Chris Walla – Field Manual

Chris Walla
Field Manual

It’s difficult to determine who has the harder time going solo and emerging from the shadows of their successful band, the lead singer or the principal musician. It’s virtually impossible for either to avoid comparisons to the band they helped establish and impart their individuality upon the world of rock music. In this case the solo artist is Chris Walla, the esteemed songwriter, engineer, producer and principal musician (guitarist) of indie-rock kings Death Cab for Cutie.

Since Walla is responsible for so much of Death Cab’s sound, it’s understandable that a solo effort might sound like a twin record separated at birth. Field Manual, Walla’s solo debut, certainly does have it’s fair share of Death Cab sound and style, but not so much of the mixed-meter snappy drums and jittery rhythms that graced The Photo Album, but more like an extension of the smoother, polished rock and bright electric guitar leads of Plans. While stepping out from the band has given Walla a chance to prove his musical prowess (he plays everything but drums) he has also proven he has the ability to craft emotionally stimulating and dreamy indie-rock from a unique perspective and with distinctive features.

Each song on the album has indie-rock elements that are instantly fetching and enough pop smarts to be noticed and catchy. But with aesthetically layered guitar swells and creative subtle traits artfully interwoven into the indie-rock foundation, the deep sonic layers are exposed with each listen to reveal a treasure chest of rich guitar textures, tight bass lines and clever pop nuances that only get better over time.

With all of the wistful, artful and energetic knots of brittle guitar sweeps and dynamically smooth drumming, and Walla borrowing Gibbard’s singing style, while not sounding like him, at times you can’t help but wish the distinctive and wispy vocals of Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) would be coming through the speakers instead. But what Walla lacks in the vocal department he more than makes up for in the music department. In ways similar to The Long Winters, there is a resonant warmth built in to the enthusiastic indie-rock. But Walla isn’t afraid to let loose on occasion with bits of refined high energy boosts brought to life by expressive guitar playing comparable to Doug Martsch in Built To Spill.

Field Manual’s first three tracks make a strong case for Walla as a solo artist as they are captivating and musing, and the least Death Cab-like. “Two Fifty”, a bare bones atmospheric number, opens the album with some melodic, harmonized vocals over a crisp drum beat and searing guitar tones. “The Score” follows with shifting, driving rhythms and tight guitar licks that wouldn’t sound out of place on R.E.M.’s Monster. “Sing Again” is bright, upbeat and insanely catchy and whose only fault is that it ends too soon. The rest of album settles in nicely with refined alternative pop songs as described above, the highlights being the polished and dreamy “Everybody Needs A Home”, and the rocking “Archer v. Light”.

Ultimately this is an engaging pop album with lush sonics, like a guitar-heavy Death Cab album with a less than brilliant singer, which is not a bad thing at all, and should feed the need of fans of alluring, guitar-based indie-rock and keep DCFC fans contented until the release of their new album in May ‘08.

Recommended Tracks: “Everybody Needs A Home”, “Archer v. Light” and “Sing Again”. Go here to listen to “Sing Again”: