Review by Em Miraglia
Law of Karma Live: Fake Shit Wins But Not Tonightis a journey through nearly a decade’s worth of music from this loosely organized collective that has revolved around frontman Patrick Kindlon since forming as End Of A Year in
2003. It was recorded over the course of a special 3-night run of shows in Boston, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn in August of 2019.
This is the first SDF release in 3 years, breaking an unprecedented period of silence from a band that has released music every single year from 2004 to 2020. This gap inspired a running gag on the podcast Axe To Grind, where Kindlon’s co-hosts and long-time friends Bob Shedd and Tom Sheehan have made some jabs about the Self Defense dry spell, particularly with this live record knowingly being in the works. Now that it’s out, Law of Karma Live proves to be a worthy response to their quips: it’s the closest thing the band has to a perfect record.
A lot of the group’s best music is found on their countless non-LP releases. And even then, sometimes the most flawless song is derailed by their disinterest with making marketable music – I’m looking at you, long-ass passage at the end of “Self Immolation Family.” Their first two LPs under the Self Defense Family moniker contain thrilling highs but also some creative choices that weaken the records overall. Their most recent full-length Have You Considered Punk Music is a gorgeous reflection on what we give to art and what it gives to us, and though it’s consistent in quality, it lacks the urgency of their other work that is more decidedly Punk Music in sound. They have made some of my favorite music of all time, but this isn’t a band I go to for perfect full-length records. They’re a band that I’m willing to meet on their terms because I know I couldn’t have them any other way. But with Law of Karma Live, I get new versions of a solid selection of songs I already have a relationship with, and the opportunity to listen through a full-length Self Defense Family release and truly love the whole thing.
Law of Karma Live starts out strong with what is now undoubtedly the definitive recording of “I’m Going
Through Some Shit.” It’s a fitting beginning to this encompassing release as this single technically kicked
off the Self Defense Family era of the band, following one 7” under transitional name End Of A Year Self
Defense Family. This new live recording takes a Self Defense track that has always hit hard lyrically but
fallen a bit flat for me sonically and really brings it to life, with a richer sound than the version that
appears on the Jamaica 7”, a more commanding roar from Kindlon, and some trumpet to boot.
Though the lead single sets a high bar, the rest of the record does not disappoint. It’s a delight to have
“Taxying” on here, a Heaven is Earth B-side that certainly was not left off the record due to any
deficiency, as it’s just as tense, hypnotic, and affecting as a song like “Indoor Wind Chimes” or its own A-
side “Talia”, which are both great additions to Law of Karma Live as well. Unsurprisingly, the calm and
intimate talk-singing of “Good Idea Machine”, “Watcher at the Well”, and “Have You Considered
Anything Else” are taken up a notch in the live setting, which should never be a deterrence when
listening to this band.
“Turn the Fan On” is an all-time live track to me (says the dork who has never seen this band play live).
By that I mean “Turn the Fan On - BBC Live Version” is one of my favourite Self Defense Family songs
ever. Though you lose the water droplet sounds and female backing vocals from the Try Me version, you
gain so much more, with the song continuing for an extra 2 minutes that include an exhilarating build
and release from the band as Kindlon wrestles with the “dull man” refrain from “Cottaging.” While the
Law of Karma Live recording of “Turn the Fan On” stays truer to the format of the original studio
version, its lyrical content makes it primed for a sweatier, breathier live performance to an audience,
and that’s what we get here.
The tracklist is a curation of 11 songs from 9 releases in their unwieldly discography plus a cover of a
Neil Young song with lyrics, instrumentals, and overall song structure that are highly compatible with the
Self Defense sound and vibe. In this way it almost serves as a greatest hits comp with some extra
personality considering the live element, particularly with the addition of the stage banter interlude
tracks. While even the most dynamic frontperson’s words on stage are rarely worth turning into
multiple spoken word tracks on a live record, Kindlon finds himself funnier than most stand-up
comedians during these segments, and certainly more vulnerable. He pulls off a Jeffrey Epstein joke with
far more tact and class than recent HBO trainwreck The Idol, comments on insulting graffiti about his
band in the bathroom of the venue, and teases the audience for their lack of professional development
in one track while wholeheartedly thanking them for appreciating his life’s work in others.
To the uninitiated, a quick glance at Self Defense Family could have them perceived as just another dark
and moody post-punk group with some creative lyrical content. I played a song from Have You
Considered Punk Music for my mom once and that appeared to be her exact thought, she said
something like, “Oh, some sad bastard music.” A compliment coming from her, and a completely
reasonable assessment of the song, but I was dissatisfied. Fans of this band lean into the “cult” part of
the term cult following more than most, always talking about them like they’re really special and
important. I would know, I’m one of them. I have been so deeply moved by this weird lanky man and his
talented musician friends and I’ve never really been able to explain why in a satisfying way, I just feel it.
Kindlon himself may provide the answer (go figure, huh) on interlude track “(then the details start)”,
where his ramblings liken the band’s creative output to a conversation with a stranger at a bus stop that
gets way too real. While many bus stop exchanges only go as far as pleasantries, as a lot of music is
made for surface-level instant gratification, you only really see someone’s humanity when you reach the
point where “the details start”. I feel the need to include a bunch of examples of those kinds of details
that you find in these songs here, but they’ll hit way harder if you just hear them on the record anyway.
Despite Kindlon’s explicit and implicit insistence that he’s glib and distant, via further rambling in this
very passage and a song like “The Supremacy of Pure Artistic Feeling”, it’s clear that SDF is where he and
his peers get vulnerable. He doesn’t bother hiding this on “(warm or approachable or even friendly)” or
during the closing moments of the record when he swaps out the final verse of “Have You Considered
Punk Music” for a sincere expression of gratitude.
“The details”, as Kindlon puts it, are what make Self Defense Family compelling. “The details” are what
draw us into his writing about himself, his loved ones, strangers, and characters, and his bandmates
provide the gripping and varied vessels of punk and rock and whatever else you want to call the
different sounds through which we receive those stories. Law of Karma Live presents the opportunity to
celebrate what’s been there all along.