[1 September 2011]
There are singer-songwriters of a certain age—artists who came of age in the late 1970s under the spell of Beatles and yet also under the spell of the post-Beatles and its various related sonic spells—releasing albums that are firmly rooted in the now, but have an ear for that bygone era. They have the the ability of certain acts to make flesh out of the sounds of late, introspective nights, emerging as they did with some kind of truth that rarely fell into empty platitudes. Freedy Johnston, Kurt Hagardorn, M. Ward and Mike Coykendall are among those artists who capture and expand upon that spirit, and so is Carlos Forster. The latter has just released a collection of songs quiet in their perfection, rooted in the personal but applicable to the universal, tinged with sadness but thoroughly uplifting.
Forster, who released several too-little-heard albums with for Stars some years back, teams up with his old college chum Matt Ward for an 11-song celebration of life and friendship. Recorded over a six year period—twixt 2003 and 2009—the result is a seamless endeavor that further establishes Forster as formidable talent (his albums with for Stars really ought to be required listening for every soul in North America) and reminds us that greatness often reveals itself slowly, subtly, instead of by force.
The spirit of ‘60s and ‘70s AM smiles upon this record, as do the benevolent spirits of Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, Brian Wilson, and a pre-Wings Sir Paul McCartney (Is it possible that “Back Of A Motorcycle” is a nod to Macca’s “Back Of A Car”?), especially during the opening “I Walk I Talk”, “Walking Away”, and “Space”, a softly whispered prayer that begs to become a standard. “Campfire Songs” has an appropriately gentle jocularity, while “Travel Round the World” is one to break out around the campfire with four or five of your closest friends.
As for friends, Forster is surrounded by them here. There’s Ward, of course, whose touch is far more gentle than you might expect; old pal Rachel Blumberg (Bright Eyes, the Decemberists) adds some drums, while longtime Ward collaborator Coykendall (who engineered much of the 1999 for Stars release Windows for Stars and who has several superior releases under his belt) stands as one of the central supporting figures. Jonathan Richman turns up on “If I Could Be”—the story goes that he only wanted to play second rhythm guitar, but, no matter, his presence looms large on a song that occasionally recalls Randy Van Warmer’s 1979 hit “Just When I Needed You Most”, a track that itself deserves a revisit from some contemporary act.
Perhaps the greatest charm of Family Trees is that it never attempts to be The Great American Singer-Songwriter Record and, as a result, is all the more enjoyable and closer to being exactly that. It’s a great reminder of the power of a simple song, of simple emotions, of how good it feels to touch the fertile and familiar grass of home.