"Folding Money," the most interesting track by far on country singer/songwriter Radney Foster's first album in five years, opens with a rude guitar blast, a funky, almost hip-hop drumbeat and Foster's distorted voice, sounding as if it's been run through a digital compressor. Throughout the song (whose quasi-urban abrasiveness perfectly matches its hard-bitten, money talks message), a sexy female vocalist coos insinuating come-ons, Chaka Khan-style. "Folding Money" is an intriguing experiment, an attempt to run counter to form, to take liberties with Foster's sweetly inoffensive sound and persona. Its hard-edged production is exactly the kind of gamble Foster needs to take if he is to escape the dwindling pool of alternatives open to left-of-center but basically conventional country singers like himself: either working the city's coffeehouse circuit or opening for country-pop fluff like the Dixie Chicks.
Unfortunately, the rest of the album lacks the nasty frisson of "Folding Money." "See What You Want to See" is workmanlike country-rock of the sort that was called neo-traditionalist a decade ago, when it rode in on the coattails of Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam. While Foster's music has remained largely unchanged since his first solo album, "Del Rio, Tx, 1959" (1992), his brand of carefully produced, politely sonorous, major-label neo-trad has been roundly upstaged by insurgents like the Bloodshot Records gang. Yesterdays rebel can sound awfully tame today; hell, even the incorrigibly snotty (we thought) Yoakam has lost his edge. So pity the aging neo-traditionalist in the late 1990s. Unless he's a force of nature like Earle (a genre unto himself) or an idiosyncratic quasi-genius like Lucinda Williams, he faces the gloomy prospect of, well, not mattering. Here is Foster's choice: Either stir up more funky, forward-looking brews like "Folding Money" or face a long, slow fade in the coffeehouses of Music City.