CD Review of Field Manual by Chris Walla
Recommended if you like
Death Cab for Cutie, Athlete, John Vanderslice
Label
Barsuk
Chris Walla: Field Manual

Reviewed by Josh Preston

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I
t's said that you never get a second chance at a first impression, and the public received its first impression of Field Manual – the first solo release from Death Cab for Cutie guitarist and producer Chris Walla via its now-infamous master recording border-crossing scandal. If you missed this bit of news the first time around, it played out a little something like this: Mr. Walla was having the master recordings sent from Canada back to the States to have the album finalized. Apparently the customs paperwork was not in order (read: courier was stoned. Just kidding) or something of that nature, and the album was seized at the border. Luckily, Chris and his excellent label cohorts at Barsuk had the promotional foresight to turn this incident into a publicist's dream. There were insinuations that, due to the politically charged nature of the material, the recordings were taken so they could be analyzed by the government. Pretty heavy stuff, indeed.

Even the possibility of audible political dissension left myself and other Death Cab for Cutie fans salivating and, at the same time, sent the music blogs of the world into a tizzy. Could Field Manual really be powerful enough, and make such a profound statement, to awaken the ire of the US government? Well, the moment of truth has arrived...

To be sure, the melodic sensibilities and earth-shattering production are well intact and will correlate nicely with all of your other favorite Barsuk releases. The production is nothing short of astounding, and by listen number 1.5, you'll be humming along to most of the songs on the record. However, it’s hard to escape feeling like the elements that make this record sound great may be a bit too intact. Could it be that, if the thematic concept of Field Manual is that of dissent, it was a mistake to make it sound so damn pretty?

Maybe it's the simple fact that with music and a presentation this stellar, there’s an underlying expectation to hear Ben Gibbard singing and rattling off the prose that only he can provide. Maybe if this release had come a bit sooner on the heels of the last Death Cab record, the first impression Field Manual left might have been substantially greater. And God, I feel like a political traitor of sorts myself by stating the following: Chris Walla just isn't a great singer. Come to think of it, if there’s one thing that the production is lacking, it’s strong vocals. Walla’s singing is buried in the mix on nearly every tune, and this move may very well have been deliberate. Still, the lack of Ben Gibbard’s voice shouldn’t detract from your experience with this record, and if you've never heard Death Cab for Cutie, it will be a lovely introduction to their near-perfect sound. At the end of the day, Field Manual is just further proof that first impressions aren’t always what they appear to be.

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