Artist: Chris Walla
Album: Field Manual
Comments: The story goes like this: while at a concert, Chris Walla, a producer, multi-instrumentalist and DJ gets into a conversation with some guy about the band Teenage Fanclub. The guy asks Walla to help him produce a cassette tape, and after it becomes successful, he asks Walla to play guitar with him on stage. Turns out “the guy” is none other than Ben Gibbard, and their live collective would eventually become Death Cab For Cutie.
Since then, Walla has been breaking hearts and rocking make-out mix tapes for years, while going unnoticed by the general public. However, rather than step out from the shadow of his full time band, Walla seems content to just churn out more of the same on his solo record, Field Manual.
While in Death Cab, Walla has long maintained the dual role of producer and guitarist, but it is the former that provides the greater distinction. Death Cab’s two most popular records, Transatlanticism and Plans, were both produced by Walla, and it would seem that his production is as much responsible for the band’s development in sound (not to mention their recent mainstream success) as Gibbard is.
So, what then, is wrong with Field Manual? Fans of the two Death Cab albums listed above will notice a similarity right away. The songs on Field Manual contain the same kind of ambient, cloudy drone that exist on, and ultimately help define, Death Cab’s most accomplished records. These songs have the same canned sounding drums, the same echo-y guitars and the same tinny vocals that have become the hallmark of Walla’s full-time band.
Rather than attempt to establish himself as a solo act, Walla seems content to simply crank out Death Cab b-sides, sugar sweet and syrup thick. Hell, even a casual fan can pick out the similarities here. “Geometry & C” plays like something off of Songs About Airplanes, “The Score” sounds like the spiritual companion to “The Sound of Settling,” and “Everyone Needs a Home” would fit in great as mid-album filler for Plans. Walla’s record is full of the kind of songs that will be instantly familiar without being endearing or substantial in the way that Death Cab can be.
Even with all the photo-copying, Walla could get a pass if his songwriting was anywhere near as good as Gibbard’s. However, without Benny G's pen to give all the swirling noise a romantic center, Walla is just another guy lost in the clouds. His lyrics, while not bad, are not noticeable. His inflection, while not distracting, does not stand out. There is no urge to explore deeper into what is being said, no metaphors to decipher, no literary prose to admire and no reason to look at the lyric sheet.
So what the listener is left with is a Death Cab For Cutie album without the good songwriting. For lifelong fans of the DCFC, the kind of people who are so hard up for a new record that they can’t go three days without spinning their copy of We Have The Facts… or listening to one of the many “Ben Gibbard and Guy X” splits, Field Manual will provide a pleasant distraction until the new Death Cab album comes out this May. However, for the rest (more sane) of us, Walla’s solo album is nothing more than a footnote in the giant tome of emotional indie-pop.
Rating: 3.5 out of 10
Buy, Steal, or Skip?: Skip.