Filthy Friends Enter the 'Emerald Valley'
Alt-rock supergroup Filthy Friends stumble a bit on the highly political Emerald Valley, but emerge mostly unscathed.
Kill Rock Stars
3 May 2019
If calling Filthy Friends an "alt-rock supergroup" is a cliché, then proclaiming their second album, Emerald Valley, to be a sophomore slump is even more of a cliché. But a band that includes a R.E.M. member, a Sleater-Kinney member, and alt-rock all-stars Scott McCaughey, Kurt Bloch, and Linda Pitmon is a supergroup, and Emerald Valley is sort of a sophomore slump. However, Emerald Valley is not so much of a slump that fans of Filthy Friends -- and the bands from which members originally emerged -- won't find music to enjoy here.
Most of the original Filthy Friends (minus Bloch) informally gathered to record "Nothing Means Nothing", a hard-driving highlight from Peter Buck's eponymous debut solo album in 2012, but the band didn't get around to releasing an album of their own, Invitation, until 2017. Invitation opened with the politically-charged rocker, "Despierta", originally recorded for an anti-Trump campaign called "30 Songs for 30 Days". A few other songs, particularly "No Forgotten Son", effectively touched on topical concerns, but explicit messaging was less a priority than raising a garage rock racket and, on that level, Invitation largely succeeded.
While Emerald Valley is not a bad album, it is not a particularly accessible record, at least not at first. Opening with the brooding title track, the album takes a decidedly darker, more explicitly political tone than that of Invitation. Three years deep into Trump World, Filthy Friends are delivering their own State of the Union address, and it's not pretty. Songs focus on environmental distress (the title track, "Pipeline", and "The Elliott"), economic disparity ("Last Chance County"), and, most heartbreakingly, migrant family separation ("Angels"). The band takes Trump on directly in the scorching "November Man".
Given the longstanding reputation of both R.E.M. and Sleater-Kinney, the political nature of Emerald Valley should surprise no one. However, the overtly political songs on Emerald Valley can come across as strident and shrill, even when the listener is nodding their head in agreement. To be fair though, this might just be because public life generally comes across as strident and shrill these days.
Of course, hearing Tucker sing, "They are torn apart by fools / From the arms of mother fathers / By some devil making rules" in the mournful "Angels" simply leaves one wondering why it is necessary for anyone to write a song about forcibly separating families in the United States of the 21st century, and yet it is. Sadly, this song feels more like a resigned reaction to life as we now know it, than it does a call-to-action.
Emerald Valley does offer some purely musical relief. "Only Lovers Are Broken" is an upbeat rocker with a galloping guitar intro that feels straight out of R.E.M.'s Lifes Rich Pageant, without feeling overly reverential toward that band. The closer, "Hey Lacey", is an affecting ballad that features Tucker's prettiest vocal on the album, as well as Buck playing a guitar part that will please fans of R.E.M. fan favorite, "Country Feedback".
Corin Tucker's vocals can be a love-them-or-hate-them proposition, but she sounds fine and quite versatile throughout Emerald Valley. Tucker's vocals are equally effective on the rockers and the ballads, as well as on the pop song "Break Me", a nice stylistic curveball that would not sound out-of-place on a recent Rosanne Cash album.
Finally, the presence of recovered Young Fresh Fellow Scott McCaughey, who suffered a stroke following the release of Invitation in 2017, is a cause for celebration no matter how long it might take you to warm up to Emerald Valley.