The American blues tradition has typically been associated with regional differences, e.g., Delta Blues, Chicago Blues. The sound of the Walking Papers’ self-titled debut works within the blues tradition but also creates a sound that is distinct from anything I’ve heard before. It’s like the blues, wrapped in hard rock, and covered with grunge sauce. Welcome to the Seattle Blues.
This isn’t so much an album as it is sonic film noir, with brooding bass lines, resonant guitars, and lyrics that explore the seamy underbelly of lives in progress just next door: the couple whose Vegas vacation disintegrates into chaos, the single mom who brings home a deadbeat, the guy in the bar who doesn’t realize he’s the only one on the dance floor.
Walking Papers started as a collaboration between Jeff Angell (previously of Post Stardom Depression and Missionary Position) and Barrett Martin (previously of Screaming Trees and Mad Season, among many others). The duo also called in a veritable who’s who of Seattle-based musicians to perform on individual tracks, including Mike McCready, Benjamin Anderson, and Duff McKagan. Anderson and McKagan stuck around for live performances, solidifying the band’s current lineup, which is already in the studio recording the follow-up album.
I bought this album when Walking Papers played at The Independent in San Francisco one early-December Sunday. We were right up against the stage, so I heard the sound in pieces rather than as a cohesive whole, but what I heard, what I felt in my soul, I knew I wanted more of. I didn’t play the CD until the next Thursday night. When the first bars of “Already Dead” emerged from the speakers, I sank into a chair. I listened to the whole album twice more that night, and berated myself for not listening to it at 2 a.m. when I got home from the show, and every moment thereafter. For the next few weeks it was the soundtrack of my life, played night and morning, full volume. It’s a good thing I live in a semi-rural neighborhood.
During those weeks, spandexpanda and I had many text and DM conversations about Walking Papers, agreeing that neither of us had been this obsessed with an album since (for her) Hysteria and (for me) the first three Duran Duran albums.
I was—am—drawn by the music (described so well by spandexpanda), of course, but also the stories, which I have come to know intimately. Vocalist/guitarist Jeff Angell enunciates every syllable; every lyric is raw and real, as are his singing style and voice, which many nights echoes in my head as I sleep.
There are some phrases that recur (e.g., easy on the eyes, wise beyond your/her years), repetition at which, as an editor, I reflexively recoil, but after listening to both Missionary Position albums, I now understand them as simply part of Angell’s lexicon of damaged love and damaged lives.
That first night I wrote to spandexpanda that this album makes me want to sell everything I own and ride boxcars across the country, hopping out in lonely towns where a man is playing a wailing blues harmonica in the only bar. I still might do that.
This is music that will seduce and dance and toy with your soul.
Fleur sent me a text message after seeing Walking Papers at The Independent. I live on Eastern Standard Time, so this means I was awakened at 3 a.m. to hear the little iPhone chime and see a picture of her with Duff McKagan standing on a sidewalk. At the risk of going fangirl and using a double negative, Duff has never been involved with a band I didn’t like. Since I was already awake with phone in hand, I downloaded the album right away, though I did wait until daylight hours to listen to it.
In retrospect, I regret waiting those few hours to listen to this album because those were hours spent not listening to it. In the days that followed, I came to believe that any time spent not listening to Walking Papers was a bit of a waste. I’m also pretty sure my neighbors and the guy who shares a wall with me at work are in the process of filing a court order to take the album away from me. This is one of those recordings that creeps into your marrow and stays there.
One of the most extraordinary things about Walking Papers is the way it dabbles in so many musical styles and genres and melds all of those influences into a cohesive whole. Part of that cohesion stems from lyrics that would be equally at home in a short story collection—even though this isn’t a concept album—and from Jeff Angell’s distinctive vocals that become the thread binding everything together.
The guitar work on this album, mostly performed by Angell, with appearances from McCready on “The Whole World’s Watching” and “I’ll Stick Around,” ranges from the kind that echoes through your speakers to the kind that grabs your collar and shakes you around. It’s invigorating, but it’s the foundation in the rhythm section that maintains a consistent tone throughout.
Whether they’re going for full-on rock styling or a slow Latin thrum, there’s a persistent darkness in Martin’s performances on percussion and upright bass that mirrors the lyrical content. The addition of Duff McKagan’s electric bass on tracks 3, 4, and 7 gives the darkness greater volume, but the effect remains the same. Keyboards—performed by either Anderson or Martin—add richness to the texture.
With all this talk of darkness and heaviness, you shouldn’t get the idea that this album is depressing. It really isn’t. But it is complex and thought-provoking, instrumentally and lyrically. That’s why it sticks with you well after you’ve heard the last note.
