As a longtime Death Cab for Cutie fan, I was pretty excited to hear about your solo album. By “longtime fan,” I mean longtime fan. We’re talking around the time that We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes was released. I own as many Death Cab for Cutie covers, B-Sides and Rarities and what-have-yous as I have been able to get my hands on. I even own recordings of Pinwheel, Ben Gibbard’s band from his pre-All-Time Quarterback days and tons of demos of yours that you were releasing through your site before anyone even knew you had a solo album.
You’ve always been considered the other boy genius of the band, the guy who never gets as much public cred as he deserves, and for good reason, really. You’ve been the music geek’s favorite, a reserved nice guy who took care of the technical stuff. Not that your bandmate Mr. Gibbard isn’t a reserved nice guy, but, well, you know. You’ve worked on and played on some great albums, and I know some people who’ve recorded with you. I’ve even talked to you — briefly. It seems no one in this world has an unkind thing to say about you.
Well, Chris, that’s what makes this so hard to write. You see, I really, really, really want to like Field Manuala lot, I do. But so far, it’s not exactly grabbing me. It’s not that it’s a bad album, it’s definitely not. It’s just that…
For starters, to be honest, your voice isn’t best on its own. You don’t have a bad voice, it just needs accompaniment — even if it’s from your own voice, it seems, because the tracks with the layered vocals (“Two-Fifty,” “A Bird Is a Song”) sound best. Still, listening to some of these, it’s hard not to think, “Oh, but if Ben Gibbard was singing this,” or in the case of “The Score,” “This would be a great Long Winters song, John Roderick would nail this!”
Chris Walla, “A Bird Is a Song” (download)
The music is good, which isn’t surprising, but many of these could use the pick-me-up of a full band. “Geometry &c” feels like Death Cab for Cutie’s poppier songs, circa Transatlanticism. The boys could really rock it out. Same goes for “Sing Again.” Oh, yes, of course, it’s not fair to compare your solo work to the work you do with the band, but it’s only inevitable — especially because it’s so easy to hear in this album. “Our Plans, Collapsing” would also be great to hear as a Death Cab for Cutie song, too, but it works as is, and is probably the best song here. Another highlight is “St. Modesto.”
Chris Walla, “St. Modesto” (download)
There’s still plenty of hope for Field Manual, though. It feels like the kind of album to listen to quite a bit, break from for awhile, then return to. I’ll doubtless keep coming back to it, if only to give it as many chances as possible to dazzle me. Yet, ultimately, I think you and Gibbard just need each other — and that’s fine. Though it leads to turbulent times, creative leaders are often best in pairs in bands because they temper each other. Then again, Death Cab For Cutie comes out with a new full-length titled Narrow Stairs in May, so there’s plenty of time to digest both and change my mind before the end of the year. Either way, I’ll still be listening.