We’ll get to The Shining Path, the latest from lo-fi folk/pop project the Bruces, but first I need to float a theory about Nashville alt-country oddballs Lambchop. (Don’t worry; it’ll all tie together.) Anyhoo, the theory is this: the more instruments played on and the lusher the arrangements of a Lambchop song, the quieter the song will be. This could also be called the Willard Grant Conspiracy Theory (a more clever name, no?), but I namecheck Lambchop because the driving force behind the Bruces is Alex McManus, whose day job is multi-instrumentalist for Lambchop. And McManus, on The Shining Path, takes the Lambchop Theory to heart with a batch of quietly hypnotizing Americana hymns.
To re-word it, all the songs are off-kilter near-pop. McManus has an ear for a catchy riff—check the slide guitar on “Sleepwalking” or the horns on the opener “The Electric Halo”—but he doesn’t force the issue; he’s content to let the songs evolve into whatever they were destined to be. Cynics may call it lazy, but it’s really more along the lines of organic songcraft. Terms like “organic” and “Americana” (to these eyes and ears, at least) connote a dusty, sun-baked West Coast, à la Jay Farrar, or a kudzu-covered South like the one that springs from Jim White’s imagination. However, neither of those are the sound McManus approaches. Granted, he shares with Farrar a proclivity for oblique phraseology (which apparently I have as well)—see “Add It On”‘s “The falling stars are burning benzene” or the title track, with its image of a “dead canary in a mercury mine”—and a flat Midwestern accent (at times, they’re sonic dead ringers), but for McManus, “organic Americana” (whatever that is) sounds like a blizzard under glass—pristine, quiet. The Shining Path is an audio snowglobe.
Lest there be any confusion, this is a good thing. The album is full of wondrous nooks and crannies that become even more beautiful with a layer of snow… and I’m done stretching the snow metaphor. But and so: the gentle banjo, piano and (I believe) harp just nudging up against each other on “Pilot Light”’ the “bum-bum-bum” almost-sing-along intro of the popish “Fine Solutions”, colored by dark, vaguely angry horns; the coffeehouse folks of “Far East Sweet”—all of it tender, unassuming, and perfectly placed. This exactitude is worth noting, given that the album was recorded at McManus’s home studio in Omaha and mixed by McManus and fellow Lambchopper Mark Nevers. The Shining Path is no slick studio production; it’s a home-brewed labor of love.
A quiet album demands a quiet listener, and The Shining Path makes such demands. It’s a great “headphones record” (normally a euphemism with a bad connotation; no such implication should be intended here) or a Sunday-morning record. What else would you expect from an album praising life’s simple pleasures, like light (“Beautiful Slanted Northern Light”) and heat (“Pilot Light”)? With Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born poised to raise the bar this summer for every-note-in-its-place delicate Americana/indie rock, Alex McManus looks to be in the right place at the right time with his own excellent album.