Hello, Imaginary Readers. Meet Chris Walla: The “Cutie” for whom the Death Cab drives. He’s your new best friend.
I’ve been anticipating this record for a long time. Chris Walla has been a favorite name of mine for years, whether as producer or musician or band member. Ever since first hearing to the difference between Death Cab for Cutie’s Something About Airplanes debut in 1998 (on which he served only as producer and guest musician) and 2000’s We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes (on which he appeared as not only producer, but as a full-fledged band member), it’s been clear Walla is a special someone. What he brings to the table as a member of Death Cab for Cutie can be heard in not only the ascending quality of production with that band (he has served as producer on all their records), but most specifically in the great artistic leap the band took between those first two records.
Long a studio whiz for-hire (he’s produced records for Nada Surf, The Decemberists, and others in addition to DCfC), Field Manual showcases the first of Walla’s own recordings to be given the care he’s shown to the other projects we all know so well.
That said, what Field Manual shows us exactly what the rest of Death Cab brings to the table.
Unsurprisingly, the record begins with a lusciously reverberating self-harmony, Walla’s wind-in-the-willows tenor layering over itself on “Two-Fifty,” a lovely lament for needing “a plan, a solution,” to get out of our “fractured factory lives” (it’s “a lack of shared commitment,” he says). It’s one of the best tracks on a record that’s been said to be very political in content — the hard drive containing the master digital files was confiscated at the US-Canada border, in fact — and “Two-fifty” accomplishes treading the thin line between political and preachy. “Let’s move forward,” he sings repeatedly as the song closes. “Let’s move on.”
“The Score” follows “Two-fifty” as quite a let down. While it’s far rockier in tone, and the pop-rock chord progression can be said to be classic Walla, it’s a perfect example of Walla not being able to hold down a full rock 'n' roll ensemble himself. His voice lacks the definition of DCFC's Ben Gibbard, and while it may be unfair to compare the two, it’s impossible not to.
First single “Sing Again,” however, trumps just about anything off Plans. A mellow foot-tapper, Walla sings rather eloquent lyrics of national apathy: “If we still cared at all, we’d send a battle call / sing again, sing together with firey eyes, of anger alive in our chests … let’s raise up a song of unrest.”
Lyrically, however, it doesn’t get much better than “Sing Again.” The political content results in Field Manual being a record of big hits and big misses. While “A Bird is a Song” may be one of the prettiest songs ever recorded by a member of Death Cab (take a seat, Postal Service), “Everyone Needs a Home” takes a way too direct route at addressing Hurricane Katrina. “Everyone needs a home, everyone needs a place to go” he sings, “a FEMA trailer does not ease the blow, oh no.” Right sentiment, but executed much too sentimentally.
Walla has for a while now released music on his own under the moniker Martin Youth Auxiliary, and songs from that project and others often appear as downloads on his studio website, Hall of Justice Recording. Like Field Manual, these tracks are hit or miss. But, also like Field Manual, well worth your time. While Field Manual will not knock your socks off, it will knock whatever’s been in your CD player or on your iPod out of rotation for a few solid weeks.