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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Chris Walla: "Field Manual"

It has often been said that the strength of Death Cab for Cutie is Ben Gibbard, the prolific lyricist and hopeless romantic with a nearly-flawless voice. I give the man a lot of credit, myself, as he's probably one of my favorite vocalists of all time! With all of that hype, one has to imagine that Chris Walla is a resilient guy; letting Ben get all the attention while he's busy not only playing the guitar, but producing some of the better records of the last couple of years (The Decemberists' The Crane Wife or Tegan and Sara's The Con). In truth, Death Cab for Cutie wouldn't be near as successful as they are if it weren't for Walla's influence and guidance. Therefore, you can probably imagine my anticipation for Field Manual, Walla's first solo album. Unfortunately, the album fails to leave any significant impression whatsoever, which paves the way for some very mixed feelings.

For the majority of Field Manual, Walla seems content to retread paths that have already been paved by Death Cab for Cutie. As such, a direct comparison seems entirely appropriate and the outcome of said comparison is not in his favor. The guitars, drums, keyboards and peripheral instrumentation are all saturated in the same inoffensive pop/rock sound that Death Cab shamelessly flaunts. Due to Walla's vast experience with this particular style of music, it all sounds rather well, flawless in fact. Where the comparison fails him, however, is in the vocal department. Quite simply, Walla's got nothing on Gibbard. His voice sounds constrained, like he should be singing proudly but instead decided to close his throat and settle for a breathy, raspy timbre. It rarely works in his favor, and in a song like "Sing Again," with Ben Folds-esque keyboards and tight rhythm guitars, his lack of vocal prowess completely keeps the song from being memorable.

There are other times, however, that everything seems to come together quite well. On "A Bird is a Song," Walla's breathy vocals perfectly complements the slow pace, looming organs, and far-off guitar strums. He sings, "I do not need to see, but I need a vision," and it affects me because I'm not distracted by how out of place he sounds. In fact, it's in Field Manual's slower, more reflective moments that Walla's talents really shine. "It's Unsustainable" is another fantastic song, starting off slow with a calming Rhodes organ. Walla beautifully accompanies, noting, "I counted out the numbers silently, a list of places and names that I'd best get back to at least." Eventually, more instrumentation is added and the song slowly builds in an triumphant, if not somewhat predictable manner. It really is a gorgeous song.

Unfortunately, most of Field Manual is an up-tempo, poppy affair, and the instances where it can become an affecting piece of work are few. It's a shame too, because Walla's lyrics aren't usually of extravagant romances and eternal love as Ben Gibbard's are. And while he does touch on those subjects, he also spends his time singing about issues that are more political in nature. He does so delicately, never dwelling too much on a certain subject. For example, a line like, "Everyone needs a home, everybody needs a place to go. A FEMA trailer does not ease the blow," is followed by "Everybody needs a roof and a bed and a bright, bright light that he can turn off at night and fall asleep with the love of his life." So while he does take a direct jab, he also spends time discussing basic human rights in general and even manages to mix in some romance. It's a pure work of genius with the pen, and definitely worth noting.

Overall, Field Manual isn't a bad album. Chris Walla is far too talented of a musician to let something truly awful ship with his name on it. It does, however, fall just short of being a "good" album. I suppose one could say it was decent and leave it at that. Walla shows moments where he seems to be sprinting away from his Death Cab roots, but ultimately goes crawling back to them time and time again. The end result is a mixed bag of brilliant moments, and disheartening missteps that probably won't be playing in my CD player for more than a few weeks. Surely there are things to like on Field Manual; parts to love even. But with that new Death Cab for Cutie album just a couple of months away, you may just want to save your money and wait for the real thing.

Key Tracks:

1. "The Score"
2. "A Bird is a Song"
3. "Everyone Needs a Home"
4. "It's Unsustainable"
5. "Holes"

6 out of 10 Stars


Jill said...

In my book, "up-tempo, poppy affair" means I don't have to worry too much about being so Emo-affected that I want to cut myself.

Those three words of yours? Totally sold me on giving it a listen. Congrats!

Cale said...