Late last year, customs officials at the Canadian border confiscated Chris Walla's hard drive, which contained the master tracks for his first solo album, Field Manual. Because Walla is a member of the pop group Death Cab for Cutie, the incident received a lot more press than it deserved. Citing miscommunication and mistaken identity, officials eventually returned the hard drive undamaged but not before Walla had theorized that Field Manual was held up because some of its songs are openly contemptuous of the current administration.
The latter part is true enough, but Walla's social and political indictments are hardly harsh. On "Archer V. Light," he takes politicians to task for being, well, politicians, and "Everyone Needs a Home" is a weak Katrina anthem that trips over its well-meaning lyrics. Walla's frustrations are valid; they're just not very convincingly conveyed. Field Manual will not shake the temple pillars and will likely be forgotten by the next inauguration.
On the other hand, at least Walla does have something to say beyond the overwritten love letters of Death Cab. The opening "Two-Fifty," about factory workers rendered obsolete by assembly-line technology, is a populist anthem that vilifies Henry Ford by name and manages to rouse some proletarian sympathy. To his credit, Walla doesn't present himself here as a people's-poet folkie like Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger but simply as a contemporary pop songwriter with a lot on his mind. With its layered vocals and programmed drum beat, "Two-Fifty" belies his reputation as a sought-after producer.
Despite the customs dust-up, it should be no surprise that Field Manual is so resolutely a studio album, albeit a restrained and measured one. Even "The Score" and "Everybody On," the most rock-oriented songs on the album, sound thoroughly processed and detailed. In other words, it sounds just like a Death Cab album, right down to the softness of Walla's vocals. Walla is obviously working in his comfort zone, but Field Manual makes you wish he had created something uncomfortable enough to warrant real confiscation and controversy. — Stephen Deusner