Song Review: Brantley Gilbert ft. Toby Keith & HARDY, “The Worst Country Song Of All Time”

Well, at least they’re being honest with us.

2020 turned out to be a rough year for Brantley Gilbert: After his #1 collaboration with Lindsay Ell “What Happens In A Small Town” generated some badly-needed momentum for his career (it was his first #1 since 2015), he proceeded to squander every last bit of it, with “Fire’t Up” stalling outside the Top 40 and “Hard Days” barely cracking the Top 30 on Billboard’s airplay chart. Apparently Gilbert decided he needed to take a big swing to get back into the country music conversation, because he and Valory closed the book on the Fire & Brimstone era, brought in HARDY (Mr. “REDNECKER”) and Toby Keith (Mr. Irrelevant), and dropped “The Worst Country Song Of All Time” on us, a backwards attempt at an “I’m so country!” song by trying to tell us what isn’t country. The irony is that though the title is intended to be tongue-in-cheek, the song is exactly as bad as advertised: It’s a lazy, ignorant, exclusionary track with a reheated Bro-Country sound and some truly terrible vocal performances from all three singers involved. It’s not the worst country song of all time, but there’s a pretty good chance it winds up as the worst country song of 2021.

For a song that’s trying so hard to differentiate itself from its peers, its production is disappointingly cookie-cutter. From its hard-rock electric guitars, deliberate tempo, and in-your face percussion (which is mostly real rather than synthetic this time), this unimaginative drivel sounds like a rejected mix from the Bro-Country era. (The dobro fills the role of the token banjo, and is buried so deep in the background that it’s hardly noticeable.) The one deviation from the script is handing the bridge solo over to a saxophone (which one performer labels a “tube whistle” for no reason), and based on Keith’s lines I think it’s supposed to be another signal of how “not country” the song is…except that some of country’s biggest stars, including Keith himself (and I’d include Garth Brooks’s “One Night A Day” here too if the man wasn’t allergic to YouTube), have included the instrument in their songs. I’d argue that the saxophone is the only redeeming feature of this mix, as the song’s vibe is stuck in an awkward spot that’s not bright enough to be fun yet not dark enough to be angry, leaving it without much of a tone at all and preventing the listener from feeling like they’re in on the supposed joke (we’ll talk about that later). Overall, this mix is generally stale and uninteresting, and doesn’t provide any meaningful support for the subject matter.

None of the three vocalists here acquit themselves terribly well, and their deliveries are loaded with malicious intent rather than good-natured fun. Keith is the easiest target of the three, because he sounds awful: With his tired, disinterested tone, his performance is so mailed-in he should reimburse the label for postage, and it should have never been included on the track in the first place. Gilbert and HARDY at least seem interested in singing the song, but while Gilbert stumbles a bit on the first verse (he struggles to fit in all the songs he wants to name-drop), the biggest problem with both men is the irritating attitude that permeates their performance. A song like this would be hard to redeem under any circumstances, but with a little charm and a lighter touch, you could maybe have some good-natured fun with the concept of what is and isn’t thought of as stereotypically “country.” Instead, Gilbert and HARDY adapt a caustic, mocking tone and come across like generic Bro-Country meatheads, and their underlying message comes through loud and clear: If any of our descriptions match you, you’re not “country,” and you’re not one of us. It’s only a few steps from this track to Robert Count’s tire fire “What Do I Know,” and the bitter flavor and exclusionary mindset of these performances wind up pushing the audience away rather than drawing them in. In the end, all three artists combine to make a bad song even worse, and frankly, they should all be ashamed of themselves for doing it.

Speaking of an exclusionary mindset: A lot of songs have tried to define “country” by what it is, but this track flips the script by trying to create “the worst country song of all time” by listing all the things that they believe country isn’t. (You can tell that HARDY had a hand in writing this junk, because it features the same awful, misguided sense of humor that plagued “REDNECKER.”) At its core, the song is nothing more than an inverted laundry list of tired, overused country tropes: It takes things like beer, trucks, and dirt roads, and declares them to be bad things in its quest for awfulness. Not only is the approach incredibly lazy, but by framing these attitudes as “un-country,” it draws a hard line between “real” country fans and the rest of the world, and goes even further by insinuating that those outside the country bubble are only worthy of hatred and scorn. I tend to be a big-tent kind of person when it comes to musical genres, and nothing drives me up a wall more than taking an “us vs. them” approach and projecting supposed moral superiority over those on the other side of the fence. (The fact that it tries to hide its malice behind the paper-thin “It’s just a joke, bro!” defense doesn’t help matters—in fact, it makes them look worse.)

The main question I have with defining “country” in such a sense is “Why?” Why can’t people who “hate beer,” “think trucks are a waste of gas,” and don’t happen to “know the words to ‘Family Tradition,’ ‘Folsom Prison,’ or ‘Walk The Line'” be country fans? (Spoiler alert: The first two statements apply to yours truly, and I only know the words to one of the songs in the third.) Macy Gray recently proposed changes to the American flag; would Gilbert, HARDY, and Keith permanently bar her from the country music community? Even statements that you might think would be unassailable fall apart upon closer scrutiny: There are definitely people in Russia and North Korea who “support Kim Jong-Un and Putin”—why should that disqualify them from being fans of country music? (The song also gets explicitly political with references to cancel culture and hating the Constitution, which bothers me because demonizing people they disagree with in this manner is also the modus operandi of the modern Republican Party, which is working really hard to subvert our entire form of government right now…) The only requirement for being part of country music is liking country music, and people are allowed to do so no matter who they are (for example, while I think throwing Morgan Wallen off the radio was the right call and I would keep him off the radio until he demonstrates a change in attitude and behavior, I wouldn’t take away his stereo or make him throw away his Hank Williams Jr. CDs). Country music should be a place for anyone who’s experienced the highs and lows of life (the joys of a romance, the pain of a loss, the stories of people and their times, etc.), and the last time I checked, no one died and made these three losers the gatekeepers of the genre.

Simply put, I hate everything about “The Worst Country Song Of All Time.” I don’t like the generic sound, I don’t like the pretentious, closed-minded writing, and I don’t like the condescending, exclusionary attitudes of Brantley Gilbert, HARDY, or Toby Keith. In fact, the only good thing I can’t say about this track is that it didn’t quite provoke the angry, visceral reaction that Michael Ray’s “One That Got Away” did (it was darned close though). What aggravates me even more is that this review is exactly what the singers and label are looking for: This song is for the subset of country fans who subscribe to this backwards line of thinking and want to build a metaphorical wall between themselves and everyone else, and baiting uppity critics like me to rip the song to pieces will serve as confirmation that “those people” don’t understand “country” folks and want to destroy everything they treasure. The truth is that there are far more things to treasure besides beer, trucks, and “Mama’s homemade fried chicken,” and we should be able to celebrate all of them regardless of who we are or what instruments we prefer to hear. If Gilbert and his collaborators don’t understand that, they’re still free to enjoy country music, but I’m not sure I want them making it themselves.

Rating: 2/10. Complete rubbish.

My Reaction to Nintendo’s E3 2021 Direct

Can a post really be called a reaction if I didn’t actually have a reaction?

Coming off a blockbuster presentation in February and with rumors swirling everywhere about possible new software and hardware releases, there was a lot of hype surrounding Nintendo’s presentation for the 2021 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), although admittedly such a statement is like saying that water is wet or Thanos is popular. Would Zelda get a huge feature for its 35th anniversary? Would we see more about some of the games announced in February, or perhaps some new installments of long-forgotten franchises? Would the ‘Switch Pro’ make an appearance? Speculation was rampant, and everyone looked to the Big N to set the record straight.

So, was the Direct good or bad? After sitting through it, I’m honestly of two minds about the whole thing. On a personal level, few of the games the company showcased appealed to me, and I walked away unimpressed and even a little bored by the whole thing. From a more-objective perspective, however, the Direct was actually pretty good, with several major software announcements and some neglected franchises getting some much-deserved screen time. While I’m not excited about much of what was here, I know a lot of people will be, and just as Shinya Takahashi stated in the opener, you’ll probably find at least one announcement here that excites you.

