Although Ben Gibbard gets a lot of attention for being the main songwriter for and distinctive voice of Death Cab for Cutie, it’s Chris Walla who mans the recording booth, crafting the moody sound for which the band is renowned.
So when news hit that Walla was recording a solo album, I was intrigued far more than if Gibbard were to record one. Walla is the wizard behind the curtain — just what would he sound like when he steps out?
One question is certainly answered on Field Manual — Gibbard isn’t losing his day job as front man anytime soon. Walla’s raspy voice is actually quite appealing and a sharp contrast from Gibbard’s pixie croon, but Gibbard’s voice has more presence.
Not surprisingly, Walla’s album sounds a lot like Death Cab, given the overlap in producers, but in terms of songwriting, Field Manual is split between fast, hard-driving rockers and slower, atmospheric numbers. On such tracks as "The Score", "Geometry & C" and "Archer v. Light", Walla is a lot more willing to rock out than Death Cab normally would.
Other songs are easy to imagine in the hands of the parent group. A melodic bass line almost New Order in nature propels "Everybody Needs a Home". Gibbard could have very well milked the earnest melodies of "Everybody On" and "It’s Unsustainable", while the dreaminess of The Photo Album washes all over "Two-Fifty".
Unlike Death Cab’s previous album, Plans, Field Manual doesn’t attempt to sound like a programmed work. Walla doesn’t resort to segues or abrupt transitions to make something larger out of the album. The material is too diverse to corral in such a manner, and Walla is wise enough to leave well enough alone.
If anything, Field Manual should have been the album the band recorded instead of Plans. Death Cab releases a new album, Narrow Stairs, on May 13, so it will be interesting to contrast Walla’s work with that next opus.
The album might at first strike listeners as loosely coherent, if not downright scattered. But multiple listens reveals its wide range, and the unassuming approach gives it clarity. By not imposing an overall structure, Walla makes Field Manual tighter.
Walla does a fine job stepping out on his own with his first solo album. Perhaps the ideas fashioned here can make their way back to Death Cab for Cutie.