In Ondi Timoner’s spectacular 2004 documentary Dig!, an A&R exec mentions how Matt Hollywood, the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s second-in-command, right behind egocentric frontman Anton Newcombe, is a lot like Anton’s “little brother”, a kid who looks up to Anton and secretly wishes he could write songs just as good as him (and eventually did by penning their controversial breakthrough single “Not If You Were the Last Dandy on Earth”, a biting retort to the Dandy Warhols’ “Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth”). The same, it could be said, is true of Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie.
‘Lo those many years ago, a young gent named Ben Gibbard began writing songs and, upon finding out that people were genuinely connecting with them, decided to form a band for himself. It wasn’t long before he found a kindred songwriting soulmate in the form of Chris Walla, a stunning guitarist and, as time would eventually prove to us, one helluva producer. It wasn’t exactly Morrissey meeting Marr, but that parallel is unavoidable. While Gibbard began writing songs that were increasingly epic and dramatic, hitting his true peak with 2004’s Transatlanticism, the soft-spoken Walla was working on his own songs, often releasing dozens of them for free via his Hall of Justice website. You can even find a song on there that he wrote about Morrissey, “London’s Favorite Son”. He grew as a musician and even more so as a producer, soon manning the boards for highly successful albums by the Decemberists and Tegan & Sara. Now, it is Walla’s own time to shine.
As Walla is always politically outspoken, there was much pre-release buzz about Field Manual being a scathing indictment of the Bush administration, a story that got even more press when his hard drive, containing the Field Manual recordings, was seized at the Canadian border by Homeland Security. However, Field Manual really isn’t that political. It’s an album of songs that are Gibbard-esque in nature, offering few deviations from the Death Cab formula. Fortunately for Walla, this isn’t a bad thing at all.
“Two-Fifty” opens the disc, greeting us with a choir of repeating Walla voices and a minimalist electronic beat that frames the song all the way through. It’s a spectacular opening, but its strongest quality is somewhat surprising: it makes Walla sound like a good singer. Walla’s voice isn’t terrible, but it’s not all that powerful. Immediately following “Two-Fifty” is “The Score”, a hard-rock number where Walla is trying ever-so-hard to sing over the powerful guitars that threaten to engulf him. When I interviewed him a few months ago, he was the first to admit that he had a “squeaky little voice”, and said, “I can sing, but I’m not a singer”. Though he outmuscles his own voice on “The Score”, he is still able to use it effectively on tracks like the instantly-catchy “Geometry & C” and lead single “Sing Again”. Yet he sounds most comfortable during the mid-tempo numbers, most notably with “Everybody Needs a Home”, a song that doubles as an attack on the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina (“Everybody needs a home / everybody needs a place to go / a FEMA trailer does not ease the blow”) as well as a minor-key anthem of human necessity (“All I need is a roof and a bed and a bright, bright light / That I can turn off at night / and fall asleep with the love of my life”). This mixing of the personal and the political serves as Walla’s calling card, and over the rest of Field Manual, it helps and hinders him in equal measure.
“I cannot be your inspiration and I will not be your light” he sings on the otherwise sweet-sounding “Our Plans, Collapsing”, as feel-good a diss track as you’re likely to hear in 2008. Its songs like these where Walla sounds very specific. On tracks like “Holes” and the incomprehensible and totally disposable “A Bird is a Song”, however, he makes odd turns of phrase that are never fully explained: “There’s a hole in your voice / and you say it’s a choice / but I don’t understand”. Field Manual splits the difference between these somewhat insular pop numbers and some solid, sturdy songs. “It’s Unsustainable”, a kindred cousin to the Death Cab for Cutie track “Transatlanticism”, paints a bleak, beautiful picture over its solemn keyboard opening:
I was busy, I was occupied
I was burning the fields
A wind of black was blowing over me
And when the cilia revealed all the ash lining my lungs
I heard a song
As the song gradually builds to its worthy catharsis, you can’t help but feel that in this moment, Walla is in total control of his surroundings. At times his lyrics meander, and his melodies wind up lapping themselves in the latter third (you’ll swear that you’ve heard “St. Modesto” just a few tracks ago), but on the whole, Field Manual is a solid record. It’s not exactly a sequel or spin-off of Death Cab’s sound. It’s more of an expansion pack than anything else. Yet perhaps the record’s best quality is the fact that it doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. It has simple, modest ambitions of displaying the active, songwriting side of this perpetual frontman. He may act like the kid brother to Gibbard, but that doesn’t mean he’s any less talented.