Long before American Idol runner-up Blake Lewis was beatboxing with Sir Mix-a-Lot in front of the Westfield Center, Chris Walla could have been described as Bothell, Washington’s favorite son. For a while in the ’90s it seemed as though musicians were popping up everywhere in Washington, but Bothell. Issaquah boasted Modest Mouse, Aberdeen and Seattle claimed Nirvana and Pearl Jam amongst a host of other grunge acts, and Bellingham was notoriously listed as the origin of Death Cab. However, it might just be time for the politically split bedroom community of Bothell to erect a statue in Walla’s honor. Besides being the producing force behind his own band, Death Cab for Cutie, one of the biggest `indie to major’ stories of the past decade, he’s also helmed albums by the Decemberists, Tegan and Sara, Hot Hot Heat, Nada Surf and Travis Morrison. While respected as a tunesmith and producer, many wondered whether Walla could emerge from behind frontman Ben Gibbard’s various successful projects that have vaulted him into the limelight. With Field Manual, Walla not only gives himself the chance, he essentially thrusts those challenges back into our respective faces.
Walla has been attempting to release solo work for some time. Back in 1999, he released some material under the name Martin Youth Auxiliary. For the last few years, he’s been promising a return of the MYA, but instead has put his own name on Field Manual. It’s a good thing, because outside of Johnny Marr, he’s the biggest guitar name in the Northwest right now. With Field Manual, Walla proves that Death Cab can be just like one of his favorite bands, Teenage Fanclub, in that it can house more than one talented singer / songwriter. Like the Fanclub, Walla pens tunes that are at once earnest and deeply intimate, though unlike Death Cab’s songs, that intimacy isn’t entrenched in the romantic. While Gibbard mourns that he was `the one worth leaving,’ Walla’s hidden message concerns the exit of the current administration. Field Manual is full of songs about dying soldiers overseas, the failing factory systems, Hurricane Katrina and the corruption of Congress. And while this may seem as if Gibbard and Walla are a band apart, there’s enough similarities between them to please even the most wary fan.
The first thing we hear is Walla’s fey and delicate voice overlapped with itself in falsetto on “Two-Fifty.” To start out with over a minute of primarily vocals says to me that Walla isn’t afraid at all of the `not the lead vocalist’ stigma. Of course, the absence of guitars might make some worry, but then comes “The Score,” an absolute rocker that finds Walla’s vocals a dead ringer for Gibbard’s, especially in his pronunciation of R’s as in `more’ and `score.’ I wonder if that’s a Washington thing, but the only accent I’ve noticed up here seems to be with the word `bag.’ (You can always tell a local because they pronounce it `beg.’) “The Score” is certainly going to be the link for Death Cab fans to this album, a bouncy uptempo number akin to “The Sound of Settling.” “Sing Again” is another standout, sounding like a lost track from The Photo Album. But most of the tracks on Field Manual fall into the category of the poetic and melodramatic ilk similar to Transatlanticism. “A Bird is a Song” rivals any Gibbard penned tune in quiet emotional turbulence while “Geometry &C” is another fantastic uptempo track that even has a Gibbard-like “da de dum dum.”
Along with vocal intonations, another similarity to his band partner is a gift for lyrics. A friend of mine who is generally into more hardcore stuff admitted to me a love for Death Cab due to the lyrical content. In “Everybody On,” Walla addresses immigration policies with a hint of sarcasm and without hitting the nail directly on the head. Walla even garners some excellent turns of phrase in the great track, “Archer vs. Light,” in which he touches on pork barrel politics with the line, “Can you still hear with all the marks on your ears?” But in the same song he can be more pointed as he sings, “I want to see your pro-life bear no exception, you Grand Old Senator.” Considering how much political content is included in the songs from Field Manual, it makes one wonder whether the border problems that Walla had with his laptop hard drive was part of some larger conspiracy. But when Walla sings that he’s `a librarian’ in “Archer,” I doubt that it’s some kind of obscure reference to Lee Harvey Oswald. For Cabbies who need further convincing I need point you no further than the delicate and intricate mini-epic, “It’s Unsustainable.” If you were disappointed by the lack of an emotional pull as equal to the lyric, “I need you so much closer,” this song is for you.
In the end, this isn’t just a political album, it’s not just a Death Cab offshoot, and it’s not just a pop album. It is all of these things, and the best combination of all three. Okay, so like Page, Perry and Richards, this isn’t going to vault him out of his regular gig and into massive stardom more than he already is, but I doubt that was his goal. Everyone who writes music in a band, and especially if that music isn’t used by the band, has to have another outlet. Yet, very few of those solo projects end up to be as balanced, sobering and entertaining as Field Manual.
MP3: “Sing Again”