While fans wait for the next Death Cab for Cutie record, guitarist Chris Walla drops in their laps his solo album, Field Manual.The upcoming Narrow Stairs is scheduled for a May release on Atlantic, their second at the major label, but Walla returned to Death Cab’s original indie imprint, Barsuk, for his solo effort. Field Manual definitely has the feel of a ‘Death Cab solo record’, similar in style, but more stripped-down. Maybe not as a strong as what the full band can do, but Manual is definitely worth reading.
While singer/guitarist Benjamin Gibbard provides the frontman duties for Death Cab, Walla has not only taken a strong slot in the band, but made a name of his own as a producer at his ‘Hall of Justice’ studio, working on records by The Decembrists, Hot Hot Heat, The Long Winters, Nada Surf, The Thermals, Tegan & Sara, and others. Yet, interestingly, Field Manual is more akin to Death Cab than Gibbard’s own work outside the band (like the indietronic hit pairing with Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello, The Postal Service). The touching, haunting sounds and melodies are all there, plus the pop-friendly excursions. At times, Walla’s voice isn’t as fine as Gibbard’s, but he never slacks off, and he doesn’t limit himself.
The most Death Cab-like pieces on Field Manual are unsurprisingly some of the strongest. “Geometry &C” has the driving, expansive guitars that Walla has been throwing down in his band. There’s a neat press to “Archer v. Light”, though Walla’s vocals are a little off at points; stronger is the following “St. Modesto”, with a slightly darker press, more haunt, and great drums (by Kurt Dahle of The New Pornographers, who did most of the drumming on Field Manual; the rest was done by Death Cab drummer Jason McGerr – it was the only instrument on the record that Walla didn’t do himself). There’s a high and nice bop to the flowing “Sing Again”, but the slow, pretty, sustain of pieces like “A Bird Is a Song”, “It’s Unsustainable”, and especially finisher “Holes” sometimes have trouble holding one’s interest.
But Walla doesn’t just stick to the book on Field Manual, delivering some nice excursions. Opener “Two-Fifty” treads on the echoed indietronic terrain, while the subsequent “The Score” delivers straight-up indie-rock guitars. “Everybody Needs a Home” really stands out, thanks to its catchy strum and canter, plus very fitting keys. No solo record would be complete without some singer/songwriter folk, and Walla brings it on “Everybody On”. But he then betters it with the following indie-country-pop tunesmithing of “Our Plans, Collapsing”; this single-worthy track is wistful, but not crushingly so.
Originally scheduled for a September release, Field Manual was delayed due to the master tapes being seized by the Department of Homeland Security when being shipped across the Canadian border. More lead-time before Narrow Stairs would have let the album come more out of those shadows; moreover, the entire record is a bit better suited to the waning sunsets of September than the freezing days of February. However, Chris Walla and his Field Manual can stand on his own at any time of the year.