My detailed thoughts on the Direct are as follows:

  • I’ll be honest: I know nothing about the Tekken series, and when Kazuya Mishima was announced as the newest fighter for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, my reaction was “Who?” However, as a long-retired Smash player, I can’t get too worked up over character announcements, and with a history and track record that rivals Mortal Kombat, Tekken is a series that deserves to be represented alongside Street Fighter and King of Fighters (Side note: I know MK has its own series to promote and wants to keep all its fighters to itself, but not having someone like Liu Kang or Scorpion in SSBU feels like a major roster hole). I like to to think of SSBU less as a game and more as a playable history of the industry and of fighting games in particular, so Kazuya seems like a sensible choice to me.
  • Super Monkey Ball is a series that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention over the last decade (it hasn’t had a new game released on a console since 2012), but for its 20th anniversary the developers decided to pull out all the stops and bring out a new addition to the…wait, Banana Mania is only a remastered collection of the first third titles? This isn’t the worst idea though, since more-recent Monkey Ball games haven’t been received terribly well, and the franchise has fallen into the same awkward state that Paper Mario lives in where people keep asking for the original game style but never getting it. While it’s not much of an anniversary celebration, introducing a new generation of players to the best parts of your series can hopefully invigorate the franchise and be a stepping stone for bigger things in the future.
  • Speaking of a franchise that’s been stuck in the doldrums…with Super Mario Party seemingly washing the bad taste of Mario Party 9 and 10 out of everyone’s mouth, Nintendo would like to remind you that the franchise was actually pretty good back in the day, and they’re doing so with Mario Party Superstars, a collection of remastered boards and minigames from days gone by (the trailer featured a lot of boards/games from the original Mario Party N64 title). The inclusion of online play for all game modes is a big deal, but beyond that this seems like a straightforward Mario Party experience, so I’m not sure how much it will expand the game’s player base. Still, if you like these sorts of games, this might be a worthwhile pickup this fall.
  • Speaking of a franchise that’s really been stuck in the doldrums…there was no word of the progress of Metroid Prime 4, but Nintendo tried to take the sting out of this non-announcement by bringing out Metroid Dread, the first new 2D Metroid game since Metroid Fusion back in 2002. The trailer plays up the atmospheric elements and horror-game influences, and while it’s an interesting direction for the series and helps distinguish it from other ‘Metroidvanias,’ the tension doesn’t seem as palpable in the moment-to-moment gameplay, even when the E.M.M.I. robots are chasing you. The biggest influence here is Metroid: Samus Returns, as many of the moves and quality-of-life upgrades return from the 2017 remake. Honestly, what impresses me most about this game is how smoothly the game goes from playable moments to cut scenes, a stark contrast to a game like Bravely Default II (perhaps the Switch Pro is real after all? More on this later). I’ve only briefly played Metroid Prime, but this looks like a solid entry in the franchise, and fans of this series have a good reason to be excited.
  • I enjoyed Cruis’n USA on the N64 way back in the way, but I (and likely most of the world) had forgotten about this series until I saw that Cruis’n Blast (an arcade-only game released in 2017) was coming to the Switch this fall. The original console games were straightforward, relatively-realistic runs along linear courses, but this one appeared to have a bit more Mario Kart mixed in, with boost ramps and nitrous oxide containers to amp up the speed (no items were shown, and they’ve never been a part of the series so I don’t expect to see them now). It’s not Mario Kart 9, but it might be worth a look if you’re looking for something a little different than Nintendo’s typical karting fare.
  • Given that Mario Golf: Super Rush is coming out in two weeks, I really expected to see more from this game in the Direct presentation (at least the Treehouse demo walked us through some of the main modes). There’s something for everyone here: Standard Golf is for those who like to take their time to line up the perfect shot (and the game gives you plenty of tools to let you determine the best course of action), Speed Golf is for folks who prefer a bit more action and chaos in their games, Adventure Golf lets people ease into the game while also adding some RPG-like character progression to allow you to customize your character (although just using standard Miis seems disappointing after seeing what Miitopia did with its extra customization features), and Battle Golf is…a shorter, more open version of Speed Golf. (Nintendo made a point of emphasizing that more updates will be released over time, but I think we all kind of assumed that given the company’s recent track record.) I’m not really sold on the faster modes, and I’m not sure the Big N did a whole lot to market the title here, but I enjoyed Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour back in the day, so I’ll probably give it a shot.
  • WarioWare has never interested me as a series (it’s basically Mario Party without the progression element of the board game), but shorter minigames definitely line up with the “pick up and play” ethos of the Switch, so I’m a little surprised we hadn’t seen a game like this on the Switch until now. WarioWare: Get It Together! is more of the same some everyone’s favorite Mario clone, with some additional features such as local co-op gameplay and unique character abilities that should only help makes things more fun. If you’re a fin of this series, grabbing this title seems like a no-brainer.
  • Remember when we all went “Huh?” when rumors surfaced about a crossover between Mario and the Rabbids franchise? Fast forward five years, and it’s clear that the move was a brilliant one, as Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was received so well that the series now feels like a true part of Mario’s core franchises, and a second game Mario + Rabbids Sparks Of Hope was announced during Ubisoft’s E3 presentation and set to release in 2022. This game is a bit different this time around (battles allow you to move freely rather than on a grid, indifferent Rabbid Luma has been added to the cast, Mario is apparently a dualie main, and…Master Hand is somehow involved now?), but the core of the game seems similar to its predecessor, so if you enjoyed Kingdom Battle (I did!) you’ll want to check out this one.
  • Despite arriving in North America 20 years ago, I had no idea Advance Wars even existed…which makes sense given that the franchise hasn’t seen a new release since 2008. That statement is actually still true today, as Advance Wars 1+2: Re-boot Camp, like Monkey Mania, is just a remaster of the original games in the series (in this case, the first two). The game consists of a number of tactical battle challenges similar to Mario + Rabbids or Ogre Battle (note that your units don’t gain experience), but with some additional options such as unit creation tossed in for good measure. Combat looks straightforward enough and presents some interesting strategic options, and the main characters seem to have some charm and personality behind them. Whether or not this is enough to move me to actually buy the game when it drops in December remains to be seen.
  • Alright, it’s to celebrate Zelda‘s 35th anniversary! …But having only a new Game & Watch device that plays some old NES and Game Boy titles feels like a bit of a cop-out, and even the HD remake of Skyward Sword doesn’t exactly clear the bar set by the 3D All-Stars collection we got for Mario‘s 35th. It’s another chance to experience some of the older games if you missed them, but it wasn’t enough to convince me to pick up either item. Breath of the Wild 2 got another small trailer that suggests we’ll be exploring the skies above Hyrule this time around, but it will be a while before we get to do it: Producer Eiji Aonuma declared that the company was simply “aiming” to release this in 2022, so given that the original game showed up four years after its announcement, it wouldn’t surprise me to see this get bumped to 2023. At this point, we know very little about the story and have only glimpses of certain mechanics, so it’s too early to tell whether or not it will measure up to its predecessor. All in all, I’d call this anniversary celebration a bit disappointing, and I hope they do better when Zelda turns 40 in 2026.
  • Okay, so we’ve talked about the things that were present at the Direct, but what about the things that didn’t show up? The most notable omission was the ‘Switch Pro,’ a new Switch hardware iteration which was heavily rumored by multiple outlets and seemed to be suggested by some of the games we’ve seen (Splatoon 3‘s graphics looked surprisingly sharp in February, and I have trouble believing those Metroid Dread transitions would have been this smooth on the current hardware). It wasn’t shown at all here, and as Polygon notes, Nintendo gave up announcing major hardware stuff at E3 a long time ago, after both the Wii U and the 3DS failed to launch in the early part of the decade. It’s probably still coming, but not until later in the summer. (The current microchip shortage has also been cited as a delaying factor, which would make sense given that every other industry has been grappling with this issue too.) Additionally, as someone who primarily plays Splatoon 2 and Animal Crossing: New Horizons, I was sad to hear nothing about either franchise, and while we know Splatoon 3 is coming next year, ACNH‘s disappearance makes me think that the game’s end-of-life date is rapidly approaching (especially since Splatoon and Animal Crossing appear to share a development team, which means they’re probably focusing on Splatoon 3 right now). While leaving these series out made the Direct kind of a bummer for me, let’s be honest: There was a lot to talk about here, and something had to be cut to make room for it all. I think we’ll hear more about what wasn’t here in the not-so-distant future.

Overall, I think this was a decent Direct, and while it didn’t cater to my own interests much, there are still some games (Mario Golf: Super Rush, Mario + Rabbids Sparks Of Hope) that I was excited to see. (The Treehouse presentations afterwards were useful showcases as well; I was at least marginally interested in games like Metroid Dread and Advance Wars 1+2: Re-boot Camp once I saw a bit more gameplay.) Switch Pro or no, I think the Switch is set up well for the remainder of 2021 (and 2022 looks really good), and with the eventual Pokémon Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl remakes coming, this holiday season should be another strong one for Nintendo. (Put another way, I am way more optimistic about the future of Nintendo than I am about the future of country music.) The Switch is five years old now, and while console lifecycles may not generally be very long, with what I’m seeing here, it’ll be a while before this home/handheld hybrid is sent out to pasture.

The Current Pulse Coronavirus Pandemic of Mainstream Country Music: June 14, 2021

Several years ago, Josh Schott started a weekly feature on the Country Perspective blog that asked a simple question: Based on Billboard’s country airplay charts, just how good (or bad) is country radio at this very moment? In the spirit of the original feature, I decided to try my hand at evaluating the state of the radio myself.

The methodology is as follows: Each song that appears is assigned a score based on its review score. 0/10 songs get the minimum score (-5), 10/10 songs get the maximum (+5), and so on. The result (which can range from +250 to -250) gives you an idea of where things stand on the radio.

This week’s numbers are from the latest version of Country Aircheck, but I’m going to link to their archives since I never remember to update this from week to week. Without further ado, let’s crunch some numbers!

