Chris Walla: Field Manual

Death Cab for Cutie sideman/indie producer extraordinare finally releases his long-delayed solo album, capitalizing on a sound that wouldn't be out of place on a regular Death Cab album.

Chris Walla

Field Manual

Label: Barsuk
US Release Date: 2008-01-29
UK Release Date: 2008-02-04

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.






"I'm an Audience Member, Playing This Music for Us": An Interview With Keller Williams

Veteran musician Keller Williams discusses his special relationship with the Keels, their third album together, Speed, and what he learned from following the Grateful Dead.


Shintaro Kago's 'Dementia 21' Showcases Surrealist Manga

As much as I admire Shintaro Kago's oddness as a writer, his artistic pen is even sharper (but not without problems) as evident in Dementia 21.


Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad Proclaim 'Jazz Is Dead!' Long Live Jazz!

Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad bring their live collaborative efforts with jazz veterans to recorded life with Jazz Is Dead 001, a taste of more music to come.


"I'll See You Later": Repetition and Time in Almodóvar's 'All About My Mother'

There are mythical moments in Almodóvar's All About My Mother. We are meant to register repetition in the story as something wonderfully strange, a connection across the chasm of impossibility.


Electropop's CMON Feel the Noise on 'Confusing Mix of Nations'

Pop duo CMON mix and match contemporary and retro influences to craft the dark dance-pop on Confusing Mix of Nations.


'Harmony' Is About As Bill Frisell As a Bill Frisell Recording Can Be

Bill Frisell's debut on Blue Note Records is a gentle recording featuring a few oddball gems, particularly when he digs into the standard repertoire with Petra Haden's voice out front.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 4, James Chance to the Pop Group

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part four with Talking Heads, the Fall, Devo and more.


Raye Zaragoza's "Fight Like a Girl" Shatters the Idea of What Women Can and Can't Do (premiere)

Singer-songwriter and activist Raye Zaragoza's new single, "Fight Like a Girl", is an empowering anthem for intersectional feminism, encouraging resilience amongst all women.


VickiKristinaBarcelona Celebrate Tom Waits on "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" (premiere)

VickiKristinaBarcelona celebrate the singular world of Tom Waits their upcoming debut, Pawn Shop Radio. Hear "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" ahead of tomorrow's single release.


'Everything's Gonna Be Okay' Is  Better Than Okay

The first season of Freeform's Everything's Gonna Be Okay is a funny, big-hearted love letter to family.


Jordan Rakei Breathes New Life Into Soul Music

Jordan Rakei is a restless artistic spirit who brings R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and pop craft into his sumptuous, warm music. Rakei discusses his latest album and new music he's working on that will sound completely different from everything he's done so far.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.