Family Trees by Carlos Forster (Review)

Though a bit uneven in places, Carlos Forster’s self-titled debut still evokes the magic of those old For Stars albums, and his voice sounds as good as ever.
Family Trees, Carlos Forster

Is it possible to have a crush on a band? If so, then I’m pretty sure I had one on San Francisco’s For Stars. In the late ’90s and early ’00s, the band released a handful of albums of well-nigh perfect pop that blended lush, Beach Boys-esque melodies and arrangements with poignant lyrics dripping with youthful heartache and angst. And then there was the voice of frontman/lyricist Carlos Forster: earnest, delicate, and effortless, his vocals could take even a simple phrase and imbue it with a tremendous emotional heft.

Sadly, For Stars dissolved shortly after releasing 2004’s aptly titled It Falls Apart, and Forster pursued a career in psychotherapy. Jump forward to 2011, and Forster has returned with his solo debut, Family Trees (Hush Records), and it feels like those seven years never happened… for the most part. Forster’s voice is still the thing of beauty that it was nearly a decade ago; time has done little to diminish how affecting and emotive his fragile falsetto can be. Musically speaking, though, the album is a bit of a mixed bag.

Family Trees was recorded over the span of several years, and the material shows it. The album’s mood jumps around a fair amount, from whimsical folksy numbers (e.g., “Campfire Songs,” “If I Could Be”) that reveal producer M. Ward’s influence, to introspective tracks more reminiscent of those halcyon For Stars days. It all averages out well, but the latter material is stronger and more compelling, and uses Forster’s voice to greater effect.

The album’s opening track (“I Walk I Talk”) sounds like something The Clientele might record if they hailed from southern California rather than London: it’s catchy and sunny to be sure, but something spectral and ominous lurks in the background thanks to the moody organ and guitars. Meanwhile, Forster’s lyrics chronicle both compassion for the broken people around him as well as doubts in his ability to help them. “Family Tree” is a lovely ode to becoming a parent, and the changes that it brings about in one’s priorities. At the same time, the song contains a undercurrent of anxiety that makes it all of the more stirring and human.

The album’s finest moment, though, occurs on “Slouching Toward Reality.” Here, Forster’s reverb-drenched voice is at its most poignant as he sings of temptation, infidelity, and heartache:

Maybe in another life our paths will cross again
You should know, she’ll stay my wife and you will stay my friend
It hurts I cannot know you but it’s good to feel again
The feel of the first time…

The song packs a lot of tension and complexity into its two minutes. At first blush, it plays like the clichéd story of a loveless marriage in which one partner restlessly seeks to break free. But the song’s lyrics also hint at such an endeavor’s futility and the subtle melodic shift in the song’s denouement carries with it a sense of shame and regret. This musical and emotional depth is what caught my attention and held it back in the For Stars days, and it’s very nice to see that it’s still present in Forster’s solo material.