Chris Walla’s second solo release, “Field Manual,” could actually be called a solo debut. His first effort was barely advertised and remains generally unknown to the general public.
p. That said, “Field Manual” isn’t half bad if you consider it a debut. There’s a wealth of material here for the casual listener and Death Cab for Cutie fan alike. As a sophomore release, however, it seems there is a certain spark that’s missing.
p. Just what that something is a bit hard to pin down. For those of you who don’t know Walla, he’s the brains behind Seattle-based indie-rock band Death Cab for Cutie — the other good thing to come out of the Pacific Northwest (grunge rock, anyone?) — and he’s easily one of the most innovative talents on the scene. He sports a God awful haircut and looks like he’s terrified of the light, but he makes up for it with clever, nuanced guitar-writing and an ear for musical texture.
p. What’s sorely missing from “Field Manual,” however, (and maybe these are the sentiments of a long-time Death Cab fan) are the wonderfully sappy lyrics of original front-man Ben Gibbard and the pained, embittered wail with which he sang them. Walla seems more concerned with filling this gap than seeking out his own voice, something that becomes more and more obvious with each successive track.
p. Nowhere is this more evident than on songs like “Sing Again,” which is also the closest the album comes to having a stand-out track. There’s an element of strange grandeur in it’s slow, Cure-like dance quality and the anthemic chanting of “sing again,” making for the bones of what could have been a great song. In the end, though, it still plays like it was made with Gibbard in mind, and Walla’s voice falls just a few notches short.
p. The same can be said of the preceding track, “The Score,” which starts off strangely enough — the opening riff sounds like it was pulled straight from a White Stripes song. It’s certainly entertaining though, and the maybe-deep, maybe-meaningless ambiguity of lines like, “We’ve armed a bear, why are we bullfighting?” adds a poetic gist that might even surpass the words of Gibbard.
p. Where the song goes wrong, however, is oddly enough the same place where it could’ve gone right: the riffs melt smoothly into a synth-layered groove, over which Walla cries “Now on the chase / Our colors are falling” before all too quickly jumping back to the opening segment. For a moment, it really feels like the album’s headed where it should’ve been in the first place — away from its flirtations with stale alt-rock and back to the bitter, grunge-inspired edge of Death Cab.
p. But sadly, that is not the case, and cannot be the case. All labels and expectations aside, the real question is how “Field Manual” stands on its own, without any notion of the lingering influence of guys like Gibbard or years of song-writing with Death Cab for Cutie. And the simple, sad truth is that it doesn’t fair well.
p. There are just better places to go for what this album does decently, and for what it does plain wrong, there’s really no use crying about. The churchy, ominous opening lines of the album, “All hail an imminent collapse,” comes just short of Elliot Smith, and the easy-going, acoustic twang of songs like “Everybody On” and “Our Plans, Collapsing” sounds like a duller version of Rilo Kiley.’
p. Harsh words, maybe. It is brief, however, if nothing else, though for all its brevity you’ll wish it had a little more. The final verdict: great ideas, poor execution. Best wait for Death Cab’s next one, due for release this May.
__2 out of 5 stars__