Song Review: Walker Hayes, “90s Country”

Country music celebrates its past in the weirdest ways…

I cut Walker Hayes some slack on his last “Craig,” as it was fairly well-written and had a lot of heart behind it. Country radio, however, was less forgiving, as the song barely made the top sixty on Billboard’s airplay chart (oh sure, they gave plenty of airtime to the tire fire that was “You Broke Up With Me,” but now they have more-refined tastes). For his second album, Hayes and his label have decided to try to split the difference between his last two singles with “90s Country,” a slick Metro-Bro tune that declares his love to someone while name dropping every country single released in the 1990s along the way. Whiled I’d give Hayes an A for effort (I can only get so annoyed at a song that manages to pull off a Ken Mellons reference), the execution gets a bright red F, as the track winds up being more of a tribute to the sleaziest of Bro-Country than anything released during the 90s.

When a song claims to pay tribute to a style of music, the first question I ask is “Well, does it at least sound like what it’s paying tribute to?” The answer here, just as it was for Tim McGraw and Lauren Alaina, is “no.” While the 1990s had more variation in its sound than people like to admit, today it’s associated with the fiddle-and-steel-driven neotraditional sound, which served as a callback to the classic country sound of the past. This mix, in contrast, sets the tone with a slick acoustic guitar and a prominent drum machine, and while it eventually mixes in a dobro, keyboard, and some real drums, it’s a far cry from the rollicking electric guitars and crying steel guitars that defined the neotraditional movement. (There’s something that kind of sounds like a fiddle here, but it’s limited to short post-chorus riffs.) The drum machine here seems to be a double-edged sword: It’s the loudest thing in the mix, and while it sets a nice tempo and gives the song a catchy groove, it also gives the lyrics an extra coating of slime they didn’t need while singlehandedly draining away any 90s feel the track hoped to have. The writing here might be sharp enough to serve two purposes, but the production can only back one of them effectively, and it’s the wrong one.

Did I call Kip Moore “hand-down the worst vocalist in country music” last year? Because the more I hear Hayes attempt to sing, the more I question that statement. Forget having any actual tone or power to his voice; the man barely has enough breath to make it through some of the lines in this song (his gasps for air are a lot more noticeable and numerous than most artists). Likewise, his charisma is essentially nonexistent, and while elevating writing like this would be a tall task for anyone, Hayes actually makes the song sound more creepy than it would by itself. He’s got decent flow and a competent falsetto, but he’s completely incapable of making this drivel feel romantic or classy.

I think the writing is simultaneously the best and worst part of this song. On the surface, I’m actually really impressed by how well the 90s songs are weaved into the story, and they go a bit deeper than the typical George Strait & Alan Jackson references you hear all the time (Mellons, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shenandoah, etc.). Unfortunately, the story they’re woven into is a cookie-cutter “love” song that’s as grimy as anything you might have heard during the Bro-Country era. What really irks me about this song is how the lyrics take fun, playful references from the 90s and twist them into lewd, creepy innuendo. Where Jackson honorably respected   his date’s wishes when she declined to have sex, the narrator here proclaims that they “ain’t settling for no burger and no grape snow cone.” Where Kenny Chesney’s song was about a literal tractor, the hook gets reduced to a sophomoric dick joke here. When Tim McGraw said “I like it, I love it, I want some more of it,” he was covering the entire scope of his relationship, not just the sex the narrator focuses on here. This isn’t a tribute to neotraditional songs, it’s a mockery of them, and as cleverly as the song is assembled, Hayes and his co-writers should be ashamed of what they’ve wrought.

In the end, “90s Country” accomplishes exactly zero of what it set out to do. It’s both a sleazy, below-average love song and the exact opposite of a tribute to the music of the neotraditional era, and is equal parts synthetic and pathetic. If Walker Hayes wants his name to be dropped in the inevitable “2010s Country” song in two decades, he needs to shape up and step up, fast.

Rating: 3/10. Go listen to some actual 90s country instead, like this:

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Kyle’s Top 5 “Games” of 2018

The TL;DR version of this post.

Wait…this is it?

When I started Kyle’s Korner back in 2016, I originally intended to devote a ton of coverage to my Nintendo obsession, reviewing and discussing the hottest games of the day. Fast forward to today, and I’m cranking out 100+ music reviews a year with an ever-shrinking sliver of time dedicated to gaming. The issue, of course, is financial: Songs can be listened to for free on YouTube, but most games require you to pony up a decent chunk of cash before you can try them out. This was the biggest issue I ran into in 2018: There just weren’t that many games that caught my eye and demanded that I open my wallet.

So what happened? The issue seems to be that Nintendo made some strategic decisions this year that did not match my playing style at all. Two in particular stand out:

  • Continued Wii U ports. Given the Wii U’s paltry sales numbers, Nintendo decided to keep milking the console’s game library to support the Switch. As a proud Wii U owner, however, that meant that a lot of Nintendo’s releases were either games I’d already played before (Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, next year’s New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe) or games I wasn’t interested enough to try out the first time around (Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze).
  •  Focus on local multiplayer. Nintendo’s new releases this year, on the other hand, seem to be primarily focused on multiplayer experiences. Unfortunately, their spotty track record with online play continues unbated: Super Mario Tennis Aces took several months to iron out the online kinks, Super Mario Party doesn’t have much of an online mode at all, and now Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is plagued by horrible input lag. Simply put, most of Nintendo’s multiplayer content, and even some of its single-player content (looking at you, Kirby Star Allies) is best enjoyed   by a bunch of friends sitting on the same couch. That’s all well and good, but when all your local gaming friends scattered to the wind over a decade ago as mine did, it doesn’t leave you with a whole lot.

