Writing for Sloucher is very much like The Mafia: just when I thought I was out, they drag me back in!. Five years ago I wrote an article about defunct, uber-cult Boston band Karate and how, in my opinion, they are the most underrated band of all time. Now, I haven’t written any articles since but when the fine folk at Sloucher asked me to write about my favourite Karate album, it was a case of an “offer I couldn’t refuse“.
Anyway, I love Karate and will never turn down an opportunity to sing their praises in an effort to redress the balance, since they got so little recognition when they were active. For those that don’t know -and there are many- Karate were the best band you’ve never heard of: a ripe combination of Discord post-hardcore punk stylings with a serious injection of Jazz, played through a lean, mean power trio format. Led by the gifted singer/guitarist Geoff Farina, they released six albums and as many EPs between 1993 and 2005, finally disbanding due to Farina‘s hearing problems.
Their releases ranged from the raw, lo-fi self-titled debut, through mass experiments in the three band member trappings – The Bed Is In the Ocean – and they even released a fan’s live bootleg as their final hurrah (2007’s 595) but, for me, their finest hour is 2002’s Some Boots. Unleashed upon a world dominated by Eminem, Nelly and The Cheeky Girls (!!!), Karate’s fifth long player was, once again, met with indifference and total apathy while the likes of The Streets and The Polyphonic Spree took all the plaudits. This review is my way of trying to give the band some of the critical acclaim that eluded them with every release.
Some Boots opens with ‘Original Spies’ – six and a half minutes of laid-back Jazzy chords and insightful call-to-arms lyrics topped off with a sustained note guitar solo from heaven. Farina‘s voice, pitched somewhere between a Malkmus drawl and a Mackaye holler, delivers lines like “Instead of hanging around waiting for signs from above/Hey, I too want change/I’m not talking about one day/About the ones we love/I’m not talking about faith” and “I hear you saying I am just one kid/That we can’t do what one thousand once did/But let me leave you with this simple idea/And maybe one of you might run with it for real“, like an alt. rock prophet of revolution (although a very relaxed one). The song slowly gathers in urgency as the delay effects get louder and the echoes threaten to engulf the tune until the lyrics come back in to tell us that “In that way will we be original spies?/With trusty foresight will the sun still rise?/Will strained new days, saturated with strange/Contain your relocated slang and those incredible eyes?“. Big questions, indeed, but we all have the power to be something more, even when it feels hopeless. It’s a grand opening to the album, for sure.
Next comes more guitar aerobics in ‘First Release’. The perfect balance of swing and urgency, tension, and release. A song comparing the love of music (“I still spin the same sounds for these unsatisfied ears/Because there’s always something new to hear“) with the love of another person (“I knew a love that could scare all the wings off the doves“) – are these loves one and the same? The compromise of a relationship as a force for change – are you ready to take that leap and leave the past behind? ‘First Release’ is also a showcase for drummer Gavin McCarthy and several breaks in the music are sublimely filled with his rambling beats, usually ushering in Farina‘s next Tom Verlaine-esque guitar solo. Ultimately, the song asks if you can truly leave childhood behind without yearning for that feeling of a “kid getting stoned” that music sometimes makes us feel. There’s good and bad in all things and nostalgia is “something I can take and something I can leave“. Amen to that.
The opening trilogy of crackers is completed with ‘Ice Or Ground?’ – a quasi-title track tale of too many harsh winters forcing you to question why the hell you are slogging it out with this rock band shit. Let’s face it, after four albums of unappreciated mastery, anyone would start to query the logic! The whole album has a reoccurring theme of fading youth and impending adulthood, although it’s also with mentioning that ‘Ice Or Ground?’ opens with the line “They used to throw some fists but now they fuck you up with Teflon” which I’m sure Future Of The Left would love to have written. After that opening salvo, things quieten down with late night Jazz rant ‘South’ – a song about the misconceptions of that area of America. ‘In Hundreds’ is a discordant free-Jazz-mixed-with-post-punk ode to being so near and yet so far and is lifted by another held-note solo from Farina, this time with added feedback and wig-out frenzy. ‘Airport’ sees the band strut through a stream-of-consciousness talk of friends and places that would be easier to get to if their town had the titular facility. Geoff Farina breaks out the wah-wah on this one for added pleasure.
The final three songs make for a suitably epic bookend to the album, just as the opening three set us up for greatness. ‘Baby Teeth’ is a plea for his band to stay the course, perhaps recognising the lack of recognition, as Farina sings of “Lost patience” and being “Good to go one day, next day….fucked” but like the dentures of the title “It will come” as the track ends with another fine wah-solo. ‘Corduroy’s meditative shuffle is the penultimate tune and features the most minimal backing – sparse guitar, bass and drums – as Farina intones “The neighbours yell when we sing together” and over the course of nearly nine minutes the track swells into a cacophony “Like it or not, the locusts come from spring“, the music louder still, “Sure, I like pissing you off” implores Farina but it’s “The simplest things that bring us together“. Superb stuff and perfectly encapsulates the band’s challenge-in-the-face-of-adversity attitude.
Finally, they bow out with ‘Remain Relaxed’ which is as close to a ballad as Karate ever got – “Stay out with me tonight, there’s some blankets in the back” – with brushed drums and stroked chords, Farina decides to “Be bold” and confess his feelings for someone he’s “Thought about on and off since 1988“. They address the “Semi-perfect scene” with a cool blues solo and after barely three minutes, they’re gone. SO….’Some Boots’ by Karate – an album of hope in trying times from an unfairly forgotten band who should be heard by more as this LP, like the rest of their back catalogue – is as relevant and fascinating today as it was 15 years ago.
So….Some Boots by Karate – an album of hope in trying times from an unfairly forgotten band who should be heard by more as this LP, like the rest of their back catalogue – is as relevant and fascinating today as it was 15 years ago.
Words: Simon Roberts