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There’s a scene in Better Off Dead, that iconic-goof John Cusack vehicle of 1985, wherein Cusack’s character, Lane Myer, has just been dumped by Beth, the girl of his dreams. He’s driving around sulking and listening to the radio; every station is playing old heartache songs such as “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.” Lane surfs the dial in desperation for a minute before ripping the stereo from the dashboard and throwing it to the curb, and proceeds to dwell in his own new-found misery.
Taking distinctive cues from the tone of those old breakup songs, Karate’s sparse, melancholic rock relishes its own delectable sadness. The Boston-based trio’s pensive tunes are often love letters directly addressed to ex- and would-be lovers, with crushing lyrics such as on the album’s opener “There Are Ghosts”: “So quiet I can hear that the refrigerator is on/I can hear the fabric of your sleeping baghow it sounds against someone else’s floor.”
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Karate practices a thoughtful brand of restrained indie rock, fleshed out with heavy dynamics that have stuck them with inevitable comparisons to similarly studious bands like Slint. Plodding bass, sharp snare hits, and guitarist Geoff Farina’s sparse strumming help paint lyrical odes to lost love and post-breakup woethough The Bed Is in the Ocean relies far less on lo-fi minimalism and ventures slightly farther from breakup song territory than the band’s previous efforts, Farina’s recent solo album, or Farina’s other current project, the Secret Stars. For listeners nerdy enough to discern the sounds of antique tube amps, custom guitars, and vintage dub-echo hardware, Karate is the band nerdy enough to deliver. With a sound as strategically stripped-down as Karate’s, these kinds of engaging and forceful details mean everything.
Farina’s contemplative, soft-spoken singing voice is as understated as his guitar style, yet filled with abundant emotion. His bare-all deadpan “I don’t want the promise/I want the guarantee,” on the song “Outside Is the Drama” reads like a clue to his dogged dissatisfaction, a ready-made introduction to prep listeners for sticking with him through later heart-wrenchers: “I know you’re sincere because I’ve got it on my machine/I turn it up loud like you’re here now.”
Lyrically, Farina emerges as something of a one-trick pony, managing to turn the same sour note over and over with bittersweet and cathartic care until it seems like something new at each turnuntil his offense of dwelling on loss for way too long becomes infectious and almost forgivable. Farina’s gift lies in channeling the complexity of emotion and affording it moderated expression on the most simplistic of terms: It comes out equally defined in his voice, his lyrics, and in his guitar playing, and it’s a gift his bandmates seem to share. When Farina sings, “I’m not going in today because something strange is happening/I’m not really mad, not really sad, I can’t explain, just bad/When things get strange, we just rearrange/We turn it inside out” on the heavily syncopated song “Fatal Strategies,” it sounds like a declaration of the band’s guiding principle of songwriting.
Like the sensitive, lovelorn post-punk guy he wants you to believe he is, Farina wears his worn-out heart firmly safety-pinned to his sleeve for the album’s entirety. The effect is as exhausting and, at times, as exhilarating as if he were screaming his lungs out in the manner of many of his underground music colleagues. Karate’s songs manage to be sweetly depressing in the same feel-good, emotive-outlet kind of way that helped make enduring favorites out of bands like the Cure and the Smithsbands it isn’t hard to imagine Farina having listened to quite a bit in his formative years. Farina himself is effectively a self-made indie-rock update of Robert Smith or Morrissey, a guy inspired in equal parts by oldies, New Wave, and broken-hearted blues. In the hands of a lesser songwriter and a less compelling band, his heart-string tugging might come off as insufferable. Here, it works like a charm. The dejected Lane Myer would have hated this record, but he might not have been able to stop listening to it. CP