What all this ranting boils down to is that I bought a whole three new games this year (on top of a few classic 3DS releases), which makes it really hard to put together a yearly Top 5 list! Thankfully, a small tweak to my usual rules to make DLC released this year eligible helps with both quantity and quality, and at least makes the list half-decent in the end.

But that’s enough rambling. Bring out the envelopes already!

#5: Pokémon Let’s Go! Eevee (Nintendo Switch)

As much as I love Pokémon, I expected a lot more from its debut on the Switch. The game just lacked the level of polish I expect from a Nintendo first-party title: The performance issues I suffered through in Pokémon Moon were still present (and don’t even me started on the awful motion controls), features that didn’t match the game’s tone were included while others that did were restricted or omitted completely, and the online modes felt incredibly random (again, the game felt geared towards local multiplayer rather than online play).

The usual Pokémon charm is still here, and seeing battles in true HD was neat for a while, but after so many trips through the Kanto region, there just wasn’t enough here to keep my interest. I vastly preferred this summer’s Nuzlocke run of Pokémon FireRed over this title, and if it weren’t for the lack of games that were eligible for this list, I wouldn’t have included it here at all.

Image from IGN

#4: Donkey Kong Adventure, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle (Nintendo Switch)

I was a big fan of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, and the Donkey Kong DLC offers a nice balance of “more of the same” and some crazy new twists that force you to rethink your tactics. This time around, the objectives are more varied, the enemies have some new tricks up their sleeve, and the characters are a bit more specialized than the all-around, throw-them-into-any-situation protagonists from the original game. Throw in a moderately-quirky story based around Rabbid Kong, and you’ve got a recipe for about 20 extra hours of engaging gameplay.

Its short duration and awkward character kits (for someone who has to up close and personal to do damage, DK is surprisingly squishy) keeps it from getting any higher on this year’s list, but mark my words: If you owned the original game, you’ll definitely enjoy this expansion pack.

Image from Eurogamer

#3: Octopath Traveler (Nintendo Switch)

As much as I liked Paper Mario: Color Splash and the G7 Pokémon games, I still felt like Nintendo was missing a truly classic RPG game, one that could take its place among the SNES-era giants like Final Fantasy and Super Mario RPG. With Square making its ballyhooed return to Nintendo hardware, my hope was that Octopath Traveler could be that game, and…well, it almost was.

There’s a lot to like about OT: The incredible character design (especially some of the villians), the variety of storylines (some surprisingly deep and dark, others a bit more happy or conventional)and above all the excellent combat system with its dual-class options and Boost Point system. While the difficulty jumps made grinding a necessity at times (H’annit’s final battle stood out as particularly nasty), grinding never felt like a chore or a burden thanks to the Boost and Break systems: You find your enemy’s weakness, and you pound the living heck out of it. All the elements are here to make this a truly classic RPG.

So why isn’t it one? Unfortunately, the game’s toughest foe was the peak-end rule: The peak was high, but the end was a real letdown. The game spent so much time weaving together the stories of the eight protagonists and hinting at some unifying themes that would bring everything together in one incredible climax, and then…nothing. Sure, if you look around hard enough and complete the right sidequests, you might eventually find a unifying fight and a boss rush full of lore, but hiding it behind a series of side quests and leaving players hanging after completing all eight storylines feels way more convoluted than it should have been. This poor design decision keeps it off of the RPG Mount Rushmore for me, and leaves the door open for two games to sneak by it and take this year’s crown.

Image from the Reno Gazette Journal

#2: Octo Expansion, Splatoon 2 (Nintendo Switch)

I’m a sucker for anything Splatoon 2, but even without its Octarian exterior this is be one of the most fun experiences I’ve had all year. While it’s just an extended single-player campaign at its core, Octo Expansion builds off of all the new mechanics introduced in the original game to create some memorable (and challenging) minigames.

These aren’t the large platforming levels from the Agent 4 campaign (though there are some levels like that, and they’re awesome). Instead, these are often shorter, skill-based challenges that use every weapon-based skill at your disposal to test your mettle. Think you defeat an Agent 4-era miniboss using only a baller? Are you good enough with a charger to play pool with a few 8 Balls? Can you avoid taking damage from enemy ink for an entire stage, dodge an unending wave of snipers and bowling balls for thirty seconds? If you want to beat them all, you’re going to have to take your game to a new level.

Of course, not all of the levels are winners: Some are incredibly tedious (do I really have to spend 20 minutes carving a figure out of boxes with a charger?), some are overly simple (playing Tic-Tac-Toe with 8 Balls? Really?), and some are teeth-grindingly ferocious (how many freaking Octolings do I have to fight off to protect this stupid orb?). Unlike Octopath Traveler, however, the ending is worth the payoff, as you have to platform your way up a tall tower (sometimes without a weapon at all!), defend yourself against the possessed protagonist from the original Splatoon, and eventually coat the head of a large human statue in ink to keep a sentient AI program from blowing up the world. Who has time to think about the Ruins of Hornburg when you’ve got fifteen seconds to find Marina’s last Hyperbomb?

Sadly, just as Splatoon 2 was upset by Miitopia on last year’s list, