The Cold Desert – Woman & God

Every now and then you run into something that just stops you dead in your tracks—sometimes for many reasons, sometimes because you can’t figure it out and sometimes because you just love it plain and true. The first time I saw The Cold Desert, I was literally stopped cold in my tracks—in a jaw dropping, mind blown sort of way. Never have I witnessed a better combination of pure rock’n’roll, deeply rich Americana and for lack of a better term, gospel. By all rights, that combination should turn me off straight away—but it’s too good, it sounds too amazing and their live show will practically leave your shadow engraved in the cement your standing on. It’s honestly hard to tell if The Cold Desert are very devout sinners overly concerned about their souls or if they are simply well experienced, biblically literate young men that accept their flaws and favors. Either, way I don’t care because they are brilliant musicians and songs like “Feminine Venom” and “Bad Reaction” are so amazingly good that they will both be on my playlist for years to come.

First of all, any album that opens with the audacity of a mandolin, immediately has my attention–I’m not sure the mandolin has gotten that much attention in a song since Rod Stewart was at the height of his power in the early 70s and it goes down extremely well. Also, right from the start it is apparent that Matt Klassen has a voice like no other in this scene, and live, has a stage presence that is, at the very least impressive if not downright charismatic—like, in a cult leader sort of way, seriously, he puts on a show. The Cold Desert’s ballads and folk numbers are every bit as moving as their rockers, which is an amazing feat to my ears, but it can’t be denied. There is some heavy Christian imagery here crossed with as much barroom wisdom as possible: “And I ate of the body, drank of the blood; it tasted like bread and cheap wine. And I ate of the word, drank of the spirit; it tasted like cigarette smoke.” I haven’t heard such irreverent juxtapositions since Paul Westerberg sang “Jesus, rides beside me, he never buys any smokes” in “Can’t Hardly Wait.” “Canyon Echoes” continues in this vein, a fairly low key, yet rocking number in which there is endless musings upon the soul and thoughts on redemption. It is hear though that, I believe Klassen’s vocals make their closest approach to that of Ed Kowalczyk of Live and someone I used to know as Zed from a band called Public Affection.

It is, however, the brazen rockabilly assault of “Feminine Venom” that really kicks this album into action–and this was the action that drew me to them, that captivated me the first time I saw them on stage. Lyrically obsessive, the protagonist eventually realizes that his manliness and bravado may need a bit of softening to the capture the object of his desire, opening up his veins to the let the venom in. It’s pretty heavy stuff, but it’s a great freaking rocker that is one of the standout tracks of the entire affair. “Demon Wind” is one of my favorite of the slow burners on the album, mainly because I can  hear it reduced to an infinitely amazing blues number at heart–which is what it is, but also the lyrical content evokes the four elements throughout and the alchemy involved comes out somewhat stunning as once the recipe is complete, “I hold my hands up to ward her. I touch her sacred place. I lay her body to rest. I heal her flesh.” When I saw them at their record release party, I thought nearly every enthralled young lady was going to pass out or lose their minds on that line. Pretty impressive.

As close to bar balladry as they come, “Skeleton Coast” goes down easy and smooth as any pirate number should , like smuggled rum even if it’s metaphorical. The addition of keys in this tune is the absolute key element and it holds the whole beautiful thing together. Once more though the song is filled with Christian ambiguity, “I carried my cross, carried my cross,
don’t know what’s the use? What’s the use if it don’t quench my thirst, if it ain’t no good for food?” Granted, doubt is supposed to be a healthy thing for the religious minded, but the album plays much more with conflict, rather than doubt or faith…the album is called Woman & God and I’m not sure much more throughout the history of man has caused more conflict, both within and without. For someone that makes a life from the written word, the lyrics, “It seems I can’t even just live my life without somebody askin’ what I’m doin’ and why. It’s so hard to explain how come I hardly feel like speakin’ when all I got is words and never was no good at preachin’” hit a little too close to home, but this is what makes The Cold Desert so great. Also, Klassen is pretty damned good at preachin’ even if it is behind a beautiful electric guitar and a microphone with a rock’n'roll band backing him up.

