Jason Cruz + Howl - Good Man’s Ruin
Record Label: Echotone Records
Release Date: April 29, 2014
If you're going to write an album about the American Southwest, it better not be light and fluffy. Thankfully, Strung Out frontman Jason Cruz and his band Howl understand this very concept. The quartet's debut LP Good Man's Ruin is a dark, moody and deeply absorbing work of searing guitars, tortured lyrics and a bevy of slide guitar accents. That latter aspect is what shapes and forms much of Good Man’s Ruin and what makes the album worth revisiting.
The disc opens magnificently with the rollicking, air-tight desert ditty “War Song,” an expertly constructed effort that sounds as if Cruz has been making music like this his whole life. An indubitable scorcher, “War Song” is the first of many moments in which Cruz makes his case as one of Americana’s newest heavyweights. On the heels of “War Song” is the dusty, desert song “High Lonesome,” a dark and swirling cut with liberal amounts of slide guitar and the disc’s first real “wow” moment. Not content to slow down, Castro + Howl come out blazing on the barreling, guitar-driven ass-kicker “Howl,” a song built on torments of emotion, drama and layers of pain.
The disc’s first ballad comes in the shape of “Lorraine,” a defeated and broken vessel of raw honesty and self-defeat. The disc’s first half concludes with the distinctly Southwestern “Mescallana” and the equally potent “Stab City.” The former is a fiery rocker with a firm Americana backbone and first-rate slide guitar, while the latter is a spiraling work with crystalline vocals and a message that is equal parts ominous, haunting and dense. Though “Stab City’ is a home run of a song, the real takeaway seems to be found in the song’s tone and message as oppose to its chorus and likability.
The disc’s second act opens with the tepid and underwhelming “Circa Descent,” the first of three filler tracks that bog down the disc’s latter half. Thankfully, energetic cuts like “Reno,” “The Lonesome Grave of Cecilia Browne” and “The Leaving Kind” erase the filler and make the back half worth the listen. In an album devoid of ballads, the restrained grace of “Savannah Moon” is a welcome change of pace from an album that seems content to smolder and burn every step of the way. “Savannah Moon” is also another chance for Cruz and guitarist Buddy Darling to flex their musical muscles. Unfortunately, self-indulgent cuts “The Edge of Barstow” and “Deathless” threaten to stop the album’s momentum in its track and were it not for the organ-tinged closer “The Leaving Kind” would leave the album hollow and significantly top-heavy.
As a whole, Good Man’s Ruin is far from perfect, but in its winning moment, it is a deeply fleshed out, solidly arranged hulk of a record. The guitars kick and spit, the rhythm section is dark and brooding and the lyrics navigate torture and pain in a way that makes it authentic. In short, it’s an Americana record disguised as a David Lynch screenplay. Feel free to dive into Good Man’s Ruin again and again, but don’t take it lightly, it will swallow you whole.