Song Score
1. Luke Combs, “Forever After All” 0 (5/10)
2. Dierks Bentley, “Gone” 0 (5/10)
3. Chris Young & Kane Brown, “Famous Friends” -2 (3/10)
4. Cole Swindell, “Single Saturday Night” 0 (5/10)
5. Jason Aldean, “Blame It On You” +1 (6/10)
6. Jordan Davis, “Almost Maybes” +1 (6/10)
7. Miranda Lambert, “Settling Down” +1 (6/10)
8. Dylan Scott, “Nobody” 0 (5/10)
9. Blake Shelton, “Minimum Wage” 0 (5/10)
10. Chase Rice ft. Florida Georgia Line, “Drinkin’ Beer. Talkin’ God. Amen.” -1 (4/10)
11. Dan + Shay, “Glad You Exist” -1 (4/10)
12. Keith Urban and Pink, “One Too Many” 0 (5/10)
13. Justin Moore, “We Didn’t Have Much” +2 (7/10)
14. Lainey Wilson, “Things A Man Oughta Know” +2 (7/10)
15. Thomas Rhett, “Country Again” +2 (7/10)
16. Tim McGraw & Tyler Hubbard, “Undivided” +1 (6/10)
17. Luke Bryan, “Waves” -1 (4/10)
18. Carly Pearce, “Next Girl” 0 (5/10)
19. Elvie Shane, “My Boy” +2 (7/10)
20. Scotty McCreery, “You Time” 0 (5/10)
21. Jameson Rodgers ft. Luke Combs, “Cold Beer Calling My Name” 0 (5/10)
22. Kane Brown, “Worship You” -1 (4/10)
23. Old Dominion, “I Was On A Boat That Day” -2 (3/10)
24. Lee Brice, “Memory I Don’t Mess With” -1 (4/10)
25. Lady A, “Like A Lady” 0 (5/10)
26. Garth Brooks & Trisha Yearwood, “Shallow” +1 (6/10)
27. Kenny Chesney, “Knowing You” 0 (5/10)
28. Jimmie Allen & Brad Paisley, “Freedom Was A Highway” 0 (5/10)
29. Ryan Hurd & Maren Morris, “Chasing After You” 0 (5/10)
30. Priscilla Block, “Just About Over You” 0 (5/10)
31. Michael Ray, “Whiskey And Rain” 0 (5/10)
32. Russell Dickerson, “Home Sweet” +1 (6/10)
33. Jon Pardi, “Tequila Little Time” -1 (4/10)
34. Zac Brown Band, “Same Boat” +1 (6/10)
35. Callista Clark, “It’s ‘Cause I Am” -1 (4/10)
36. Ingrid Andress, “Lady Like” +2 (7/10)
37. Parker McCollum, “To Be Loved By You” -2 (3/10)
38. HARDY, “Give Heaven Some Hell” +1 (6/10)
39. Dustin Lynch ft. MacKenzie Porter, “Thinking ‘Bout You” 0 (5/10)
40. Matt Stell, “That Ain’t Me No More” 0 (5/10)
41. Chris Stapleton, “You Should Probably Leave” 0 (5/10)
42. Kelsea Ballerini ft. Kenny Chesney, “Half Of My Hometown” +1 (6/10)
43. Brett Young, “Not Yet” +1 (6/10)
44. Lauren Alaina & Jon Pardi, “Getting Over Him” 0 (5/10)
45. Caitlyn Smith ft. Old Dominion, “I Can’t” 0 (5/10)
46. Riley Green, “If It Wasn’t For Trucks” -1 (4/10)
47. Clay Walker, “Need A Bar Sometimes” 0 (5/10)
48. Chris Bandi, “Would Have Loved Her” +1 (6/10)
49. Brothers Osborne, “I’m Not For Everyone” +3 (8/10)
50. Darius Rucker, “My Masterpiece” +1 (6/10)
Present Pulse (#1—#25) +2
Future Pulse (#26—#50) +9
Overall Pulse +11
Change From Last Week
+1 🙂

Best Song: “I’m Not For Everyone,” 8/10
Worst Song: “To Be Loved By You,” 3/10

Gone:

  • Eric Church, “Hell Of A View” (recurrent)

Leaving:

  • Dylan Scott, “Nobody” (down from #4 to #8)

In Real Trouble:

  • Keith Urban and Pink, “One Too Many” (down from #11 to #12, gained only fifty-one spins and lost points)
  • HARDY, “Give Heaven Some Hell” (down from #37 to #38, lost its bullet)
  • Lauren Alaina and Jon Pardi, “Getting Over Him” (down from #43 to #44, gained only twenty-eight spins and 126 points)
  • Caitlyn Smith ft. Old Dominion, “I Can’t” (holds at #45, but gained only twenty-three spins and forty-two points)
  • Riley Green, “If It Wasn’t For Trucks” (holds at #46, but lost its bullet)
  • Clay Walker, “Need A Bar Sometimes” (holds at #47, but bullet-less for a second consecutive week)
  • Chris Bandi, “Would Have Loved Her” (up from #50 to #49, but gained only twenty-four spins and eighty-six points)

In Some Trouble:

  • Basically, if you were below Ballerini at #42, you had a rough week.

In No Trouble At All:

  • Cole Swindell, “Single Saturday Night” (up from #8 to #4)

Is Thanos:

  • Luke Combs, “Forever After All” (holds #1 for a second week, leading to calls to have Combs mediate the Biden/Putin summit)

Bubbling Under 50:

On The Way:

  • Elle King & Miranda Lambert, “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)”
  • Gabby Barrett, “Footprints On The Moon”
  • Brantley Gilbert ft. Toby Keith & HARDY, “The Worst Country Song Of All Time” (doesn’t HARDY already have this title with “REDNECKER”?)

Overall Thoughts: As expected, spins were at a premium this week with Thanos holding court at #1 and yet another massive debut hitting the charts (the surprise was that the debut was not Nelly/FGL or King/Lambert, but an unexpected drop from the Zac Brown Band), so the key was survival this week was prioritizing quality over quantity: A number of songs were not able to earn triple-digit spin gains, but still posted respectable point gains because they got the spins that mattered. The big questions this week:

  • Has “Forever After All” denied some songs the #1 position, or merely delayed them? Bentley and Young/Brown had large but not outlandish gains last week, and Thanos is closing to peaking on the daily Mediabase charts, so I think the tracks at #2 and #3 still have another push in them. There’s still a chance everyone will share the top spot, albeit a week or two late.
  • Is “One Too Many” past its sell-by date? Urban and Pink’s single posted terrible numbers for a second week in a row, and now stick out like a sore thumb in the top half of the charts (everyone else managed to earn at least 300 points, even “Undivided”). Given that the song has already topped the country charts in both Australia and Canada, might Capitol decide they’re satisfied and pull the plug?
  • After all my predictions of doom and gloom, the Pulse has managed to defy gravity for a few weeks. Can it last? With “Fill Them Boots,” “No Sad Songs,” and “Old School’s In” on the horizon, my prediction is “not really,” but there ‘s enough of a buffer now where the Pulse might manage to avoid going negative. Maybe.

As the capacity crowd and massive beer cup snake at Wrigley Field demonstrated over the weekend, the coronavirus continues to recede in the U.S., with new daily case and death averages falling to levels not seen since the start of the pandemic (the overall death count has now reached 600,000). Vaccination totals are climbing, restrictions are being lifted, and life seems to be generally going back to normal (in my case, this means avoiding the outside world voluntarily rather than by order of the governor). Is it time to declare victory and finally revert these posts to the ‘Current Pulse’ title we last saw back on March 10th of 2020?

The answer is a resounding “no,” for a couple of reasons:

Ultimately, the pandemic remains a pandemic, and so we should continue to treat it like one. I implore folks who have not yet been vaccinated to receive the shot at their earliest opportunity, and continue wearing your mask and keeping your distance until you’re fully vaccinated. I also call on local, state, and national leaders to ensure that everyone has easy access to these vaccines. For all our efforts, our current success against the coronavirus remains potentially fragile, so let’s all keep doing our part to make sure this progress continues.

Song Review: Zac Brown Band, “Same Boat”

We may all be in the “Same Boat,” but that doesn’t mean much when our fellow passengers are doing all they can to sink it.

2021 has thus far been defined by the mother of all contradictions: We all claim to want unity and to work together as a nation/planet to face the challenges of the future, but in reality we’ve lost so much trust in other people that we really don’t want to work with them any more, or even inhabit the same spaces as them. For country music, a genre that lives these days to paper over/ignore conflict, this presents a problem, as there’s just no market for sappy Kumbaya-esque tracks that ask us all to come together. Tim McGraw and Tyler Hubbard found this out the hard way with “Undivided,” a track that few have had good things to say about and has been stalled in the mid-to-high teens for a while, and the Zac Brown Band is about to learn the same lesson with “Same Boat,” whose working title was probably “Undivided but with a Boat Metaphor,” because that’s all it is. For a band that hasn’t seen the Top Twenty since 2017 and is clinging to any shred of relevancy it can find, this isn’t going to advance the band or its message of unity.

