Monday, January 28, 2008

field manual by chris walla

Chris Walla, between his membership in Death Cab for Cutie and production work with the Decemberists, Nada Surf, Tegan and Sara, et al., has been a contributing member to the Pacific Northwestern music scene for upwards of a decade. But unless you count a lo-fi cassette made in 1999 under the name Martin Youth Auxiliary, this is the first time he's paused to compile a collection of his own work.

I've been surprised by the mixed nature of the reactions to Field Manual so far, in that some of the harshest criticism seems to be coming from the people I'd have expected to like it the most. I don't understand this at all. In order to have expectations for this album, the only logical basis would be the songs Walla posted on his blog, and he definitely can't be accused of false advertising. The songs on Field Manual are mixed stylistically, layered, and yes, do contain some political commentary; but no, they are not wildly experimental or anything, really, but evidence of that professed love of his: pop music. His vocal ability is somewhat less than technically proficient and some of the lyrics are guileless in a way that toes the line between charming and naïve. So why should you care?

Because I argue that "charming" is the adjective that wins out in the end, along with "honest". And it's not an album Death Cab could ever make. At least not anymore. There are occasional flashes of familiarity, sure, especially in the exquisite "It's Unsustainable," but it's more comforting than redundant. I can think of few times that Death Cab has made songs that make me want to bounce around as much as "The Score," "Sing Again" or even "Archer v. Light". "The Score," in particular, made me laugh the first time I heard it, because while Death Cab will occasionally bring in the loud, crashing guitars for some dense emotional reason, they rarely rock out purely for the inherent joy of rocking out, as Walla does here.

The musical levity belies the seriousness of the words, however -- or depending on your perspective, offers relief therefrom. At the same time Walla was making me laugh, he was delivering lines like: we’ve armed a bear, why are we bullfighting / why do we prance our little flag around as if he’s not biting? Or, from "Archer v. Light": if I were gavaged on hunger strike / wrongly fired upon or sullied blindly by dogs / I’d hate us too. Not exactly love songs. At the same time, though, Walla seems to concede that he doesn't know how we're supposed to fix this mess we're all in, either. His only decree is that we care.

If I had any misgivings based on the songs I heard before hearing the album as a whole, then they were unfounded. Field Manual is most effective both musically and lyrically when listened to cohesively (which is undoubtedly what Walla intended). The production is predictably excellent, though somewhat paradoxically, since while Walla plays all instruments on this album himself except drums, production was the one thing with which he did seek help. Still, it's a solo record in the most literal sense practically possible, and the result is extremely worthwhile. I could use these last few words to beseech you, the potential listener, to put aside your expectations and biases and give Field Manual a fair listen (or preferably two or three), but really my only request is to Walla himself: Please don't let this album also be 'solo' as in 'solitary'. Make another one someday, okay?

Field Manual is out tomorrow, January 29, on Barsuk Records.

Meanwhile, here's the cameo-laden video for "Sing Again":

mp3: "Sing Again" by Chris Walla
mp3: "St. Modesto" by Chris Walla

(Photo credit: Autumn De Wilde)

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