It's one thing when a member of a popular band goes solo after said band breaks up. When the main band is still active, the shadow of previous output looms even larger. When one of your bandmates has his own wildly popular side project, you'd better be ready to face lots of "not as good as ..." remarks in reviews.
Death Cab for Cutie guitarist/producer Chris Walla has all of those pressures — huge primary band at its peak and partner Ben Gibbard has already found huge success with The Postal Service — but his first solo album, Field Manual, doesn't sound self-conscious or unsure. It's a casual affair, full of Indie Pop songs of varying stripes. The first two tracks are some of the more non-Death Cabby of the bunch — "Two-Fifty" is an ambient puff of layered vocals and some cut-and-chopped drum and guitar samples, while "The Score" is upbeat Power Pop. But the rest of the album will be instantly familiar to Death Cab fans — Walla carries some of Gibbard's vocal, lyrical and melodic tendencies, so much so that you could imagine Gibbard singing most of them.
Still, they are strong songs. "A Bird Is a Song" stands out as a wisp of gentle, whispering melancholy; "Everybody On" has an almost Soft Rock vibe; and the sparse closer, "Holes," hovers in a dreamlike state. In fact, every track has that kind of "watching the clouds float by" gentleness, twee but emotionally sincere and effective.
For Death Cab lovers, this will be a welcome newly-sprouted branch from the band's impressive family tree. If you can't stand the band, you'll find nothing here to sway you. And if you've never heard Death Cab but want to explore, this one should come last. But Walla's clean production and amiable songwriting would make this an easy, fairly satisfying listen regardless of what band he was in. Grade: B-