The production here is a return to the band’s classic style, and while it’s a nice change of pace from other current tracks, it doesn’t do much of a job pushing its message. The song is mostly driven by a bright, peppy acoustic guitar and backed by a mix of real percussion (both hand- and stick-played, and even the hand claps on the bridge seem organic), with an electric guitar and Jimmy De Martini’s recognizable fiddle mostly working in the background until they split the bridge solo and get some time in the spotlight. The major chords and bright tones that dominate the mix give the song an optimistic feel, projecting confidence (however unfounded) that we can put aside our differences and get along, but the overall vibe here is chill and relaxed and there’s a general lack of urgency, suggesting that unity is something we’ll get around to eventually and we’ll totally be fine until then, which sort of undermines the whole point of the song. It puts the song in the awkward position of both caring and not caring about the state of the world, and the mixed signals only serve to confuse the listener and muddle the message. It just feels like the producer hit Ctrl-C on “Chicken Fried” or “Toes” and pasted the same sound here, even though the it’s not quite the mix the song needed.

Zac Brown and the rest of the band run into the same problem: They’re concerned enough about the state of the world to say something about it, but there’s no real energy or emotion behind the words, making it feel like a halfhearted inspirational speech. There aren’t any technical issues to speak of and Brown himself still has a charm-filled persona to lean on, but said charm seems to be misguided here: His words say “we have a problem,” but his unhurried delivery and demeanor say “It’s all going to be fine,” which make the narrator’s statements feel empty and leads the audience to question just how seriously to take him. The narrator also quickly glosses over and minimizes the outrage and pain that people feel, making him seem more than a little out of touch as they try to lecture the listener about unity. (For all their instrumental work, the band’s harmony work is pretty forgettable, and they don’t do much to cover for the narrator’s deficiencies.) Again, this performance feels like an attempt to recapture the magic of ZBB’s early tracks while delivering a weightier message, but this weight is just as dependent on the artist’s approach as it is on the writing, and copy-pasting narrators between different tracks just doesn’t work when the tracks are this different.

Just as we saw with “Undivided,” the lyrics lament the toxic, polarized attitude that dominates our current discourse, and they plead for people to love and understand one another, saying that “we’re all in the same boat.” I actually think the boat metaphor works pretty well to describe our shared destiny, and the “If the ship keeps rocking we’ll all go overboard” line would have landed had Brown not slowed it down and instead put some feeling behind it. That said, this song suffers from many of the same problems as “Undivided”: It doesn’t go into any detail on the problems we face or the solutions to fix that (we just get the usual platitudes about loving and helping everyone), it doesn’t help us understand the different perspectives of individuals (it tells us “you can’t judge a man until you walk a country mile in his shoes,” but doesn’t provide any guidance to help us do the walking) and it assumes that we all want the same thing and have the same basic vision for the country and world (definitely not true on a macro level, and given how large the income inequality gap is, it’s not always true at the micro level either). There are plenty of awkward moments in the writing as well: The persistence of the Big Lie shows that you can “hide from your truth,” and saying “Take those shots and keep reloading” seems pretty tone-deaf given the nation’s current surge in mass shootings. Ultimately, no one is in the mood to come together right now, and this track fails to change anyone’s mind.

“Same Boat” is not an inherently bad song, but it really misread the moment, and really doesn’t do much to push its message of unity and togetherness. Neither the production nor the Zac Brown Band itself really takes the message seriously, and while the writing tries its best to salvage the song, it simply doesn’t convince anyone to pay attention, especially in our current divided society. This will restore neither our national sense of community nor ZBB’s previous prominent position in the genre, and while it’s far from the worst thing on the airwaves right now, if we really want to make a difference and bring people together, we’ve got to move beyond the platitudes and doing something to make peoples’ lives better.

Rating: 6/10. Listen to this once or twice, and then set it aside, stop talking about bringing people together, and find ways to actually do it instead.

Bravely Default II vs. Miitopia: Which One Is Worth Buying?

Hey, if this title card worked for Mortal Kombat: Equestria, it’ll work for this post.

2021 is shaping up to be a strong year for Nintendo titles, and as I mentioned back in February, the Nintendo Switch seems to have claimed the title of the RPG console now that the 3DS is officially history. Two of the more-prominent titles that have graced the console in recent months are Bravely Default II, the third game in the Bravely series (despite the II in the title), and Miitopia, a port of the 3DS title from 2017. As games go, these two may technically fall into the same genre, but they couldn’t be more different, and they cater to very different segments of the role-playing game fanbase.

I’ve already spoken about Miitopia in great detail, so I’ll be focusing on BD2 for the bulk of the ‘review’ portion of this post. The bigger question, however, is this: Which of these games better fits your preferences and experience? The answer depends on your personal preferences and RPG experience: Miitopia is a simple, fun experience that is best played in byte-sized chunks and is perfect for new or casual RPG fans, where Bravely Default II is a deep-cut title that is best suited for rabid/hardcore fans of the genre that are looking for something suitably epic and complex.

First, let’s discuss some of the revelations I’ve had since my discussion of the BD2 demo:

  • The game’s biggest surprise has nothing to do with the gameplay or story: This thing runs really badly on the Switch. Square Enix had better hope that all these “Switch Pro” rumors turn out to be true, because if any game could benefit from a hardware upgrade, it’s this one. Transitions between locations and into cut scenes are as slow or slower than Animcal Crossing: New Horizons, button presses can sometimes take a second or two to register (usually when entering a ‘Party Chat’ vignette), and combat animations will occasionally freeze and skip to the end of the action. (On one memorable occasion, an enemy teleported across the overworld screen to land on top of my party for a surprise attack! This is irritating but understandable in an online game like Splatoon 2; having it happen in a single-player game is simply inexcusable.) For all of the technical blemishes Miitopia had in its move to the Switch, they were nothing compared to the issues I encountered here, and the fat that neither game ran especially smooth makes me worry about some of the Switch titles currently in the pipeline, especially *gulp* Pokémon Legends: Arceus
  • The job/ability/battle mechanics seemed to fit together better the second time around. While I’m still not a fan of certain aspects of the game (*cough* the weight mechanic *cough*), the job and combat systems seemed to make a lot more sense when I started playing the game. I stuck with the default jobs the demo gave me originally, but with the way the job level system maxes out at Lv. 12, the game encourages you to continuously rotate jobs onto different characters in order to keep growing and receive certain useful perks (it reminded me a lot of how the “Superfresh” designation in Splatoon 2 encourages you to try out all sorts of weapons). In addition to your main job (which receives job points for each battle), you also have a sub-job that does not gain experience but still lets you access the perks you’ve unlocked, letting you grind new jobs without losing all the benefits of the old ones. (Experience points are a separate system that you receive regardless of the jobs you’re using.) While some of the jobs don’t strike me as all that useful, there are enough interesting ones that you can use to piece together abilities (which can be assigned at any time regardless of what job you’re using) to create the ultimate brawler/healer/magic user for wreaking havoc in boss battles.
  • Speaking of battles: The fights aren’t necessarily difficult, but they can drag on forevvvvvvvver. In the demo, you were encouraged to try different strategies and job combinations until you found one that proved successful. Given my tendency to over-level my characters while playing, however, boss battles boiled to down to giving each character their strongest job, figuring out what attacks would do the most damage, and then spamming said attacks until the enemy caved. (There doesn’t seem to be any feedback mechanism besides winning or losing fights, so unless you’re looking strategy guides up online, going in with your best team comp every time seemed to be the most effective way to win.) I didn’t lose any fights like I did in the demo (besides the fights you’re supposed to lose to further the story, and even then I ended up timing out some of those rather than actually losing), but it meant that tough battles were often 30-minute slogs that tested your patience more than your skill. (There are also super-hard enemies scattered around the map that you can take on in you want a tougher challenge, but after one took me an hour to complete, I decided the payoff just wasn’t worth it.) Random battles aren’t usually too bad (especially since you can swing your sword at the enemy in the overworld and bank a free Brave point at the start), but they can add up in the surprisingly numerous and expansive dungeons, forcing you to get creative with abilities and item use to sustain your squad (‘Solar/Lunar Powered’ and other regenerational perks are a must). In other words, traveling around the world is along and arduous process that is only recommended for those who are really invested in the story.
Lies, delusions, credulity, and isolation…and that’s just in the halls of Congress!
  • However, the story is really good and really easy to get invested in. The twist in the Savalon tale after the demo ends is worth the price of admission by itself, and while I feel like the Wiswaldian final boss could have been tied back to the story a bit more closely (they’re just some random person who didn’t get enough love from their parents as a child), the game does a great job making her a despicable villain that the player will enjoy smiting (it reminds me a lot of Helgenish from Primrose’s story in Octopath Traveler). Each of your travel companions (and even the protagonist Seth to an extent) is well-written and just bursting with personality (Adelle is my personal favorite), and they do a great job drawing you into the story and making you want to complete their quests and see their problems resolved. The many cut scenes and copious voice acting do slow the game down, but they make the game much more immersive and interesting, and they help inspire you to grind through the long, arduous processes from the prior point.

