Coming out of Nashville's Music Row songwriting tradition, Radney Foster first hit the spotlight as half of Foster and Lloyd. He and his partner Bill Lloyd, also a Music Row songsmith, enjoyed great success (songs like "Crazy Over You" and "Fair Shake" were big country hits) over the course of three albums, until the pair parted ways in 1991. Foster's solo career got off to a strong start with 1992's Del Rio, Texas, 1959, home of such hits as "Just Call Me Lonesome" and "Nobody Wins". Catchy and direct, it showcased a songwriter who could work within Nashville's requirements, but who could also sneak a lot of personality in when no one was looking. Since then, he's released a handful of albums that have proven both his intellect and his songwriting craft, even if at times he's fallen back into Nashville formula. Notable recent releases like 1999's rock-tinged See What You Want to See and 2001's acoustic live retrospective Are You Ready for the Big Show, found him making a minor resurgence, both in terms of public awareness and creative fire.
Another Way to Go, then, is a little puzzling because the record plays it so safe. For the most part, Foster pens perfect country pop, notable for its immaculate craft, but which really doesn't linger long after the record's over. It's easy to close your eyes and hear a generic hat-wearing country singer make a hit out of some of these songs. They're already polished examples of Nashville radio, in need of little more than the twang that Foster has largely abandoned. Songs like "Real Fine Place to Start" and "Love Had Something to Say about It" could be taught in a classroom on the strength of their classic structure and instrumental fills. Ragged edges are few, seemingly contained to his duet with Chely Wright, "Scary Old World" (co-written with Harlan Howard).
Lyrically, Foster keeps it simple (sometimes too much so) as he sings songs about loving and losing. He's at his best, though, when he's his most ambitious -- even if he doesn't always attain what he's reaching for. Despite being couched in a forgettable pop country arrangement, "Everyday Angel" is an accomplished series of vignettes about ordinary and not-so-ordinary kindnesses (ranging from Foster's own father to the civil rights movement). The last stanza dealing with September 11th feels a little forced, but it works in the context of the song, and it feels genuine. "What Are We Doing Here Tonight" poses several glib metaphysical questions before admitting in a tongue-tied, self-deprecating way, "I guess what I'm saying is, I really like your style".
Throughout the record, Foster makes nods to his influences, but he usually gravitates back to the center. "What It Is That You Do" starts off with an undiluted Stones riff, "Sure Feels Right" boasts gorgeous mandolin, and "Another Way to Go" features a truly ominous opening. "I Got What You Need" could pass for Dire Straits in a blind listening test. But each song, which could have rambled into unexpected and thrilling territory, loses that edge in favor of familiar formula. Surprisingly, the shadow that lingers the longest over Another Way to Go is Van Morrison's. An early flash comes in the romantic horns of "Again" (as in "What It Is That you Do" as well) and a few other cuts, but "What Are We Doing Here Tonight" sounds like a long-lost Moondance outtake. Throughout many of the songs, Foster plays with a soulful sway, and it's a shame he doesn't commit himself to it more than he does.
If Another Way to Go were Foster's debut record, the word might be that he's a promising talent who just needs to find his voice. But Foster's been around for about fifteen years, and past highlights like the twang of "Just Call Me Lonesome" and the groovy stomp of "Folding Money" have already proven that his truest, most interesting voice lies away from Nashville's well worn paths. Unfortunately, Another Way to Go doesn't really show that spark. Maybe it's just too subtle for its own good. On their own, each of these songs stands up to your usual benchmarks of quality, save for that X-factor that makes them linger or inspire. As an overall record, it becomes a bit of a blur, the glimmers not lasting long enough.
Another Way to Go's cover features a barren stretch of highway that forks in two different directions. It's an apt metaphor for the album, as the album seems a little too tied to Foster's professional songwriting beginnings, and too distanced from the flashes of brilliance that made him a star back in the day. The cover makes you think of choices -- of which Foster's surely made a few in his career -- and as much of the album that could have been as the album that exists now.