“Wow, it’s the return of the rock guitar solo”, a friend of mine says as the first track from Karate’s latest album, Pockets, begins. He clarifies his comments by saying that melodically improvised rock and roll is rare these days, outside of the jam-band sphere. In that patchouli-hazed genre, improvisation usually stretches what should be a 3 or 4 minute song out to upwards of 10. Karate - who are not a jam-band—infuse their songs with bursts of jazz guitar soloing, and as such their music is a much more concise affair. The squeals that emanate from “Tow Truck” even blaze into arena-rawk territory (which will either amuse or annoy). Or perhaps, in the Karate-like spirit of fusion, we should combine those two reactions into a possible third: “amusoy”. That is to say, Pockets is a very amusoying record.
“With Age” is the song that caught my astute friend’s attention. It features an elastic, stop-start rhythm that sways through the verses before giving way to short solo sections. The band is one tight unit, with lead man Geoff Farina on guitar, Jeff Goddard on bass, and Gavin McCarthy on drums. There are few overdubs, if any, that I can discern. Geoff’s voice is an apt monotone that pushes through the more playful arrangements. It’s really more of a rhythm instrument than a vessel for storytelling. I find myself drawn in more by their droning percussive sound than by their content, though after hunkering down and paying close attention, Farina’s lyrics are revealed to be incisive.
The range of expression is wide on Pockets. The three-piece (accompanied by guitarist Chris Brokaw on two tracks) is able to convey distinct moods with every song. The guitar playing on “Water” is indeed watery, as it flows (sorry) from a semi-chorded blues progression into freer lead playing. “I want to take you to dinner / But you’d rather hang out at rest stops / Engaging in discourse / That is scratched into desktops” Farina sings as the song builds in intensity, with the narrative lines growing out of earlier spoken-word phrases like “Gloves hold you in / Accessorize / Corners of sin / Potential cries”.
Funky “‘The State I’m In’ aka ‘Goode Buy From Cobbs Creek Park’” breaks the pensive, dark-night-of-the-soul mood, a song about Farina’s adolescence in Pennsylvania. Shouts-out are given to “one cheesesteak and a Tasty-Cake” among other things, and by the way, a Tasty-Cake shout-out in song is long overdue. The references come fast and quick, and it’s a mighty good time until the song has the unholy misfortune of alluding to Inner Circle’s COPS-theme “Bad Boys” with the lines “Hey hey watcha gonna do when the credit card people start looking for you”. At a club this line might get spark bemusement a whoop of recognition, but on record it’s just amusoying.
“Cacophony” leans toward the rock half of Karate’s jazz-rock combination, though not without interesting chord changes and breaks. The music, far from creating cacophony, is some of the album’s easiest listening. The title seems to refer to something the singer wishes to avoid in a relationship: “Don’t say a word / Don’t call me back / Not because I didn’t call / ‘Cause I’m busy watching TV on my day off / And you might startle me with rational words.” The song shows off Karate’s mastery of tension and release through its shifts and crescendos. Similarly, “Pines” moves from sad and wordy verses to a shimmering peak. Arrangement-wise, it’s the simplest song here, and ends up being the most affecting as well—not amusoying, just the right combination of beauty and intricacy.