Unsolved, this Boston trio’s fourth full-length, opens with a tentative two-string sketch, followed by an elegant cymbal crashed in unison with a plunging bass line. These sparse layers provide breathing space and a security blanket for a studied but subdued black beret jaunt up and down the guitar’s neck.
After hearing this description, you might imagine Karate’s music escaping alongside curls of smoke under a mysterious door leading to a hipper-than-thou jazz loft, or fogging the windows of a winter coffeehouse.
But you can’t snap your fingers to Geoff Farina’s song-speak. And the music itself is better suited to basements, where you can really dig into the cement floor cross-legged in corduroy or with your dry elbows leaning on the washer-dryer. No pretension. Just some nice people playing nice music for more nice people. Listening, connecting, learning, saddening, experiencing magic, leaving some to the imagination.
Which is perhaps the puzzle Karate is trying to solve. Why sometimes, no matter how hard we try to untangle an enigma — using every hypothesis, theory, law, fact, experience, knowledge and emotion we have — we don’t always have the answer. The film credits roll and we’re left wanting more, wanting everything to come together. And it just doesn’t. This effort has that same edge-of-your-seat feeling — unsatisfied, but moved. Because when you really think about it, getting what you want can be, at times, so unsatisfying. Like when the girl gets the guy in the end and ruins a stunning tearjerker. Or when various sound ideas came together into a melodic swirl of giddy art-punk distortion on previous Karate efforts.
Sometimes, when a group defies characterization so well, a category springs up around them. One might notice this happening in Boston with Mary Timony’s Mountains, released last spring. Her solo album was a stray from Helium’s distortion as well, with sparse stringy notes carrying along lyrics seeped in a master’s degree in English literature. Farina studied jazz and you just know words such as atonal and leitmotif find their way into his everyday conversation as well as the structure of his songs. Both releases (Mountains, Unsolved) have an impatient hesitation — don’t get comfortable. It’s going to change any second. It takes repeated listening to get into Unsolved — the attention to detail is alarming — but it’s well worth it when it all doesn’t come together in the end.
Melissa Giannini is the Metro Times staff music writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.