After fronting the proto-alt-country combo the Wagoneers as a teenager in the late 80s, Austinite Monte Warden maintained only a tenuous connection to country music: though his songwriting credits have turned up on records by Kelly Willis and Patti Loveless, the two fine (if commercially invisible) solo albums he made for Watermelon earlier this decade featured Buddy Holly-flavored retro pop and crisp blue-eyed soul. Now, with his first album in four years, A Stranger to Me Now, he's resurfaced right in the belly of the beast, on Nashville's Asylum label. His raw rootsiness hasn't been smothered entirely--he's in good voice throughout--but the album certainly opens with an unseemly thud: "Your Heart Will Come Around" is a perfectly pleasant midtempo pop song that, like many of Warden's tunes, recalls Cruel to Be Kind-era Nick Lowe. But producer Joe Thomas gracelessly tries to torture it into a shiny plastic country hit with a guitar sound more processed than Velveeta. The lead on "For You" would sound more like a guitar if it'd been played on a synthesizer, and on the cliched entrance of the drums at the start of the second verse of the otherwise pretty ballad "I Take Your Love," the snare hits sound like cannons firing into a canyon. Throughout the record, though, there are glimmers of the highs Warden reached on his previous solo records: "The Love You Promised Me" is a gorgeous Roy Orbison homage (sans the falsetto), "It's Only Love" is a chugging rewrite of Holly's "Not Fade Away," and the delicate "Just to Hear Your Voice," reprised from Warden's solo debut, benefits from the addition of lush strings. It's anyone's guess why Nashville persists in neutering artists like Warden, alienating their core audience while attracting precious few converts--not surprisingly, Stranger is still a stranger to country charts. Live, though, Warden's an engaging performer, and in this properly direct setting his songs should come to life. Warden's first Chicago gig since 1995 helps kick off the 18th annual FitzGerald's American Music Festival. Thursday, July 1, 8 PM, FitzGerald's, 6615 Roosevelt, Berwyn; 708-788-2118. PETER MARGASAK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Wyatt McSpadden.