So after all this, would I recommend Bravely Default II to the general public, and more importantly, would I recommend it over the wild, irreverent, and enjoyable game that is Miitopia? The answer really depends on what you’re looking for out of an RPG:

  • Miitopia and Bravely Default II are polar opposites when it comes to combat: The latter gives you a smorgasbord of specific options for each character’s turn, while the former doesn’t even give you control over your entire party, limiting you to the actions of the protagonists and some general healing options in the form of sprinkles and the Safe Spot. In other words, Bravely Default II is for people who want to be overwhelmed with customization and strategic options, and Miitopia is a more straightforward experience that requires minimal experience or preparation on the part of the player.
  • Similarly, the depth of each story is dramatically different: BD2 provides a wealth of lore and backstory, and weaves together elaborate and serious plotlines for each chapter that leave the player guessing until the very end. Miitopia‘s story is longer than you might think at first, but there’s no real lore or depth behind anything, and it’s really not meant to be a serious tale (in fact, the less serious you take it, the more fun you’ll have). You won’t get the tragic tale of a lost kingdom and its stolen treasures in Miitopia, but you’ll never get to play as a language arts textbook in BD2 either.
  • Bravely Default II is a serious time investment every time to sit down to play, as you’ll be battling through dungeons and tackling marathon boss fights without an easy off-ramp. Miitopia, in contrast, actively asks you every couple of levels (which are shorter to begin with) whether you want to stop and take a break (and given the repetitive gameplay, it’s probably best to consume it in smaller bites), and is much more in line with the ‘pick up and play/put down and chill’ mantra of the 3DS (in contrast, I couldn’t make it out of one dungeon in BD2 without having to plug in my Switch charger!). Throw in the many cutscenes of BD2, and Miitopia winds up being the faster and more action-packed experience despite the levels being mostly on rails.

In other words, I see Miitopia as a gateway to the role-playing genre, a good first step for players who want to dip their toes into the water (maybe not as good a first RPG as Super Mario RPG: Legend Of The Seven Stars, but probably the best ‘starter RPG’ I’ve run into outside of the Pokémon series). It’s a game that you can take as seriously as you want, one that places you more in a managerial role when it comes to combat and doesn’t make you sweat the small stuff, and one that provides a bit more action in favor of slow, drawn-out attempts at world-building. If you’re into more active gametypes such as platformers, Miitopia is a good way to try on an RPG for size before committing to it.

Bravely Default II, in contrast, is a deep-cut game for RPG veterans, ones who want more exploration, more elaborate storylines, and more control. The game is longer and slower (and it may not run that well), and it will either overwhelm newer players with its battle strategies and or put them to sleep with it relative lack of action, but it also rewards those with the patience to sit through it with a engaging story, charming characters, and lots of ways to approach each and every fight. Longstanding RPG fans will really enjoy this game, and if you play through Miitopia and decide you’re looking for a game with more depth, than you might enjoy it too.

So if you’re curious about seeing what a role-playing game is all about, start by giving Miitopia a shot and seeing if it’s a genre you want to explore further. If so, you’ve got a lot of great options for diving deeper on the Switch, and Bravely Default II should definitely be on your radar. No matter your experience level, the Switch has an RPG that’s right for you.

Never change, Adelle.

The Current Pulse Coronavirus Pandemic of Mainstream Country Music: June 7, 2021

Several years ago, Josh Schott started a weekly feature on the Country Perspective blog that asked a simple question: Based on Billboard’s country airplay charts, just how good (or bad) is country radio at this very moment? In the spirit of the original feature, I decided to try my hand at evaluating the state of the radio myself.

The methodology is as follows: Each song that appears is assigned a score based on its review score. 0/10 songs get the minimum score (-5), 10/10 songs get the maximum (+5), and so on. The result (which can range from +250 to -250) gives you an idea of where things stand on the radio.

This week’s numbers are from the latest version of Country Aircheck, but I’m going to link to their archives since I never remember to update this from week to week. Without further ado, let’s crunch some numbers!

Song Score
1. Luke Combs, “Forever After All” 0 (5/10)
2. Dierks Bentley, “Gone” 0 (5/10)
3. Chris Young & Kane Brown, “Famous Friends” -2 (3/10)
4. Dylan Scott, “Nobody” 0 (5/10)
5. Jordan Davis, “Almost Maybes” +1 (6/10)
6. Jason Aldean, “Blame It On You” +1 (6/10)
7. Miranda Lambert, “Settling Down” +1 (6/10)
8. Cole Swindell, “Single Saturday Night” 0 (5/10)
9. Blake Shelton, “Minimum Wage” 0 (5/10)
10. Dan + Shay, “Glad You Exist” -1 (4/10)
11. Keith Urban and Pink, “One Too Many” 0 (5/10)
12. Chase Rice ft. Florida Georgia Line, “Drinkin’ Beer. Talkin’ God. Amen.” -1 (4/10)
13. Eric Church, “Hell Of A View” 0 (5/10)
14. Justin Moore, “We Didn’t Have Much” +2 (7/10)
15. Lainey Wilson, “Things A Man Oughta Know” +2 (7/10)
16. Thomas Rhett, “Country Again” +2 (7/10)
17. Tim McGraw & Tyler Hubbard, “Undivided” +1 (6/10)
18. Luke Bryan, “Waves” -1 (4/10)
19. Carly Pearce, “Next Girl” 0 (5/10)
20. Elvie Shane, “My Boy” +2 (7/10)
21. Scotty McCreery, “You Time” 0 (5/10)
22. Jameson Rodgers ft. Luke Combs, “Cold Beer Calling My Name” 0 (5/10)
23. Kane Brown, “Worship You” -1 (4/10)
24. Lee Brice, “Memory I Don’t Mess With” -1 (4/10)
25. Garth Brooks & Trisha Yearwood, “Shallow” +1 (6/10)
26. Old Dominion, “I Was On A Boat That Day” -2 (3/10)
27. Lady A, “Like A Lady” 0 (5/10)
28. Kenny Chesney, “Knowing You” 0 (5/10)
29. Ryan Hurd & Maren Morris, “Chasing After You” 0 (5/10)
30. Jimmie Allen & Brad Paisley, “Freedom Was A Highway” 0 (5/10)
31. Priscilla Block, “Just About Over You” 0 (5/10)
32. Russell Dickerson, “Home Sweet” +1 (6/10)
33. Michael Ray, “Whiskey And Rain” 0 (5/10)
34. Jon Pardi, “Tequila Little Time” -1 (4/10)
35. Callista Clark, “It’s ‘Cause I Am” -1 (4/10)
36. Ingrid Andress, “Lady Like” +2 (7/10)
37. HARDY, “Give Heaven Some Hell” +1 (6/10)
38. Parker McCollum, “To Be Loved By You” -2 (3/10)
39. Dustin Lynch ft. MacKenzie Porter, “Thinking ‘Bout You” 0 (5/10)
40. Matt Stell, “That Ain’t Me No More” 0 (5/10)
41. Kelsea Ballerini ft. Kenny Chesney, “Half Of My Hometown” +1 (6/10)
42. Brett Young, “Not Yet” +1 (6/10)
43. Lauren Alaina & Jon Pardi, “Getting Over Him” 0 (5/10)
44. Chris Stapleton, “You Should Probably Leave” 0 (5/10)
45. Caitlyn Smith ft. Old Dominion, “I Can’t” 0 (5/10)
46. Riley Green, “If It Wasn’t For Trucks” -1 (4/10)
47. Clay Walker, “Need A Bar Sometimes” 0 (5/10)
48. Brothers Osborne, “I’m Not For Everyone” +3 (8/10)
49. Chris Bandi, “Would Have Loved Her” +1 (6/10)
50. Darius Rucker, “My Masterpiece” +1 (6/10)
Present Pulse (#1—#25) +5
Future Pulse (#26—#50) +5
Overall Pulse +10
Change From Last Week
+4 😎

Best Song: “I’m Not For Everyone,” 8/10
Worst Song: “To Be Loved By You,” 3/10

Gone:

  • Sam Hunt, “Breaking Up Was Easy In The 90s” (recurrent)
  • Chris Janson, “Waitin’ On 5” (recurrent)

Leaving:

  • Dylan Scott, “Nobody” (down from #1 to #4)
  • Eric Church, “Hell Of A View” (down from #4 to #13)

In Real Trouble:

  • Tim McGraw & Tyler Hubbard, “Undivided” (down from #15 to #17, lost its bullet, and honestly just misread the moment)
  • Ingrid Andress, “Lady Like” (holds at #36, but gained only twenty spins and twenty-nine points)
  • Lauren Alaina and Jon Pardi, “Getting Over Him” (up from #44 to #43, but gained only eight spins and twenty-three points)
  • Riley Green, “If It Wasn’t For Trucks” (up from #47 to #46, but gained only forty-four spins and seventy-eight points)
  • Clay Walker, “Need A Bar Sometimes” (up from #49 to #47, but lost its bullet)
  • Chris Bandi, “Would Have Loved Her” (up from #50 to #49, but gained only eleven spins and eleven points)

