Who is Chris Walla anyway?

By Aaron Brown

Since the early days of high school, it’s been difficult for all of us to escape the shadow of that O.C.-endorsed, glasses-donning Ben Gibbard of indie act Death Cab for Cutie and Gibbard’s not-so-side project, The Postal Service. We all remember the lyrics to “Such Great Heights” posted in our friend’s IM profiles, we all went through that phase when the questions about the glove compartment on “Title and Registration” seemed urgent and I’m admittedly still an ardent Ben Gibbard appreciator. Yet for Gibbard’s Midas touch of fame and success, the name Chris Walla has always been the litmus test to distinguish the sincere fans of Death Cab from the Seth Cohen-obsessed 14-year-old girls. While lost to the swan song of idolatry for Ben Gibbard, Death Cab for Cutie’s second man is arguably just as responsible for the harmonic, bittersweet melancholy that brought Death Cab to the national stage. Yet Chris Walla’s influence extends much farther beyond that “Transatlanticism” poster in my dorm room. Walla helped produce albums for Tegan and Sara and Nada Surf, and is best known for his production work on The Decemberists’ epic 2006 effort, “The Crane Wife.” Despite having his album’s work in laptop form seized by the Department of Homeland Security last October, Walla made a blatantly political album that touches on everything from war to corruption to FEMA trailers.

Released Jan. 28 on Barsuk Records, Walla’s “Field Manual” represents his effort to establish himself as an individual musician, albeit with mixed results. The opening track, unfortunately, is as ambitious as Walla dares to venture; he gets the most out of his expansive voice in “Two Fifty,” which builds into a metaphor of assembly lines and relationships. In the catchy “Sing Again,” Walla’s voice bounces around giddily despite its downhearted, tart lyrics such as, “A life packed full of mindless joy/It is not easy to enjoy.” This is a juxtaposition we’ve seen work time and time again for the boys from Bellingham, Wash., and the upbeat strum of his guitar fits nicely with the adorable music video that reads as a “who’s who” of Pacific Northwest musicians. “Geometry &c” could easily have been squeezed somewhere in Death Cab’s latest “Plans,” with the witty play on words and bubbly lead guitar. Yet Chris Walla’s voice isn’t strong enough to capture all of the successes of his full band; sad songs like “Holes” simply aren’t all that convincing without Gibbard’s assertive tenor or the fuller sound. The worst of it almost sounds like one of those awful opening acts with terrible vocals taking themselves too seriously. Walla seems to be caught in a strange bind where he doesn’t sound different enough from Death Cab to merit serious attention while still sounding too different to consistently hone in on his band’s strong suits.

Still, despite the lack of remarkable content, Walla still manages to assert himself as a songwriter separate from his band with an album drenched in political overtones and occasionally catchy rhythms. At the very least, Walla’s “Field Manual” has renewed my excitement for the forthcoming Death Cab for Cutie LP, “Narrow Stairs,” due out in May. And this time, I’ll be sure to appreciate Walla’s contributions.