1) Already Dead with Benjamin Anderson on keyboards
Fleur: Drummer Barrett Martin has a bachelor’s (or master’s—there are conflicting reports) degree in ethnomusicology and a tribal drumming style, which are both evident in the primal beat that carries this song. This is the one that Jeff most often sings in my mind when I am in the arms of Morpheus.
spandexpanda: I love the way the guitar has a faint echo on each note—you can almost feel the vibration of each string—even more than I love the growl in Angell’s vocal.
2) The Whole World’s Watching with Benjamin Anderson on keyboards and Mike McCready on guitar solos
spandexpanda: Blues-style guitar riffing, but with harder edge and blistering drums, this is the voice of America’s collective political frustration.
3) Your Secret’s Safe With Me with Duff McKagan on electric bass
spandexpanda: Another hard-edged track, with the kind of dark rhythm guitar that hearkens back to the traditional Seattle Sound. Lyrics capture the despair of addiction in some of the most poetic language I’ve heard on the subject, e.g., You spend a fortune on guitars, then put them into your arms.
4) Red Envelopes with Dave Carter on trumpet, Dan Spalding on baritone sax, Ed Ulman on trombone, and Duff McKagan on electric bass
Fleur: Angell’s guitar announces that anger and disaffection are on the way. This is one of my favorite tracks … when I listen, I am that teenage boy giving the world the finger to show it he don’t care.
spandexpanda: Rocking guitar and a horn section are two great sounds that sound great together as they outline the contours of teenage boy angst. Choice lyric: If it was lying in his bed, he wouldn’t know what to do with it.
5) Leave Me In The Dark with Benjamin Anderson on keyboards and Dan Spalding on electric bass
Fleur: I was born with bloodshot eyes and a broken heart … Angell sings heart in a way that wrests a sob from my soul.
spandexpanda: One of the few tracks with lyrics that don’t carry a narrative thread, but I found myself personally connecting with the first verse: I’ve got the experience, but I’m not very smart. And the chorus could have been penned by any of the great blues men of the last 80 years or so: If love is blind, baby, you can leave me in the dark. The sound is completely modern, though, with a simple but effective guitar hook and drums reminiscent of a freight train. How can a song so sad feel so good?
6) The Butcher
Fleur: A haunting tale. In combination with the title, the opening lines — Who knows how he got out early / or how he got a second chance / it’s funny who we meet / in the back of an ambulance — gave me a chilling premonition that was borne out by the rest of the lyrics.
spandexpanda: The piano melody, joined by marimba, sounds like the music at an abandoned carnival. Such a perfect marriage between musical and lyrical content—but that’s the only perfect marriage in this track.
7) Two Tickets with Duff McKagan on electric bass
Fleur: A saga that makes me so angry, I often skip this song. Listen and see if you get mad too.
spandexpanda: I can see how the lyrics here could inspire anger, but the bass and guitar combo in the opening hook reels me in every time. It’s got this menacing tone that tells you this vacation is about to go off the rails. When it does, what we get is an explosive epilogue.
8) I’ll Stick Around with Benjamin Anderson on keyboards, Dan Spalding on baritone sax, and Mike McCready on guitar solos
spandexpanda: The riff here is most classically bluesy, with just a smooch of distortion; the keyboard adds a dreamlike resonance over the choruses.
9) Capital T
Fleur: A man who likes the songs that bring the cowboys to tears + a girlfriend who stays out all night dancing = a recipe for Torture.
spandexpanda: Something about the guitar on this track reminds me of the type of filthy bar I might have frequented ten years ago. You know, the kind of place where you can only find Trouble.
10) A Place Like This with Dave Carter on trumpet
Fleur: With a hip-swinging rhythm, a tale that evokes an image of a lonely man in a 1930s-era dance hall, and lines that in the context of the fable haunt me (feeling light on her feet is what she enjoys the most), this is my favorite song on the album.
spandexpanda: The Latin rhythm on the marimba and trumpet solo seems like an adventurous choice, even on an album with so many stylistic influences, but it works surprisingly well.
11) Independence Day
Fleur: A marriage gone as cold as the bed the couple shares. Don’t let me stand in your way / this is independence day.
spandexpanda: This percussion-driven track ties up the album’s themes and loose ends like a final chapter. The lyrics could be the internal monologue of just about any character we’ve met on the rest of the album. And that echoing guitar sound from “Already Dead” makes a reappearance. We’ve come full circle. The refrain says so: I’ve got the feeling that I’ve been here before.