Review Summary: This is indie pop.
I covered a band a few months ago called Via Audio. From Berklee College of Music, the indie pop outfit received some lofty acclaim that in many ways is akin to the Kennedy’s endorsement of Barack Obama. Chris Walla, guitarist and producer of indie pop darlings Death Cab for Cutie, called them his “new favorite band.” It is easy to see why. Via Audio clearly demonstrated Death Cab’s influence on them, especially in the light atmosphere and pop sensibility. Still, the sounds were distinctively different between the two groups. With Field Manual
, Chris Walla explores the sounds of his favorite bands without the influence of bandmate and face of Death Cab Ben Gibbard.
Unfortunately, Walla is simply not convincing enough to hold up a one-man act for an entire album. At the same time, his music feels too close to Death Cab for Cutie while still trying to differentiate itself from Death Cab. Walla attempts to shroud the indie pop style with more angular chord progressions and more subtle vocal harmonies, but most of the music only comes across as slightly more complex than the latest Death Cab record. “It’s Unsustainable” recalls the layering crescendo style of “Transatlanticism”, although condensed into a digestible length. Still, Walla pulls in the best aspects of Death Cab to each song.
Where Walla truly fails is in album pacing. The strongest tracks begin the album, with the subtle opener “Two-Fifty” attempting to establish Walla’s identity with a capella vocal harmonies, all moving in parallel motion. Drum clicks and simple guitar patterns enter, and energy starts to build throughout the song, all of which explodes in “The Score”, easily the hardest hitting song on the album. Following that, “Sing Again” sounds like a cutout from The Decemberists’ The Crane Wife
, using a similar groove to “The Perfect Crime 2.” Here, Walla introduces the Fender Rhodes piano sound that dominates the album. After these first three songs, however, Field Manual
delves into a boring panache of mid-tempo indie pop that will put any listener to sleep not through its tranquility but through its lack of interesting music. “Everyone Needs a Home” calls for Mark Hoppus rather than Walla, and its uptempo groove wears thin after the first verse, therefore defeating the purpose of injecting energy into the album.
Lyrically, Walla takes a more political approach than bandmate Gibbard’s romantic whispers. In “The Score”, he takes a definite bring-the-troops-home stance on Iraq, especially in the lines “On and on, we're fractured now/They're bound to ship those children out/On and on, no end in sight.” At times, however, his lyrics get much more ambiguous. The opening stanza of the album has little meaning and reads more as a lyricist trying to sound smart rather than actual intelligence: “All hail an imminent collapse/You can fumble for your maps/But we're exhausted by the facts.” Walla proves a much more able instrumentalist and producer than vocalist and lyricist, as his shaky voice works more on edgy songs like “The Score” than sweet ballads like “Holes.”
Essentially, Field Manual
is the album that everyone expected from Chris Walla. While at times angrier and more energetic than Death Cab for Cutie, many songs could be (and are) B-sides of Plans
. With another Death Cab album, Narrow Stairs
, in the process of creation, the transition from this album to Narrow Stairs
might prove the most interesting of their career. Gibbard’s All-Time Quarterback albums put a magnifying glass on his songwriting techniques, and now Walla’s Field Manual
does the same. Walla explores his favorite artists’ styles on this album, but what will he bring to the table in the future?