Chris Walla - Field Manual (released January 29, 2008; Barsuk Records)
What is it about pop melody that draws me towards it like a magnet? Producer extraordinaire Chris Walla, of Death Cab For Cutie fame, has just released his debut as a solo performer and it's full of catchy choruses that grab with the force of a lasso and his trademark guitar sound. The strength of this album, however, is its focus on production values, making up for what he lacks in songwriting skills.
Eschewing his previous, short-lived moniker as Martin Youth Auxiliary, you may have recognized Walla's name in the liner notes of some heavy hitters lately; such as Tegan & Sara's The Con, the last two Decemberists' albums, as well as acting as engineer and mixing Hot Hot Heat's mainstream breakthrough album Make Up The Breakdown.
Before I get started on the actual review, I've just got to add that it's weird hearing the back-up singer and guitarist of Death Cab singing without Ben Gibbard on top of the mix. Field Manual is basically a Death Cab album without their lead singer, and lyrically it shows. Walla's debut misses the mark, where Ben's songwriting experience is the sticking point of DCFC's main objective. Gone from Walla's album are the emotionally overwrought and deeply introspective lyricism showcased in Gibbard's notebooks, but I'm not reviewing Death Cab's highly anticipated Narrow Stairs until it hits us in May.
There's some weird back-story attached to this album, as you may have read that the hard drive containing the finished album was sequestered by US Customs agents at the Canadian border back in October. Our lovely Department Of Justice has (of course) run a nice little spin campaign of the whole situation, declining to comment on exactly why an indie rocker's hard drive was confiscated. This pushed back the release date into the new year, all in the name of national security. Apparently terrorism has a new name, and it's Chris Walla's Field Manual.
So without Gibbard's hand in the cookie jar, Walla's songwriting has a bit of a political slant to it, as if critiquing our paranoid zeitgeist and the nature of a commentary on a repressive regime have become illegal. It's an unavoidable irony that the album had to be "checked out" by Homeland Security to see if it contained any riot-inducing slogans, I can guess from the opening lines of the album it's all too real. "All hail an imminent collapse/ You can fumble for your maps/ But we're exhausted by the facts..." Walla opines on Two-Fifty, adding "...Pull the switch and find the fireman/ We need more than fun/ We need a plan, a solution, we need efficiency..." If that got Dick and W's attention enough to pull a hard drive out of a courier's bag, then wait for some more incendiary lines as the album goes on, our dear dry-drunk emperor.
Provoking another nation into an endless and pointless war? The Score is the soundtrack to the raping of both the Afghani and Iraqi culture, trying to replace theirs with ours, through the industrial-military complex known as the US Armed Forces. With the dollar on our side, the corporate landscape throughout the Mideast is peppered with American-based contracts, all under the guise of rebuilding their national infrastructures. Dear Republicans, you can't bring democracy to a part of the world that doesn't want it. Their reply: What's our oil doing under their soil, anyway?
On to two songs about singing, both lyrically ambiguous in nature; Sing Again and A Bird Is A Song. But it's not until Geometry & C that Walla gets into the losing-at-love stuff, cribbing notes from his day-job boss. "The hardest part is letting go/ Let your heart keep the time..." Then he fires a blast at the folks who've mis-handled the Katrina situation, in Everyone Needs A Home: "Well, everyone needs a home/ Everybody needs a place to go/ a FEMA trailer does not ease the blow/ Every boy needs a roof and bed and bright, bright light/ That he can turn off at night/ And fall asleep with the love of his life..."
Walla gets a bit sappy with Our Plans, Collapsing, a bit "emo", if you will allow that word into your vocabulary, sans screaming. It's that "we used to live together, now we live apart" song, and the bridge has a Journey-esque "Don't Stop Believing" quality to it, making it even more annoying than he originally intended. This album also runs out of more steam at this point. If I was Barsuk Records, Walla's label, I'd have been happier to have him just release an EP of the more political tunes, his only strength on Field Manual.
Throwing himself back into the political mix with Archer Vs. Light, which acts as an open letter to an un-named senator, finds him pleading in a most unconvincing way trying to compare an American senator to a Roman senate member. Oy, there's still three more songs left after this one. It's Unsustainable has Chris revisiting the indie-ballad formula that may have worked with songs like Lightness on DCFC's stellar Transatlanticism, and it's just not working. Same with the album's closing track, Holes. It's a metaphor for a hole in the heart, or a hole in the soul. But for me, it highlights all the holes in this album, much like trying to fix a broken leg with a band-aid.
Musically speaking, it's a fine indie-pop-rock album, and vocally it's not bad either, but lyrically Walla falters over his awkward lines time and time again. Going out on his own may have given him something to do in between Death Cab releases, but please Mr. Walla, stick to your day job...