One of the songs that impressed me most in its live presentation was “Passing Cars” which stuns me musically and lyrically every time–I can clearly remember each performance of this song…maybe because “Lately I feel I’m unfocussed, I’ve been chasin’ passing cars.” Once more a song of conflict, of the infinite hurt found in life and a certain sense of resignation found in finding oneself, combined with the pain of acceptance, “It hurts like hell, it hurts like heaven to know that this will never change…It flays the skin from off my bones to know that I won’t ever change, to know that I won’t ever change…” All lyrics aside, the most brilliant in the batch is simply, “I’m scared of hell, I’m scared of heaven. I don’t believe in either one of them. I’m caught in between.” To which I say, welcome to Earth.

“Reamnesia” invents its own word with the title, but I think it should be put into common use, because it’s accurate–a compelling story of continually being forced to forget who you really are, only to be continually re-awakened to your purpose at every turn. It’s a fascinating tale and in the modern age, I believe it’s one that’s appropriate. The idea that we are encouraged to be who we want to be early on, then shoved to conformity next, then return to where we began, over and over again. Simply astounding. The tenderness of “Arizona Summer” is a welcome break after the previous thought heavy numbers, a sweet ode to  a lost love moved away and the  hope for rejoicing in reunion upon return–”The desert is empty as it seems, life is meaningless as dreams without you” Klassen sings and you can feel the wistful authenticity in his words and voice. It is a touching number and a winsome ode to those loves who have moved on and far away from our hearts.

What happens next is one of my favorite songs of the year…period. While it may not quite possess the power on record that it has live on stage in front of a few hundred people, it’s still pretty freaking exciting and it may well be the most hook heavy of the entire release. When presented live, there are megaphones involved and something magical happens, on the record this is only hinted at, technically, it’s correct and perfect and probably the most amazing song they’ve recorded to date, but live this song becomes an unwieldy beast that leaves everyone drenched in  sweat, screaming for more. It’s a great story song with blues roots, driving guitar, banjo (!) and some great poetry within the lyricism. This may be one of  the more original amalgams of musical styles I’ve heard in a long time and sets my soul of fire, but my favorite lyrics are found in the roaring finale:

“All my words are flightless birds and all my questions got no answers.
All my poems are empty homes and all my songs ain’t got no meanings.
All my thoughts are crackin’ pots and all my plans ain’t got no actions.
All my dreams are magic beans and all my hope got no reason!
It’s just a bad reaction, bad reaction.
It’s all just a bad reaction.”

“Southern Women” finishes the album and it is a gorgeous number steeped deeply in Americana, blues, gospel with what sounds like a church organ within it. The imagery of this song alone is simply stunning, a poetic backdrop of lyrics defining the difficulty of committing to any number of Southern Women, leaving them  at the altar, catching the next train, leaving the ring and tears behind. It’s a pretty fantastic finale and honestly, I don’t want to write too much about it, because there is just too much to  enjoy before the tambourine drops to the floor. It is a perfect, defining end note for Woman & God and  it could  end no other way. It should also be noted that who ever sequenced the songs on this album had their head on straight with an ear to the sound, because from beginning to end, this is a pretty amazing journey in all respects.

I’m honestly not sure what to make of The Cold Desert, except that I’m compelled to write about them, compelled to go see their shows, compelled to promote them and their sound—their just damn good, they’ve put out two amazing records and their live show is unwieldy. Also, “Bad Reaction” is one of the greatest balls to the wall rock songs I’ve ever heard with a banjo slammed into it that I’ve heard…ever. Maybe that’s it. Maybe I’m just simply fascinated by the amount of dissonance between their ideals and intent, their shadows and their light, the sound and  fury, their power and their might. Regardless, you can listen  to the album below and decid e for yourself, but I  highly recommend you check them out live before your conclusion. Luckily, you can catch them this Saturday at the Crescent Ballroom with Tres Lunas and Saddles–and I  assure you that all three bands WILL keep you captivated for the tenner you spend. I’ve seen The Cold Desert two or three times at Crescent and that’s how I became a lifelong fan, maybe you should think about doing the same.