In Some Trouble:

  • Keith Urban and Pink, “One Too Many” (up from #13 to #12, but gained only eighteen spins and 107 points)
  • HARDY, “Give Heaven Some Hell” (up from #38 to 37, but gained only twenty-one spins and forty-eight points)
  • Caitlyn Smith ft. Old Dominion, “I Can’t” (up from #46 to #45, but gained only ten spins and three points)

In No Trouble At All:

  • Old Dominion, “I Was On A Boat That Day” (up from #32 to #26)
  • Chase Rice ft. Florida Georgia Line, “Drinkin’ Beer. Talkin’ God. Amen.” (up from #17 to #12)
  • Jason Aldean, “Blame It On You” (up from #10 to #6)
  • Jameson Rodgers ft. Luke Combs, “Cold Beer Calling My Name” (up from #26 to #22)
  • Chris Stapleton, “You Should Probably Leave” (up from #48 to #44)

Is Thanos:

  • Luke Combs, “Forever After All” (up from #2 to #1, earning Combs a permanent seat on the UN Security Council)

Bubbling Under 50:

On The Way:

  • Nelly & Florida Georgia Line, “Lil Bit”
  • Elle King & Miranda Lambert, “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)”

Overall Thoughts: Some surprise good news in the form of Rucker and Brothers Osborne’s latest singles have put the Pulse on firmer ground for the moment, but we’ve got some serious trouble on the horizon. (Spoiler alert: “Angry Kyle” is definitely making an appearance on my eventual Sanders and Moon reviews, and there’s a fair chance he shows up for the Nelly/FGL collab too…) Spins seemed a bit more plentiful on the whole this week, but with Thanos likely to sit at the top of the escalator for a while (based on today’s daily chart, I don’t see Bentley making up a nearly four-digit spin deficit in four days), expect a bit of chart constipation over the next few weeks as things back up behind “Forever After All” and Nelly/FGL and King/Lambert angle for splashy debuts.

We’re seeing a similar dynamic on the coronavirus front:

The U.S. needs to pull out all the stops to get vaccine shots into the arms of as many people as possible, whether that’s through improving access to vaccines, creating more incentives to convince people to get the vaccine, or other means (and honestly, doing all of the above is probably the best strategy). I implore people to get their vaccine shot at the earliest opportunity (and to wear masks and maintain social distance until they are fully vaccinated), and I implore businesses and governments to make those opportunities as plentiful and easy to access as possible. Ending this pandemic won’t be easy, but we’ve made great progress in the U.S. so far, and we need to keep up the good work to prevent this virus from surging once more.

Song Review: Brothers Osborne, “I’m Not For Everyone”

Brothers Osborne has officially pushed their chips to the center of the table. Your move, country music.

While the duo has been a part of the genre for nearly a decade now, TJ and John Osborne have been critical darlings more than commercial powerhouses (they’ve won nine ACM/CMA awards, but their 2015 single “Stay A Little Longer” is their only Top Ten track to date, leading a certain critic to call them out as a “one-hit wonder” in 2018). However, the duo unexpectedly became a test of country music’s supposed inclusivity when TJ Osborne came out as gay back in February, becoming “the only openly gay artist signed to a major country label.” Once again, the genre failed the test spectacularly, as “All Night” fell off the charts just two months later with only a #25 peak to show for it. While you could make the case that the song wasn’t good to begin with and that it had already stalled out by the time the announcement was made, with the sort of historical baggage that country music carries around, you can’t discount prejudice and discrimination as factors in the song’s demise either.

In response, the duo has decided to force the issue by releasing “I’m Not For Everyone” as the second single from their Skeletons album. It’s a simple declaration that being different is okay, and much like Chapel Hart’s “I Will Follow,” it’s also “a gentle “f**k you” to anyone who thinks this group shouldn’t be part of country music.” It’s a noticeable step up from the group’s previous work, and it forces the genre to face their reputation and finally take a stand.

The core of the song’s production remains the guitar-and-drum setup that dominates the genre, but it brings in enough different elements and sets a strong-enough tone to catch the listener’s ear and draw them into the song. John Osborne’s electric guitar opens the track and calls back to the rollicking axes of the 90s (even if calling the riffs here ‘rollicking’ is a stretch), and the drum set has a rougher feel to its sound than many of its radio contemporaries. While there’s a lot more pieces to this arrangement, I would say the biggest disappointment of the sound is that the producer doesn’t do a whole lot with them: Only the accordion gets enough prominent screen time to make its mark on the mix, adding a bit of flavor to the sound and giving it the song a bit more presence. The keyboard and organ stay in the background and are mostly used to support the guitar riffs, and the fiddle gets lost in the accordion’s shadow and is barely noticeable as a result. The good news is that the instrument tones are relentlessly bright and optimistic, giving the song a relaxed and positive feel, and both the tempo and guitar work provide the energy necessary to keep pushing the song forward. It gives you the sense that despite the narrator’s claim that they aren’t for everyone, they would be for you, an important victory given the song’s context. While I wish the production had done more, it does enough to support the subject matter, taking the edge off of the song’s meta commentary and helping to make the track something everyone can relate to and enjoy.

Lead singer TJ Osborne sounds a little different this time around, for a couple of reasons:

  • Generally, TJ tends to dive into the low end of his vocal range to make his sound a bit more distinct and edgy, but this time he stays exclusively in his higher range, matching the brighter feel of the production. Truthfully (and a bit surprisingly), TJ sounds completely comfortable at this range, losing none of his typical tone or power while reflecting the sunnier feel of the song.
  • For the first time that I can remember, TJ isn’t the exclusive lead singer for a BO single, as John Osborne takes the reins for the entire second verse. As you might imagine, the brothers sound fairly similar, but John’s voice isn’t quite as rough and he can’t quite match TJ’s vocal presence or charisma. Still, he acquits himself capably here, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear more from him on future releases (I can’t speak to album cuts; he may already sing on a few).

The overall vibe of the vocals here is comfortable: Both singers come across as relaxed and even cheerful, and they have no problem convincing the audience that their narrator is totally okay with being different, even if others don’t feel the same way. There’s no malice or anger present in their deliveries, and the harmony work is solid (if also a bit unremarkable). Given the context, selling this song and making it believable is the biggest key to it finding success, and both Osbornes have no issue in this regard here.

So let’s talk about this context, shall we? By themselves, the lyrics don’t really say a whole lot here: The narrator acknowledges that people are different, declares that they themselves are an acquired taste, and notes that “I’m good for some, but I’m not for everyone.” The “differences” are left vague enough for the song to apply to anyone who feels a bit out of step with the mainstream, and while the verses feel more than a little disconnected (they go from discussing peoples’ clapping and drinking habits to…taking about what kind of tea or bar the narrator would be?), they further the point that the speaker doesn’t subscribe to orthodox thinking (they’re tea that isn’t sweet, a church that celebrates the sinner, etc.). It’s a bit generic on the surface, but its heart is in the right place, as it tries to maximize its target audience and tell them that being different is okay.

Put this song alongside TJ Osborne coming out of the closet, however, and it takes on a whole new meaning, becoming a call for understanding and acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community. When the narrator says “Some people are just like me, I hope y’all forgive ’em,” they’re asking the genre and its audience (which are not typically known for their inclusivity) for tolerance of Osborne and others like him. “I’m a bad joke at the wrong time” suddenly flips from a reference to the narrator’s poor sense of humor to a calling out of the slurs and derogatory terms (which are often couched in terms of bad-faith humor) that members of this community have had to endure. The description of a bar that’s always open and welcoming becomes a vision of the world the narrator wishes to see, where people can gather without pretense or prejudice and revel in their common humanity. While the message isn’t as forceful as “I Will Follow,” there’s an implicit declaration in saying “I’m not for everyone” that the Osbornes aren’t going to change who they are and what they do, even though they realize that they won’t please everyone. There’s an understated power to this song when considered within a broader context, and it projects both a determination to be true to oneself and a message that it’s okay for you to be who you are.

While I’ll admit that I’ve never been a fan of Brothers Osborne and their music, I’m intrigued (and even a little excited) to see how far they can go with “I’m Not For Everyone.” Unlike Mickey Guyton or Chapel Hart, TJ and John Osborne have an established presence on the airwaves (even if their track record is a little weak), and with a strong song like this one, they’re forcing country music to make a choice: Is the genre just paying lip service to being inclusive and welcoming (a perception reinforced by the fact that Morgan Wallen is already starting to regain airplay traction), or is it going to take a stand and put their money (and their spins) where their mouth is? Time will tell, but either way, with the song’s expressive production, the calm vocal presence of both TJ and John, and a message of acceptance and understanding, this is a track that deserves to be heard.

Rating: 8/10. Check this one out.

Song Review: Darius Rucker, “My Masterpiece”

There’s a reason Darius Rucker has lasted this long in the music industry, and it’s his ability to make lemonade out of generic lemons like this one.

