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for Stars

San Francisco's for Stars is a group of friends who go back, way back, some all the way to high school in southern California, others to the couches and porches of San Luis Obispo. This familiarity carries over to the music, which has an unharried confidence and gentle grace. But the most arresting thing about for Stars is singer/guitarist Carlos Forster's voice. Forster -- who writes all the songs and swears that for Stars is not a play on his last name -- is an endearingly vulnerable frontman. He's a quiet guy with a sheepish grin, the kind of guy you forgive for calling you by the wrong name because you can tell he means well. That earnestness shines through each of for Stars' songs.

When the band plays live, Forster reaches out, seemingly to physically pluck his words from the air. Listening to for Stars' self-titled 1998 debut album, you get the sense that nothing comes easily for Forster: every lyric, every melody seems exquisitely wrenched straight from his heart. Not to say that it sounds tortured or strangled, just terribly, painfully honest. From that debut, "Movies" and "Field of Fire" are haunted by a sense of wistful, romantic nostalgia.

"Sorry" and "Bleu" are from the band's second full-length, 1999's Windows for Stars, which has a rounder, fuller sound than the self-titled album. Washes of organ and flurries of trumpet fill out Forster's songs, but the additional instrumentation does not diminish the lovely melodies or genuine sentiments. These are the kinds of songs you hear in your head when you're riding in the backseat of a car, listening to the murmur of an AM radio and watching the landscape go by through rain-streaked windows. The songs seem to be floating in air, hovering just above the ground until you get close enough to touch them, only to have them flutter away or dissolve into a fine mist.

After For Stars toured Spain in 2000, the Madrid label Acuarela was eager to put something out by the band. The result was the five-song Airline People EP, a collection of exclusive outtakes from the band's first two full-lengths. As you might expect, it's another exquisite collection of crystal clear expressions of brokenheartedness, featuring the aching "Brown Skin Saint."

For Stars' newest is 2001's We Are All Beautiful People, which sees the group kick it up a few notches, mixing in a number of rhythmic uptempo rockers with its trademark stark, sensitive ballads. "How It Goes" is one of the former, "There Was a River" starts out as one of the latter, before building into a desperate epic.