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There seems to be an endless supply of sad-sack troubadours, singers who spill their guts for art and turn personal pain into pretty poetry. Jeff Buckley, Nick Drake, Mark Eitzel, Elliott Smith: The list is a mile long. Over the course of his group's first two records, For Stars singer/songwriter Carlos Forster marched in step, offering miserable sentiments in a voice borrowed from the angels, while the rest of the band applied the less-is-more approach, declining to fill in the empty spaces.
But on the San Francisco quintet's latest full-length, We Are All Beautiful People, Forster jettisons his downtrodden lyrics for a more upbeat outlook, and the band steps forth, pitching its music at a clamorous level. The record is a curveball, a high-fidelity rock opus that owes more to alt-rock stars Radiohead and Grandaddy than to past models like Townes Van Zandt and Neil Young. Still, as anyone who follows For Stars knows, this is one band that excels at thwarting expectations.
The seeds of For Stars were planted years ago in the Southern California town of San Juan Capistrano, where Forster grew up with guitarist Mike Young and bassist Christian Preja. When the trio found themselves in the Bay Area in 1996, they began playing together with drummer Scott Fujawa, who went to school with Forster and Young at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo.
In 1998, For Stars released their eponymous debut on Future Farmer Records. The songs were skeletal, with Forster's lovely falsetto carrying much of the sonic burden. "The first record had a naiveté because we didn't know what we were doing," says Young during an interview at Forster's Mission District apartment.
Naiveté aside, it's that record's naked feel that many listeners fell in love with. Forster sang each lyric as if he were wooing the stars at a beachside bonfire. There was no room for irony; there were no cheeky twists at the ends of songs. Forster meant every sweet word. Young's guitar work -- chiming here, building there -- added just the right emphasis. Puncture magazine called the album "piercingly melancholic."
After playing out frequently, the band became more cohesive and began to draw a consistent audience from a combination of its fellow SoCal émigrés and newfound fans. But even for devotees, For Stars' performances were highly unpredictable. Forster wrote songs at such a swift rate that the group seldom played the same tune twice. Although For Stars' restlessness could prove frustrating, it also lent an element of tension to the shows: You figured you'd better pay attention or you might never hear a song again, live or on record. (Last November, the band appeased fans by releasing Airline People, a five-song EP of outtakes on the Spanish label Acuarela.)
Many of the band's followers were further confused when they heard 1999's follow-up, Windows for Stars. Fujawa had been replaced by drummer Miles Stegall, with organist/guitarist Dan Paris joining as well. The sparseness of the debut was gone, replaced by multiple-tracked vocals and a wealth of keyboards. The folk influences still showed, but they were buried beneath a mess of woozy organ parts.
"It was raining constantly," Paris says about the recording period.
"Everybody was quitting all the time; it's very bleak," Forster explains.
"You were really miserable around [that time]," Paris says to Forster.
Forster's unhappiness was apparent in his lyrics, while the musical additions -- the keyboards and sad trumpet parts, courtesy of Beulah's Bill Swan -- only multiplied the weary spirit of the album. Taken as a whole, however, the record holds up remarkably well. Forster's drowsy vocals on "Burn the Buildings" and "Catholic School" lend a dreamy tone to vaguely sinister tales, while "Don't Compliment Me, Baby" features some of the most heartfelt singing ever put to tape.
After hearing For Stars' most recent album, the sophomore effort seems like a logical stepping stone between the minimalist folk of the debut and the large-scale productions of the third record. But the band had to endure a few more bumps in the road to get there.
In the summer of 1999, Stegall left the band, and yet another Cal Poly grad, Mike Funk, took over as drummer. Forster's friend Tommy Casey, the subject of "Fields of Fire" from the first album, joined on vibes and percussion. For Stars began to change yet again. A few of their new songs had a Latin feel, while others veered into jazz-rock territory. But just when audiences were getting used to this new direction, Funk quit and Casey took over as sole drummer.
Holed up in their practice space, For Stars began recording demos for the new record.
"I think we all wanted to do a record [that was] different from the first two," Young says. "I don't think there was ever a conscious decision to do more rock songs -- it just seemed natural."
"On this one, I think we wanted to make it a little more brash, a little more nuts," Forster adds.