Seattle rock and roll will always be romantic and magical for me. I lived in the city just before the city and its roster of talent launched its groundbreaking assault on the mainstream and was of the right age and mindset to be caught up in the onslaught even if I hadn't sipped from those native waters.
I was also of the right age that I spent many years immersed in the spectacle that was '80s metal and witnessed the changing of the guard as a slew of bands from Seattle and elsewhere ushered out the old and rolled in thew new to begin the '90s. Fast forward two decades and I hear those eras very different, my attachment much stronger to what some still call grunge. Walking Papers is tailor made for me, blending those eras. Four guys with Pacific Northwest roots, Screaming Trees and Mad Season, Guns N' Roses- welcome to my formative years. The ghosts of my musical past were enough to get my attention but it's the here and now that make Walking Papers special and their self-titled debut an album that demands your time and attention. This isn't an ill-fitting "supergroup" or ad hoc collection of new faces and veteran talents going through the motions.
Angell (vocals/guitar), Barrett Martin (drums/percussion), Duff McKagan (bass), and Ben Anderson (keyboards) have found and forged a chemistry yielding an 11-track record of fully realized ideas. Angell conjures the great rock frontman personas and brings them to life by creating and inhabiting characters with a mix of nocturnal swagger, vagabond minstrel, apocalyptic preacher, provocative poet, and stand-up comic. He is backed by a muscular rhythm section with polyrhythmic pyrotechnics and free-swinging groove, big riffs, and huge hooks.
No one song defines the band's sound but many of the elements spread throughout the record can be heard on "Your Secret's Safe With Me." The grinding start-stop guitar riff is draped over Barrett Martin's thunderous, swinging backbeat and the unmistakable bass attack of Duff McKagan while Ben Anderson's Synclavier-esque keyboards cement it all together, swirling in the wide-open spaces within the arrangement. Angell's rasp embodies the tale of descent at the heart of the song. That rasp is in hyperdrive as he spits his words with anarchic menace equal to the ragged riff beneath him on "Red Envelopes," bolstered by great keyboard and horn accents.
It makes perfect sense to push McKagan's bass sound out front on "Two Tickets & A Room," a sleazy, sordid tale of debauchery that would make his former band proud. McKagan and Martin hit like a heavyweight's fist on the band's many rockers and also swing and groove as they do on "I'll Stick Around." "I'll Stick Around" is also notable as it's one of two songs to feature the lead guitar work of Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, Martin's bandmate in Mad Season.
Several of these songs are sketches of characters or settings but Angell is also a keen observer of current events. "The Whole World's Watching" was written before and during the Occupy Wall Street protests and features a pointed, free-association rant with a bit of a Lou Reed Flair.
"The Butcher" and "A Place Like This" are moody, evocative excursions into the dark corners of the mind and soul. Piano, marimbas, and vibraphone shove aside the guitars. These deviations from recognized rock composition show off Martin's expansive knowledge of exotic rhythms and Angell's gift for noirish wordplay. His lyrics and vocal delivery connect what might feel out of place on an otherwise hard rock record.
Walking Papers' self-titled debut is consistently engaging, energetic, and among the most assured rock records in years.