Chris Walla is a man of great diplomacy. As promiscuous producer-for-rent to Tegan and Sara, the Decemberists, and the Thermals, the affable Oregonian sanded gruff edges and gave those bookish indie-pop acts their most broadly commercial tinge. More importantly, as Death Cab for Cutie’s guitarist/producer, he’s helped craft a brand synonymous with boyish sensitivity, swaddling mawkish, and sour subjects alike in rolling pop lushness. (See 2003’s “Tiny Vessels,” Western civilization’s prettiest song about hickey-filled hate sex.)
Now, with his first solo album, Walla seems eager to get dirty. Field Manual is a quietly furious political album, one plainly dismissive of good intentions and easy solutions. Every song boasts a pleasant mid-tempo rock throb and lyrics that start vaguely, but soon falter under a rush of topical buzzwords. (“I want to see your pro-life bear no exception/You grand old Senator,” he spits on “Archer V. Light.”) Each credo is awkwardly verbose, like Phil Ochs on Adderall. And aside from an inexplicable ode to Modesto, California (has he been there?), it’s all far from shocking: Indignant squawking about Bush/Katrina/Iraq is so ubiquitous now, even white-bread Death Cab could comfortably tackle it. That seeping influence is felt, regardless— Walla’s lofty melodies and double-tracked rasp smack of DC frontman Ben Gibbard, and Walla’s song about New Orleans (“Everybody Needs a Home”) is still a little bit about girls.
This is really a record of self- preservation, of attempting to shed the frustration and grit of moral taxation without representation. “Keep your feathers clean and dry,” Walla advises on the lovely “A Bird Is a Song.” His optimism is renewable and satisfying, and for it Field Manual is enjoyable overall; it offers a small, mindful plea forward, rather than the vicious roar of a wave that could drown the whole world. But Walla is waiting for one.