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Filthy Friends - Emerald Valley Music Album Reviews

The second album from Corin Tucker and Peter Buck’s alt-rock supergroup can’t match the urgency of pre-apocalyptic protest.

Along with Wild Flag and the Good, the Bad & the Queen, Filthy Friends is one of a roster of supergroups assembled this decade from the scattered members of ’90s alternative rock bands. Founded in 2016, just before the latest presidential election, the group formed around Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney and Peter Buck of R.E.M., splicing together two of the college-radio era’s most inventive and energetic acts. Their music sounds like you’d expect, given its genealogy: crisp, guitar-driven indie rock with blues bones, adorned by sunny vocal harmonies. Filthy Friends’ first album, 2017’s Invitation, was a pleasant affair, a document of rock’n’roll veterans enjoying each other’s company. Follow-up Emerald Valley continues the camaraderie of seasoned pros: the current lineup includes Kurt Bloch of Fastbacks, Scott McCaughey of the Minus 5, and Linda Pitmon of Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3.

The new album sharpens the group’s political fangs, letting shiny happy instrumentation serve as a backdrop for protest songs about the pre-apocalypse. Given the heavy subject matter, the band’s delivery feels startlingly light. Tucker sings of exploited migrant workers, of Native activists protesting pipeline construction, of climate change and corruption, all in a placid and occasionally somber tone. Little of the belly-shaking rage that animated her with Sleater-Kinney surfaces here. “Enough, enough/The land is giving up,” she sings on “The Elliott,” a song about the destruction of Oregon's old-growth forests. On “Pipeline,” she ruminates on oil spills (and general white American disregard for the environment) with the understatement of the millennium: “Can't afford to blow it this time.” “Angels,” meanwhile, couches the horrors of the southern border in language so sentimental as to feel mealy: “Suffering of angels/They are torn apart by fools.” There are stronger words for people who steal children from their parents and cram them in cages; even the “devil” Tucker deploys at the end of the chorus hardly seems to suffice.

Some fire does light up behind the coarse and sour guitars of “November Man,” which joins the National's “Turtleneck” in a growing catalog of songs inspired by President Trump’s ridiculous public presence. “Long skinny tie/And hair of gold,” Tucker bellows, creating an “SNL” caricature of the president in case the song’s title didn't make its target clear. The instrumental squall spurs her to some of the album’s most compelling vocal moments, but the song mostly misses its mark, much as the 2014 Against Me! track “Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ” mixed so many political symbols that it became incomprehensible. “You sip White Russians/Or a Moscow mule/The ice in your glass/Tastes like power to you,” Tucker seethes, falling well short of a sick burn.

“Last Chance County” introduces some riot grrrl sprechstimme in between earnestly screamed choruses, which makes it one of the album’s strongest cuts: full of despair, frustration, and fury. But much of Emerald Valley holds distance from its subjects, mourning them gently. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, there’s a scene where a group of men see a child’s coffin in a horse-drawn carriage, and the strongest reaction any of them can muster is, “Sad.” The moment stands in contrast to the Irish tradition of funeral keening, already on its way out by the time Joyce published his book about modernity in Dublin, wherein women would wail horrifically to mourn the dead. Keening was not a pleasant sound of dutiful acceptance. It confronted the full terror of loss, the vast unknowable vertigo of death.

The United States is in the grips of a death cult, and many musicians are opting to issue a prompt and polite “sad” rather than cut open the depths of their grief and wail. It feels so inadequate to listen to rock songs this polished and competent about the gut-churning state of the country. Tucker and Buck remain an electric match, and minus the lyrics, their songs knit together well. They are great and talented musicians. But the subjects they tackle demand more raw nerve than Filthy Friends seem willing to put to tape.

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