In the video for Chris Walla’s new single, “Sing Again,” the singer, producer and Death Cab for Cutie guitarist is shown in a blue button-down and a red hat, earnestly looking ahead as the camera jumps from cut to cut of his face. But within seconds, another blonde-haired man appears, dressed in the same hat and shirt, and then a woman, and then Walla again. After a while it becomes clear that Walla isn’t just trying to play the “everyman” angle: His video doppelgangers aren’t unknown extras – the other Walla look-a-likes are actually cameos by Death Cab singer Ben Gibbard, members of The Decemberists, little Hank Meloy (son of Colin Meloy of The Decemberists) and a number of the Pacific Northwest’s other musical luminaries, all wearing wigs, hats and oxfords to match.
The “Sing Again” video is an apt characterization of Walla’s solo album, Field Manual. Walla, a talented musician and producer, is confident in his abilities, but he also seems aware that he’s a product of his musical milieu. Singing harmonies under Death Cab frontman Gibbard for over a decade has given his voice a breathy quality and a similar tone. Field Manual sometimes seems like decaf Death Cab. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
Though the production is glossy and tight, Walla does take some risks. The album, released on Death Cab’s old indie label, Barsuk, is far less conventional than it could have been. Walla plays all the instruments on Field Manual except the drums, which were done by Jason McGerr of Death Cab and Kurt Dahle of the New Pornographers. “St. Modesto” is Walla at his vocal best, proving he’s most impressive when he holds back. “It’s Unsustainable” is a testament to this fact – the slow, leisurely pace is reminiscent of Death Cab’s longer tracks like “Transatlanticism,” and the lush, ethereal guitars provide a perfect background for Walla’s sweet, subtle vocals and expectant lyrics.
Here, though, Walla does a few things Gibbard has never done on a Death Cab album: He ventures into the territory of politics and current events. One of the best songs on the album, “Everyone Needs a Home,” is about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Though he focuses on the personal aspects of the crisis, he is no less explicit in his lyrics. “A FEMA trailer does not ease the blow,” Walla sings. He goes on with, “Every boy needs a roof and bed and bright, bright light / That he can turn off at night / And fall asleep with the love of his life.” On the album’s opener, “Two-Fifty,” he laments the collapse of the country’s old way of life, singing, “We all are fractured factory lines / Once filled with bliss and drive / Now old bees without a hive.”
There is a downside to the album. However heartfelt, tracks like “Archer v. Light” and “A Bird is a Song,” drag the album down, and not even Walla’s skillful acoustic strums and keyboard swells can excuse lyrics like “Torch the sails and set fire to our deals / My heaven is here, my heaven is here” that come off as silly and saccharine. Walla proves he can rock if he wants to on “The Score,” but the song ultimately doesn’t fit with the album’s overall aesthetic.
In the end, there are two ways to think about this album: As a side project, or as a debut. Unfortunately, neither seems fair. The best approach to this album can instead be found in the lyrics to “It’s Unsustainable,” when Walla sings “Don’t even try / To explain me away.”
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Chris Walla and the Cab Death Cab albums
1999 – Something About Airplanes
2000 – We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes
2001 – The Photo Album
2003 – Transatlanticism
2005 – Plans