It’s been 27 years since Cracked Rear View hit store shelves, but Rucker remains a staple of the music industry and of country music in particular, even if he’s become more of a trend-hopper over the last few years. Material selection has been my main gripe with Rucker ever since I started this blog: While both “For The First Time” and “Beers And Sunshine” reached #1 on Billboard’s airplay chart, the former had a slight Bro-Country odor and the latter was a late, blatant attempt to ride the Cobronavirus trend. The difference, however, is that unlike most of his contemporaries, Rucker has the talent and charm to elevate less-than-stellar material into something that catches the listener’s ear and invites you to listen in. That’s the case with Rucker’s latest single “My Masterpiece”: It’s a cheesy love song that sits on the very edge of Boyfriend country, but Rucker brings enough emotion and charm to the table to make it feel deeper and more genuine, giving the song a noticeable edge over its competition.

Rucker isn’t the only standout on this track: I’ve called out a lot of producers for relying on the same tired guitar-and-drum arrangement, but I have to give props to the producer here for bringing in more and different pieces to add some flavor to the mix. The track opens with a piano (serious song alert!) and a drum machine at its core, but we get some steel guitar riffs and some bouzouki (!) chords right off the bat, and as the song progresses it continues to add instruments like a dobro and Hammond organ along with the acoustic/electric guitars and real drums you expect. Despite the piano and the periodic minor chords, the overall vibe of the mix is happy and optimistic thanks to the bright instrument tones that dominate the sound, and the producer wisely avoids the trap of trying to turn a song into a sex jam by keeping the feel lighter and generally romantic (actually, I’d argue that that avoiding the slick, sleazy of most country sex jams actually makes increases the sensuality of this mix). It’s a solid all-around effort that provides adequate support for the subject matter, and takes some needed steps to help it stand out among its peers.

The writing itself is probably the weakest part of the entire track, as the love story is a paint-by-numbers affair: Our narrator is a simple, unremarkable individual who will never produce works of art like Michelangelo or Ray Charles, so they aim for their greatest creation to be the their love for their partner (“I hope they say my masterpiece is lovin’ you”). It’s a fairly common and nondescript sentiment in the genre, and while the references aren’t usually this explicit (Charles and the Sistene Chapel are name-dropped here, which is at least a step up from the usual Strait/Jackson callouts), they don’t really make the song any more interesting by themselves. Some of the wordplay here feels a bit forced as well: The “Georgia On My Mind” reference comes across as clunky and awkward, and the “Picasso never had that color in his wheel” tries to cram one too many syllables onto a line. (I’m also not a fan of the bridge, which is the one place the song gets a little too close to sleazy sex-jam territory for my tastes.) As a love song, it’s just not all that compelling by itself, with its main redeeming feature being it leaves plenty of room for the performer to infuse the writing with the emotion necessary to allow them to forge a connection with the audience.

An love song this vague is the kind of track that an artist like Dustin Lynch would drive right into the ground with their nonexistent charm and insufferable attitude, and for the majority of the faceless young white male artists off the Nashville assembly line, pulling this off would be a coin flip at best. Thankfully, Rucker is a longtime veteran with charm and charisma to burn, and he knows exactly how to pull off a song like this. His performance here is equal parts relaxed and heartfelt, and while he falls a bit behind the beat with his cadence, he delivers his lines with such warmth and gratefulness that you can practically hear the smile on his face as he sings. There’s an honesty in Rucker’s voice that convinces that audience that the narrator is deeply and truly committed to what they’re saying, filling the void left by the writing’s lack of detail and causing the potential implications of the bridge to barely register in their mind. It’s a great performance that elevates the track and make it worth hearing, and with all respect to the production, Rucker is the main reason for checking out this track.

“My Masterpiece” isn’t a masterpiece itself, but it’s a solid offering that demonstrates why Darius Rucker is still a part of the mainstream country conversation. The writing may be a bit “meh” by itself, by Rucker and the producer combine to create a positive, believable song that convinces the audience that the love on display here is deep and long-lasting. While it makes you wonder how good Rucker would sound if he had some better writing behind him, given the doldrums the radio are in right now, I will absolutely take this song, and while Rucker was part of the problem in 2020 with “Beers And Sunshine,” I’m hopeful that he can part of the solution in 2021.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth giving a few spins on the turntable to see what you think.

The Current Pulse Coronavirus Pandemic of Mainstream Country Music: June 1, 2021

Several years ago, Josh Schott started a weekly feature on the Country Perspective blog that asked a simple question: Based on Billboard’s country airplay charts, just how good (or bad) is country radio at this very moment? In the spirit of the original feature, I decided to try my hand at evaluating the state of the radio myself.

The methodology is as follows: Each song that appears is assigned a score based on its review score. 0/10 songs get the minimum score (-5), 10/10 songs get the maximum (+5), and so on. The result (which can range from +250 to -250) gives you an idea of where things stand on the radio.

This week’s numbers are from the latest version of Country Aircheck, but I’m going to link to their archives since I never remember to update this from week to week. Without further ado, let’s crunch some numbers!

Song Score
1. Dylan Scott, “Nobody” 0 (5/10)
2. Luke Combs, “Forever After All” 0 (5/10)
3. Dierks Bentley, “Gone” 0 (5/10)
4. Eric Church, “Hell Of A View” 0 (5/10)
5. Chris Young & Kane Brown, “Famous Friends” -2 (3/10)
6. Jordan Davis, “Almost Maybes” +1 (6/10)
7. Sam Hunt, “Breaking Up With Easy In The 90s” 0 (5/10)
8. Miranda Lambert, “Settling Down” +1 (6/10)
9. Cole Swindell, “Single Saturday Night” 0 (5/10)
10. Jason Aldean, “Blame It On You” +1 (6/10)
11. Blake Shelton, “Minimum Wage” 0 (5/10)
12. Keith Urban and Pink, “One Too Many” 0 (5/10)
13. Dan + Shay, “Glad You Exist” -1 (4/10)
14. Justin Moore, “We Didn’t Have Much” +2 (7/10)
15. Tim McGraw & Tyler Hubbard, “Undivided” +1 (6/10)
16. Lainey Wilson, “Things A Man Oughta Know” +2 (7/10)
17. Chase Rice ft. Florida Georgia Line, “Drinkin’ Beer. Talkin’ God. Amen.” -1 (4/10)
18. Thomas Rhett, “Country Again” +2 (7/10)
19. Carly Pearce, “Next Girl” 0 (5/10)
20. Luke Bryan, “Waves” -1 (4/10)
21. Elvie Shane, “My Boy” +2 (7/10)
22. Scotty McCreery, “You Time” 0 (5/10)
23. Kane Brown, “Worship You” -1 (4/10)
24. Garth Brooks & Trisha Yearwood, “Shallow” +1 (6/10)
25. Lee Brice, “Memory I Don’t Mess With” -1 (4/10)
26. Jameson Rodgers ft. Luke Combs, “Cold Beer Calling My Name” 0 (5/10)
27. Lady A, “Like A Lady” 0 (5/10)
28. Kenny Chesney, “Knowing You” 0 (5/10)
29. Ryan Hurd & Maren Morris, “Chasing After You” 0 (5/10)
30. Jimmie Allen & Brad Paisley, “Freedom Was A Highway” 0 (5/10)
31. Priscilla Block, “Just About Over You” 0 (5/10)
32. Old Dominion, “I Was On A Boat That Day” -2 (3/10)
33. Russell Dickerson, “Home Sweet” +1 (6/10)
34. Michael Ray, “Whiskey And Rain” 0 (5/10)
35. Jon Pardi, “Tequila Little Time” -1 (4/10)
36. Ingrid Andress, “Lady Like” +2 (7/10)
37. Callista Clark, “It’s ‘Cause I Am” -1 (4/10)
38. HARDY, “Give Heaven Some Hell” +1 (6/10)
39. Matt Stell, “That Ain’t Me No More” 0 (5/10)
40. Parker McCollum, “To Be Loved By You” -2 (3/10)
41. Dustin Lynch ft. MacKenzie Porter, “Thinking ‘Bout You” 0 (5/10)
42. Kelsea Ballerini ft. Kenny Chesney, “Half Of My Hometown” +1 (6/10)
43. Chris Janson, “Waitin’ On 5” 0 (5/10)
44. Lauren Alaina & Jon Pardi, “Getting Over Him” 0 (5/10)
45. Brett Young, “Not Yet” +1 (6/10)
46. Caitlyn Smith ft. Old Dominion, “I Can’t” 0 (5/10)
47. Riley Green, “If It Wasn’t For Trucks” -1 (4/10)
48. Chris Stapleton, “You Should Probably Leave” 0 (5/10)
49. Clay Walker, “Need A Bar Sometimes” 0 (5/10)
50. Chris Bandi, “Would Have Loved Her” +1 (6/10)
Present Pulse (#1—#25) +5
Future Pulse (#26—#50) +1
Overall Pulse +6
Change From Last Week
+3 🙂

Best Song: “Things A Man Oughta Know,” 7/10
Worst Song: “To Be Loved By You,” 3/10

Gone:

  • Jake Owen, “Made For You” (recurrent)
  • Little Big Town, “Wine, Beer, Whiskey” (recurrent)
  • LoCash, “Beers To Catch Up On” (recurrent)

