a singer-songwriter who has toured with Islands. Moody Motorcycle was recorded quickly in Guthrie's house in Toronto. The music and harmonies the duo produced are a throwback to classic pop twosomes like the Everly Brothers.