Karate's 2000 album Unsolved

For the past few weeks, I’ve been revisiting the music of Boston band Karate. I discovered their fluid explorations of indie rock in fall 2004, after moving to Massachusetts for college. That August, Karate had released their final studio album, Pockets, and the following summer they’d break up. I never even saw them play—I was too young to get into many of the shows I wanted to see, and traveling to Boston proper from suburban Waltham, where I lived, proved to be a challenge too.

My first semester I helped DJ a graveyard shift on Brandeis University’s radio station, WBRS. Sometime between 2 AM and 6 AM—I can’t remember what month—I found a CD copy of Pockets in the studio. Karate’s unusual blend of emo, slowcore, and jazz immediately confused and thrilled me.

My love for the band isn’t bound to that moment 16 years ago, though. My recent Karate binge has helped me appreciate little details I couldn’t pick up back then. Lately my mind has wandered to the song that opens the 2000 album Unsolved, “Small Fires.” Front man Geoff Farina leads off with a languid, understated guitar solo, stained with coarse blues accents that aren’t quite loud enough or long enough to break the mood. Karate understood that hushed performances could be commanding, and Farina’s restrained playing hints at the power in the song’s silent crevasses; when he raises his lived-in voice over the band’s brief slowcore crescendos, Karate deliver a wallop without blowing out the decibel meter.

Karate broke up in 2005 after Farina’s tinnitus made it impossible for him to carry on with the band. The same summer, Southern Records cofounder John Loder died. Karate had put out all their records through Southern, and in the years since Loder’s death, the band’s catalog has been neglected. Karate’s music isn’t available on most major streaming services (Apple Music is the only exception I’ve found), and if it weren’t for fans who’ve uploaded it to YouTube, it’d be even more difficult to hear. Because their records have gone out of print, used copies command steep prices—at the time of this writing, the cheapest you can find the Unsolved double LP on Discogs is $230. You’d think those kinds of numbers would be an irresistible invitation for somebody to start reissuing Karate. But in a 2018 interview for Haul, an emo zine published by members of Boston band the Saddest Landscape, Farina briefly mentions that his push get the band’s catalog back in print has been fruitless.

Farina lives in Chicago now. Before the pandemic, he’d frequently play at Cellar Door Provisions in Logan Square as part of a guitar-and-mandolin duo called the Last Kind Words, which specializes in new interpretations of prewar Americana. I look forward to seeing that band, at least, in person.  v

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