Carlos Forster - Family Trees
Record Label: Hush Records
Release Date: July 19th, 2011
There are occasions where you unexpectedly stumble across a record from a previously unheard artist, and for any number of limitless reasons that record stays with you, connects and resonates with you on such a level that you immediately feel compelled to rewind and backtrack in order to explore and discover how the artist in question came to construct such a musical accomplishment. In this case, Carlos Forster was once the lead vocalist and primary songwriter for For Stars, a largely unknown, unheralded and under appreciated group that released three quality full-lengths that effortlessly blended luscious pop sensibilities, light melodies, and poignant lyrics saturated in youthful heartache and exuberance. Unfortunately, with the release of 2004's aptly titled It Falls Apart, For Stars eventually faded and dissolved into what would become total and inaudible silence and dense obscurity. It was during these years that Forster spent many an infrequent weekend in the company of lifelong friend M. Ward in order to write, record and produce what would become his debut solo effort, the unhurried and candid atmosphere of the eleven track, Family Trees. A record created agonizingly over the course of six years, glazed in distinct influences of folk/pop, and drenched in warmth and all the whimsical and metaphorical wordplay one can imagine and digest when it comes to the art of songwriting.
Family Trees opens in relatively brooding and contemplative fashion with all the ambiance and intrigue that "I Walk I Talk" is able to possess. From the moment the track begins there's subtle yet noticeable disturbances in the production that are ever present within the background of the song and it successfully creates an atmosphere of tension. The verses are strategically littered with assortments of bells and whistles as Forster's multi-tracked vocals glide as eerily as they do hauntingly atop pronounced vibrato organs, sliding guitars and sparse piano notes. It's certainly not a dark or moody track by any stretch of the imagination, but as a listener, the beauty behind the track is in its ability to present doubt, and to conflict; to come across as breezy yet never quite being able to shake an impenetrable feeling that something slightly spectral and ominous lurks behind the lavish and prominent organ flourishes.
The title track, "Family Trees" provides the first truly breathtaking moment of the release. Don't be fooled by the barely audible laugh that rings out and greets listeners before elegant piano notes momentarily wash it away; this is a sombre and upsetting setting that's being vividly, elegantly and artistically painted before your eyes. The vocals are delivered with high rising falsetto induced precision due to the assistance of echo-laden effects as Forster sings with harmonious conviction, emotion and unrelenting passion, "I don't know what happens to all the dreams". It's a lovely three and a half minute ode to becoming a parent and to all the sacrifices and drastic changes that inevitably come with it. However, the track is also accompanied by mildly soaring strings and elegant piano chords which perhaps inadvertently creates an undercurrent of anxiety that makes the track all the more stirring and powerful.
"Travel Round the World" sees the album shift slightly into a steady, positive and uplifting tempo with the assistance of minor key melodies, but it's the following two tracks, "Campfire Songs" and "Slouching Toward Reality", that carry the momentum forward into the middle stages and phases of Family Trees by providing a welcome and lovely one-two punch. The latter being a cascading two minute, slow-tempo ballad that's both devastatingly gorgeous and emotional. Forster sings longingly over weary, creaking piano chords, simple acoustic guitar strumming and brushes of percussion - and it remarkably manages to capture everything that Family Trees as a collection of tracks represents. Forster's echoing and reverb enhanced voice is at its most sincere as he explores compelling topics ranging from temptation to inevitable loss. "Maybe in another life our paths will cross again", he sings within the opening verse before continuing candidly, "You should know she'll stay my wife and you will stay my friend / it hurts that I cannot know you, but it's good to feel again". At first glance from an outsiders perspective, it may be seen to be a cliche tune regarding a restless and loveless marriage on the brink of collapse, but the unique tension, complexity and emotional depth to the piece is what allows it to stand out.
The five minute duration of "Africa" is another album highlight with its enticing melodies and uncommon hooks in the chorus. It's the closest the album comes to stumbling into previously explored and abandoned For Stars territory. From here though there are a couple of unfortunate and untimely missteps, the first coming in the form of "Space" - a track that seems content to wander and meander around aimlessly without purpose or direction. After many highlights during the opening half of the release, it comes as a disappointment to hear three minutes of uninspired songwriting. There's no change in tempo, the instrumentation is bland, and the falsetto vocal technique is lovely when used sparsely, but after three continuous minutes it becomes somewhat tiresome. The same can be said for "Back of Motorcycle" which feels rushed and lacking cohesiveness when placed into context with the remainder of the record.
Thankfully the album ends of a positive note with the closing two tracks each capturing a startling sense of sadness. In particular, "If I Could Be" once again utilizes sliding guitars, frequent handclaps, a lovely cello and the occasional elegant strumming of guitars to create a rich musical atmosphere for Forster to confess in retrospect, "If I could be happy for the rest of my life, I'd probably be happy with you". The harmonies are thoughtful, well crafted, and the song gradually transforms itself into a gorgeous and dreamy lullaby of grace, love and sorrow.
Family Trees is a record that has underwent six years of development and creation, and these are songs are undeniably labors of love. There's no shortage of sparse pianos, haunting crescendos and delightful organs - and with M. Ward overseeing production duties, you can be sure that the instrumentation is crisp, the vocals have been layered adequately, and that nothing has been over-polished. It's a safe, pleasant release with some tremendously high moments, and after six years in the musical wilderness, hopefully Carlos Forster continues to redefine himself as a prominent folk artist and pursues the makings of a successful solo career.