To put out a live Karate record now seems arbitrary, but the performance captured on 595 is well worth the gamble.
Post-break-up live records are almost always a dicey proposition, particularly when the album's release is arbitrary and connected to no specific anniversary or accomplishment for the band. And 595, the new live offering from Boston's former jazz-indie darlings is no exception. Why Southern Records would choose to put this album out now is a mystery, and why the recording is culled from a 2003 Belgium show, and doesn't present the performance in its entirety, is equally puzzling. But Luckily, any complaints about this record can stop there. 595 is a wonderful document of a band that went relatively underappreciated in its time, and offers us a glimpse into a live act that all too many of us missed on their myriad tours.
The title number comes from the band themselves, as they claim this is their 595th show. They also happen to think it is their best, and that assertion is difficult to argue with. The band is tight as ever, as Geoff Farina's big guitar licks and honeyed vocals ride the crest of the smoothest rhythm section this side of Sea and Cake, provided courtesy of drummer Gavin McCarthy and bassist Jeff Goddard. And where most of the credit for the band's success often went to Farina, 595 gives us tracks like the hard-rocking "Sever", and the epic closer "Caffeine or Me", to remind us that McCarthy and Goddard could not only hold their own, but could vary their style as quickly as Farina could stack guitar notes on top of each other.
If the timing of this release is at best confusing, the timing of the show selected here is downright compelling. In 2003, Karate had just released Some Boots, an album that found them completely shedding their post-rock leanings in favor of jazzier elements of the band's sound. The result was mostly distortion-free and subtle, but no less tame. Yet, whether they knew it then or, picking the tracks, realized it in hindsight, Karate's performance has a "Where are we going? Where have we been?" feel all over it. The bulk of the eight tracks focuses on Some Boots and 2000's Unsolved, the latter being very much steeped in their older, post-rock sound.
But having shed the noise on record by 2003, the band was not only unafraid to revisit its younger, nastier material, but also seemed to approach it here with a freshness that pumps life into old songs. Though a solid record, Unsolved sounds a little forced in spots, Farina's guitar and vocals strained past necessity to achieve an immediacy gained at the expense of their normal intricacy. But, with songs like "Airport", "The Roots and the Ruins", and "Sever" played in Belgium in 2003, Karate smoothed out the edges, learning from the years and hundreds of shows they'd played since those songs were written. By perfecting those older tracks, and setting them in contrast to newer songs like "Original Spies" and "Airport", Karate makes the entire catalog seem vital and expansive, and their talents varied.
The band went on to play nearly a hundred more shows after this one before calling it quits, but 595 shows the group both at a major turning point, and the height of its powers. One can only hope that the strange timing of the release won't get in the way of making this a record that brings Karate back into the indie community's awareness. They deserve it a lot more than some of the fledgling bands we're talking about now.