Despite the name, The Bruces is basically a one-man show. Alex McManus, who is more visible as a guitarist/violinist in both Lambchop and Vic Chesnutt’s touring band, fittingly splits his time between Nashville and Athens. He’s also spent a fair bit of time in Omaha, Nebraska, where he joined the scenelet clustered around Simon Joyner and his Sing! Eunuchs label. (McManus plays violin on several of Joyner’s records.)
A versatile songwriter, a strong singer and an unusually accomplished acoustic guitarist (by current indie standards), McManus is notoriously reluctant to perform or release his own material. Legend has it that the Family Day cassette was assembled from privately circulated tapes by Sing! Eunuchs’ Joyner and Chris Deden while McManus was out of town — he had promised them a release but hadn’t finished the project. (The band name may be their invention as well.) Regardless, Family Day is no half-assed hodgepodge, but a well-chosen collection with an appealingly unpretentious feel. His voice, which has an appealingly bluesy scratch to it, recalls Peter Holsapple’s when there was still some artsy mixed in with the rootsy. A few of the songs (notably, “The Lack Of…”) don’t seem complete despite strong sections, but the bulk shine through the work-in-progress aura. The lyrics range from slices of life to tortured-relationship stuff (“Handgun Demonstration”), with a penchant for science-themed jokes. The title track, “Club Delmar” and “Melt Away” approach talking blues, with McManus narrating family dysfunctions, barroom scenes and chance encounters (“You look like my best friend from second grade/I said, ‘I’m sorry I am not him’/And then he melted away”) in a loosely melodic manner before breaking into simple, full-throated refrains. “Capillary Action” and “Y Is an X” are more tightly constructed; McManus’ tricky, even dissonant, chord choices and insistent strum suggest that some were meant to have full band arrangements. All told, Family Day contains some of the best songwriting released through co-called lo-fi channels in the ’90s.
The vinyl-only Hialeah Pink is as accomplished as its predecessor, though slightly less revelatory, perhaps because it was actually made to be released. It’s still based around McManus’ guitar and voice, but he also adds his own violin overdubs (sometimes pretty, but John Cale-ish on “Gasoline), female harmonies and unobtrusive percussion. The passive-aggressive love songs (“Easy”) and premature suicide notes (“Aspirin”) are again present, but the highlight is “Hialeah,” which superimposes a spoken vocal (Angie Grass) playing tour guide through a blasted Southern landscape (“junkyard…cement store…Jesus Saves”) over what might be pedal steel and McManus’ longing for the next train out, “with a whistle like a hymn and a trusty engine.”