When long-running indie stalwarts Karate broke up in 2005, the band cited singer Geoff Farina's worsening tinnitus as a chief reason for the split. We knew better than to expect that we wouldn't hear from Farina again, though. His 12 years in Karate were speckled with solo releases, and his near-mythical earlier collaboration with Jodi Buonanno, The Secret Stars, has been known to rouse now and then from its slumbers.
This week, Farina returns to Pittsburgh for the first time since the Karate years with a new band, Glorytellers. The volume knob has been turned down a bit, but Farina's sleepy velvet vocals and clever lyricism persist.
When a band is together and writing music for as long as Karate was, it's bound to see some evolution. The trio of Berklee School of Music grads started out as a jazz-tinged rock outfit that was grouped in with the mid-'90s school of emo and alongside bands like Codeine and Come in one of the silliest-named subgenres, slowcore. But Karate ended its run in the mid-'90s with a smooth and arty jazz-rock sound that seemed as inspired by Steely Dan as by anything.
Farina's lyrical contributions to the band had a trajectory as well: known early for his abstract, almost riddling songwriting, as time went by he penned more literal pieces. Earlier Karate, marked with textural lyricism and references to one's situation in time (especially meaningful in light of the then-approaching turn of the century) gave way to narrative and politics.
The band's last LP, 2004's Pockets, included "The State I'm In, aka Goode Buy from Cobbs Creek Park." It was a backhanded ode to Pennsylvania: Farina grew up in the eastern end of the state during the days of Mumia and MOVE (not to mention Budd Dwyer -- though Farina can't help himself, and does mention Budd Dwyer). Even oblique references to issues like the death penalty, central to that song, would have been rare in a Karate album circa 1996.
With Glorytellers, Farina is a storyteller: The songs are often narratives, less empirical and more specific. While Karate and The Secret Stars were touching in a personal way to listeners who could make the songs their own, Glorytellers is a more intimate project. When a writer uses poetic abstractions, it's often easier to connect with a larger audience because each listener can apply her own experience to the larger concepts being discussed; with narrative writing, the lyricist is responsible to tell the story in such a way that the audience can infer a greater meaning. Farina's work with Italian indie band Ardecore, which combines rock of the style he's been known for all along with more traditional Italian folk styles, also informs Glorytellers -- the guitar parts in Glorytellers often manage to incorporate the acoustic sounds of older continental music.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Farina's move toward quieter, more acoustic-based songwriting corresponds with a similar move his sister Amy, a noted rocker in her own right, has made in recent years in her band with Ian MacKaye, The Evens. The Farinas came up in, and remain a part of, a community of East Coast DIY rockers made good: The name Farina is often found alongside a MacKaye or a Leo.
In addition to his music career, Farina manages to keep up a gig flexing his theory expertise in Tape Op, a well-known audio-production magazine. Even while moving toward more acoustic sounds himself, he reviews synthesizers and amplifiers with a keen critical eye and an impressive vocabulary, gleaned no doubt from both his music-school days and his experiments with computer programming growing up.
Glorytellers appear at Club Café on Thu., Aug. 16, with Karate drummer Gavin McCarthy behind the kit. (For those brushing up on their emo trivia, note also that Glorytellers' second guitarist, Josh Larue, was in Rain Like the Sound of Trains once upon a time.) A quieter, more intimate performance is in store for Karate fans, but those who have stuck with Farina through his evolution as a songwriter will be pleased no doubt with the state of the band. Time and again, Farina proves himself capable of evolving and telling a good tale with some meaning behind it.
Glorytellers featuring Geoff Farina. 7 p.m. Thu., Aug. 16. (doors at 6 p.m.). Club Café, 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side. $10. 412-431-4950 or www.clubcafelive.com