Leaving:

  • Eric Church, “Hell Of A View” (down from #1 to #4)
  • Sam Hunt, “Breaking Up Was Easy In The 90s” (down from #3 to #7
  • Chris Janson, “Waitin’ On 5” (holds at #43 but still bullet-less; I still think it’s toast)

In Real Trouble:

  • Blake Shelton, “Minimum Wage” (up from #12 to #11, but loses its bullet in a surprise move)
  • Parker McCollum, “To Be Loved By You” (down from #39 to #40, loses its bullet with a nearly 400-point loss)
  • Brett Young, “Not Yet” (up from #47 to #45, but gained only forty-two spins and twenty-four points)
  • Riley Green, “If It Wasn’t For Trucks” (up from #49 to #47, but gained only six spins and sixty-three points)
  • Clay Walker, “Need A Bar Sometimes” (holds at #50, but gained only nine spins and seventy-six points)

In Some Trouble:

  • Miranda Lambert, “Settling Down” (up from #9 to #8 with a 1400+ point gain, but “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)” is scheduled to release June 14th)
  • Keith Urban and Pink, “One Too Many” (up from #13 to #12, but gained only eighteen spins and 107 points)
  • Tim McGraw & Tyler Hubbard, “Undivided” (holds at #15, but gained only fifty-four spins and fifty-one points)
  • Russell Dickerson, “Home Sweet” (up from #35 to #33, but gained only fifteen spins and 111 points)
  • Jon Pardi, “Tequila Little Time” (up from #37 to #35, but gained only twenty spins and twenty-three points)
  • Ingrid Andress, “Lady Like” (up from #38 to #36, but gained only thirteen spins and lost points)
  • Lauren Alaina and Jon Pardi, “Getting Over Him”
  • Chris Bandi, “Would Have Loved Her” (debuts at #50, but took nearly six months just to get there, and gained only sixteen spins and sixty-two points)

In No Trouble At All:

  • Dustin Lynch ft. MacKenzie Porter, “Thinking ‘Bout You” (up from #46 to #41)
  • Jimmie Allen & Brad Paisley, “Freedom Was A Highway (up from #34 to #30)
  • Callista Clark, “It’s ‘Cause I Am” (up from #41 to #37)

Is Thanos:

  • Luke Combs, “Forever After All” (holds at #2, but takes #1 on Billboard and will probably be there for the entire month)

Bubbling Under 50:

On The Way:

  • Nelly & Florida Georgia Line, “Lil Bit”
  • Elle King & Miranda Lambert, “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)”

Overall Thoughts: The loss of Rascal Flatts put the Pulse on the brink of the brink of disaster, but the subsequent collapse of Little Big Town and LoCash puts the Pulse on a bit firmer ground this week, even with the drop in Old Dominion’s preliminary grade. Still, despite the continuing turnover as spring gives way to summer, the airwaves are incredibly bland right now (nearly half the tracks have a 0 score), and I don’t have a ton of hope that what’s on the horizon will help (Nelly/FGL and King/Lambert will definitely shake things up, but said shakeups are just as apt to be negative as positive).

Truthfully, this prolonged period of “meh” has raised an existential question here at Kyle’s Korner: Is it time to pass the Pulse torch on to someone else? It’s a useful exercise (and a good place to collect my recent reviews), but as someone who’s increasingly out-of-step with mainstream radio, I don’t think I’m the right person to do it anymore. If this is something that someone out there would be interested in doing, let me know.

On the coronavirus front, whether the latest news is good or bad depends on whether you’ve been vaccinated or not:

“The [Washington] Post’s analysis concluded that the case rate among ‘susceptible, unvaccinated people is 69% higher than the standard figures being publicized. With that adjustment, the national death rate is roughly the same as it was two months ago and is barely inching down. The adjusted hospitalization rate is as high as it was three months ago. The case rate is still declining after the adjustment.'”  Shawn Vestal, The Spokesman-Review, May 31 2021

Basically, COVID-19 remains just as big a risk for unvaccinated people now as it did before, despite the rosy picture being painted by the overall numbers. This analysis is yet another reason why folks should go out and get their vaccine shots as soon as possible, and continue to wear their masks and keep their distance until then. (Side note: I received my second shot this week, and outside of some injection site soreness I’m feeling pretty good!) The coronavirus is still out wreaking havoc, so it’s imperative that as many people as possible get vaccinated so we can avoid a repeat of the nightmare that was 2020.

Should Splatoon 3 Include Voice Chat?

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and especially don’t try to fix it by breaking something.

Back In March, I listed off all the things I both expected and wanted for the next iteration of the Splatoon series, discussing topics like lore, game modes, and special weapons. Despite the post’s length, however, there was one glaring omission from the list, a feature that many have asked for over the course of the game’s lifespan: Live voice chat during online matches. (It’s technically possible to voice chat through the game “in the most convoluted manner possible,” but the barriers to it are such that it’s just easier to use a third-party solution such as Discord.)

This omission (although not addressed in the post) was intentional: I don’t want voice chat in Splatoon. Period. End of story. I’m sure it could help with team coordination during a match, but I think the potential negatives far outweigh the the positives, and said positives can be obtained via other means. Here’s what I mean:

  • First, let’s state the obvious: The Internet can be a very toxic place. Civil discourse has never been a hallmark of our networks—when people are hidden behind computer screens and pseudonyms, they tend to be a bit more caustic and uncaring in their speech. I’ve discussed the inherent toxicity with voice chat before, and many online games are notorious for the levels to which tilted players can sink when abusing their voice and text channels to abuse other players. Splatoon has mostly been able to avoid that distinction precisely because players don’t have those channels, and are limited in what they can actually say to others in the game.

This isn’t to say Splatoon doesn’t have a toxicity problem—in fact, taunting and throwing in Splatoon appear to be on the rise recently, and I know several strong players who only play Salmon Run now because of this. These issues only strengthen the argument against things like voice chat: We know that players will behave badly in given the chance, so why give them that chance in the first place?

  • The Internet can be even more toxic for certain groups. As The Negus Corner points out in the video above, women, people of color, and other marginalized groups take a lot of abuse in online gaming compared to white males. Racism, sexism, an other discriminatory feelings bubble to the surface all too easily during a game, and having a direct line of communication to other players makes it a little too easy for this bile to be directed at someone.

While I’m admittedly not as familiar with other gaming communities, one thing I’ve been impressed with has been the diversity of the Splatoon player base, including competitive standouts and content creators like ThatSRB2Dude, Kyo, Mellana, Vicvillon, JayMoji, and Etce (just to name a few). My fear is that opening up voice chat in Splatoon will force them and others to put up with even more toxicity than they likely already do, and make the community less inclusive by driving potential players away. I really like what the community has built around this game, and I fear that opening more lines of communication puts that community and those within it at risk.

  • Nintendo’s target demographic isn’t know for maturity and self-restraint. Online games are full of experienced players who really should know better than to use certain words and lash out at other people, but Nintendo’s targeting of families and younger children with its software put the company in a much riskier position. Setting aside the dangers other people may pose to these kids for a moment, younger players may say things or use certain terms without understanding the weight and the implications behind those words, simply because they’ve never learned or thought much about them.
  • Third-party tools are really good and easy to use these days, so why try to compete with them? Today, if you want to voice chat with other folks, you have to rely on services like Mumble, Discord, or even Zoom or Google Meet in a pinch. The thing is…these tools work really well, offering QoS levels that Nintendo (given its spotty track record with online functionality) would be hard-pressed to match. It also means that dedicated players have to go out of their way to set up this infrastructure and (in theory) should know who they’re chatting with, avoiding the pitfalls that come with letting complete strangers communicate.

In short, we kinda-sorta already have the voice chat functionality we need, and the extra steps required for this help ensure that those who set up voice chat have considered the risks involved and though about what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with. Built-in voice chat would just be kind of redundant.

  • Voice chat could push the game towards a more-narrow meta. There are almost 140 weapons available in Splatoon 2, but only a handful are considered viable in competitive play at any given time. Weapon selection is an easy target for those whose think you’re not pulling your weight (we see this sort of “switch from X hero to Y” complaint in Overwatch a lot), and it could cause players to think twice about selecting a weapon too far outside the meta (sure you might be good with it, and sure the mode might not actually competitive, but that won’t stop some idiot from yelling at you for the entire match because you picked the Undercover Brella). The ever-present threat of censure may lead players to take fewer chances and generally decrease strategic innovation, putting the game at risk of feeling stale and not as fun.

The bottom line is that I don’t want voice chat in Splatoon now or ever. Those who really want this feature can easily get it through other means, and adding such a thing into random matches opens up so many cans of worms that you could start a bait stand in the Boston harbor. I’d be okay with a few extra canned commands for Splatoon 3, but when it comes to voice chat, I’d rather crank up my stereo and listen to T.G. Sheppard than listen to my teammates whine.

There are so many things Nintendo can (and probably should) do to improve Splatoon 3. Let’s have them focus on those instead of shoehorning voice chat in where it isn’t needed.