Sunday, January 27, 2008
Sustain, Release: Chris Walla's Field Manual
This review appears in this week's Wireless Bollinger.
Chris Walla’s Field Manual has had a long gestation. The album was originally set for release a year ago, but Walla’s production of Tegan and Sara’s The Con pushed it back a whole 12 months. Then, United States Customs confiscated Walla’s hard drive at the Canadian border, further complicating the process. The scenario is especially bizarre considering the context of Walla’s role as guitarist in the generally benign Death Cab for Cutie and, for the most part, Field Manual is not much of a departure from Walla’s main project. Two of its tracks are even reportedly castoffs from Plans, the band’s last album and major label debut.
The album’s original title, It’s Unsustainable, suggested that, despite the obvious Death Cab pedigree, Walla’s solo affair would be more than just love songs. However, the album only partially delivers on such promise; opener "Two Fifty" alluding to the current state of world affairs: “All hail an imminent collapse,” the rest of the album returning to more familiar, romantic territory. And when the former title track rolls around, it’s toothless. “It’s not unsustainable,” Walla breathes, softly killing any hopes for political content – it’s decidedly unclear why border agents would detain something so devoid of controversy.
While uniformly pleasant, Field Manual isn’t compelling. The album sways from delicate dream pop to more a raucous, guitar-driven style within the first two tracks, but despite the eclecticism, it still feels like a retread and as such Walla’s back catalogue is an obstacle that he never really clears. The woozy parts of the album immediately bring to mind the warmer parts of Plans, while the louder moments recall old, cathartic Death Cab. A comparison between Ben Gibbard and Walla’s vocals seems lazy, but is inevitable when both style and subject matter are so similar. "Geometry & C" has an opening guitar riff that could be a doppelganger for Death Cab single "Crooked Teeth," while the “Da dee dum” refrain is suspiciously akin to Gibbard’s vocalizations of choice.
Likeness aside, Walla demonstrates his gift for production, and the album has a generous share of hooks. His earnest songwriting is a good fit for the music, which is subsequently easy on the ears; "Sing Again" repeats the title until it approaches an anthem, demonstrating a pop sensibility that simply works – while not revolutionary, it is well constructed. But compared to the idiosyncrasies of, say, the Decemberists, whom Walla has also produced, it’s a tame record as a whole – the remarkable lack of tension making the experience soothing and frustrating at the same time.
The solo project is ideally a bold step, in which a musician breaks the confines of his day job and embarks on a journey of individualism. Unfortunately, this wasn’t what Chris Walla has achieved and even as this record gathers momentum, many ears anticipate the looming May arrival of Death Cab’s next album. While Field Manual should sate those fans’ desires for the next few months, the less enthusiastic recipients will probably wish for a bigger leap elsewhere.
MP3: Chris Walla - Sing Again
MySpace: Chris Walla
Official Site: Chris Walla / Hall of Justice