[9 September 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Jim Guthrie and Nick Thorburn are a likely duo to team up and make a record. Guthrie has, in the past, played as part of Thorburn’s band, Islands. Both hail from Canada. And both have an uncanny knack for sugary sweet melodies built into bright but well-textured pop tunes. But with Islands, Thorburn has aimed for the more grandiose, crafting long songs full of different parts and heavy layers of synth and sheen. Particularly on their last effort, Arm’s Way, Thorburn and company showed they could make their big songs sound pretty, but they couldn’t make them hold together since, beneath all the layers, most of the songs sounded more like simple pop than the prog-rock heights they aspired to.
And so Human Highway and their album Moody Motorcycle are a nice antidote to the over-the-top pomp of Arm’s Way. Throughout, Guthrie and Thorburn work well together, splitting both the music and lyric duties, and making catchy pop tunes that are short and, yes, a bit fleeting. But they’re fleeting in a way that works, in a way that captures the fading days of summer. These songs remind us that, for all their breezy good-time feel, the laid-back days can’t last forever.
And these songs are nothing if they’re not laid back. “All Day” best captures the relaxed feel of the record, as the song just floats by. It’s all summery sway and the lilting of Guthrie and Thorburn’s harmonies as they sing about having no worries and letting the sun soak through while they waste away the day. It’s a song that seems so happy in its carefree way that you could almost slip it into a Jimmy Buffett set, if not for the smart way in which Human Highway ends each verse, contradicting the porch swing chorus with a reminder that nothing can last all day.
Still, that worry always stays on the outskirts, more as a border to the swaying joy of the record. Even on stand-outs like “What World” and “Duties of a Lighthouse Keeper”, where Guthrie and Thorburn target their Beach Boys keen on moments more lonesome and heartbroken, there is an all’s-not-lost feel to the songs. That, no matter how sad the moment might be, it is surrounded by moments much nicer. Even on “Vision Failing” or the slightly less-effective title track, when the album targets out-and-out darkness, it never falls into self-indulgent navel-gazing. “Vision Failing” in particular shows Thorburn’s ability to combine smart and heartfelt lyrics with effectively moody music and without overbuilding the song into a toppling tower of sound.
In fact, perhaps the most deceptive thing about Moody Motorcycle is how well-crafted it is. The endless summer ease of the album belies its precise compositions. Guthrie and Thorburn keep things spare, but each part used is used with precision. The strum of a guitar chord aligns perfectly with the singers’ hum of a note. The sturdy drums of opener “The Sound” hold up the fading acoustic guitar riding over them. The feel on this record may be relaxed, but the compositions are all airtight and wonderfully crafted.
And it is nice to hear a pop record like Moody Motorcycle, not just to wind down the summer, but to combat some other indie rock trends. In a time where albums can often sound too big, heavy on ideas and imagination but short on craft, Jim Guthrie and Nick Thorburn aren’t afraid to keep it small. Because they know that small doesn’t mean simple, and that feeling in a song doesn’t mean anything if it’s buried beneath a wall of studio excess. Pop music can be catchy and accessible and immediate without being hollow or, gasp!, too commercial.
Guthrie and Thorburn know that, and have made an album with its own sound. An album that sounds sandy and sun-drenched. That combats the overbuilt and self-serious camps of indie rock and strikes out down its own path, without worrying if it fits in, or if people will like it.
No wonder the band is named after a Neil Young song.