Sound — 8
Death Cab For Cutie have had the rare distinction of winning the hearts of both fans and critics with their melodious yet melancholic take on guitar pop. Chris Walla, in his role as guitarist and producer, is an integral part of this. His shiny guitar tones adorn the band's fragile moments but toughen up in their more dissonant material. His work for Tegan & Sara, The Decemberists and Nada Surf has also made him a much sought after producer. Walla has sporadically released solo material throughout the last few years under the pseudonym Martin Youth Auxiliary. Field Manual is Walla's proper solo debut courtesy of the fine folks at Barsuk Records. The multi-instrumentalist kicks off things in a subdued manner with the honeyed shuffle of Two-Fifty. The use of a simple guitar loop and panned vocal harmonies lends the track a spare yet haunting quality. It is a peculiar choice to open the album up with but the following track, The Score, takes things in a rocking direction. The barred chords drive this one in a style reminiscent of the Promise Ring's best moments. With the exception of the drums, Walla tackled all the instrumental work himself. This approach really kept the playing tasteful and helped serve the compositions in a way the songwriter would really know best. Sing Again is apparently an older song left over from a scraped Death Cab For Cutie session. It makes sense that it would not have sounded out of place on that band's more recent albums. This is also the best track that one would play a hardcore DCFC fan to introduce them to Walla's solo material.
Lyrics — 7
On Field Manual Walla's lyrical approach is everything but conventional. Instead of the standard poetry form that we've all come to expect in pop music, his ideas are presented to you in a short story styled manner. This unorthodox, yet effective delivery reminded me of Jeff Mangum's work in Neutral Milk Hotel. While it might cause some problems in terms of the words being memorable, the risk does set the album apart from the slew of releases in the crowded indie pop genre. There are political overtones threaded throughout the album with Everyone Needs A Home being the most overt example of this. The acoustic strums that introduce the song give way to lines like, a FEMA trailer does not ease the blow, oh no. Walla does provide beautiful wordplay on the record. Songs like A Bird Is A Song and Saint Modesto paint some vivid and often intriguing imagery.
Overall Impression — 7
Even though Chris Walla has gained his share of accolades from the critical rock world throughout Death Cab For Cutie's career, his contributions have been largely eclipsed by frontman Ben Gibbard. If you are familiar with his work for the band or his Postal Service project, you shouldn't have any doubt of his prowess. It must have been a daunting task to try and get past the critical comparisons. Whatever the case, he does more than get past these lofty and ultimately, unfair expectations. Field Manual not only lives up to his day job's pedigree, he actually builds on it. The resonant and quirky nuances of Walla's songwriting really show off his one-of-a-kind artistic voice. With Walla's profile rising as one of the most sought after producers in the indie rock world, it showed a lot of wisdom choosing Wayne Livesey (The The, Midnight Oil) as co-producer. With all the turmoil surrounding this album, having someone else there to help steer the ship must have been a sigh of creative relief. This is the kind of collection of songs that benefit from a single sit down. With the way Walla framed the lyrics and music together, it makes more sense to take it in as one complete artistic idea. So is Field Manual the kind of album that you throw on at a party to rock out to? Probably not, but with these kinds of guitar pop jewels you should definitely take notice.