Maybe it’s the history of the “solo album” concept that causes all the consternation to reviewers and music fans. Solo albums typically emerge from one of two dramatically conflicting points of origin: On the one hand, a solo effort might be the product of a popular-band musician’s individual mind making its way into the world with his band’s supportive blessing. On the other, it might be the bastard child of conflicting artistic visions, the frustration-fueled work of one fighting for the worth of his own perspective. Either way, the result usually proves that the newly “solo” musician is a) a genius in multiple contexts, or b) can only capture lightning in a bottle with assistance from particular bandmates. And either way, the universal fear hovering over solo albums is that the music just might not live up to the artist’s beloved previous work.
Chris Walla, guitarist for Death Cab for Cutie and in-demand producer for groups like The Decemberists, is the newest traveler on that perilous road with Field Manual, and it’s not a voyage that he seems to have taken lightly. Facing the intricacies involved with being both a talented musician and producer, Walla called upon the production services of Warne Livesay (Midnight Oil and The The) to give his inspiration some shape and substance. He traveled to Canada to work in Livesay’s studio, only to have his hard drive confiscated for a time by U.S. Customs officials upon his re-entry into the States. Border issues notwithstanding, the album was finished on schedule, replete with the guitar sounds and overall sonic textures that have come to characterize his most recent work from the band that put Barsuk Records originally on the musical map.
It’s not that the songs on Field Manual are bad songs, but they’re either blatant copycats of Death Cab songs or they’re starkly unfocused, as if he’s attempt to break away from the same Death Cab sound he’s channeling in other portions of the album. Tracks like “Sing Again” and “Geometry & C” come off as up-tempo B-sides from Plans, down to employing similar guitar tones and strum patterns that recall “Soul Meets Body” and “Crooked Teeth.” “It’s Unsustainable” and “Holes” seem to be Walla’s attempt to engage in moody, Gibbard-esque introspection, but lack Ben’s capacity for a level of melancholy that’s still engaging. In other instances, it appears that Walla intentionally set down his personal-songwriting map (an admirable idea), only to begin wandering about with little purpose, as evinced on both the pop/rock effort “The Score,” a rock anthem no different than much of the pop-alterna schlock on the radio, and the overly mellow “A Bird is A Song,” a breathy, meandering acoustic ditty begging for flavor that never arrives.
Field Manual succeeds on three songs located consecutively on the back half of the album, and it’s not because they’re amazing, new, and/or fresh takes on pop music, but because it feels that Walla owns these songs “Our Plans, Collapsing,” “Archer V. Light,” and “St. Modesto” stand out in the collection because here Walla stakes a personal claim to his sound. And beyond that, they just flow well together: “Our Plans, Collapsing” is a pleasant, loping ballad that builds into “Archer V. Light,” a strong bass-and-drums-led track that sidles easily into “St. Modesto,” a slow-burning indie rock song that’s a great fit for Walla’s voice. Where the rest of the album comes across with a sheepish, aw-shucks-this-is-my-solo-stuff vibe, it’s in these three tracks where the content, the melodies, and the delivery are personal, where they are the most real. Walla’s genuineness here makes the other songs seem pale and timid in comparison.
With this record, Walla has mostly succeeded in making people curious as to what the new Death Cab for Cutie album might sound like. Will the band continue to make Mom-pleasing, Starbucks-friendly pop music, or will they reach back into their past to make grittier, grainier songs? Inevitably, Field Manual serves as pleasing background music that’s all together rather unmemorable, an album of accessible pop ditties, containing an equal number of upbeat and slowed-down tracks. There’s nothing offensive or startling here, nothing to provoke a reaction of any kind, whether good or bad—almost a more damning indictment than calling an album bad. This is the kind of solo album that fans are always—with good reason—afraid of.
Adam P. Newton is a freelance writer in Houston, Texas.
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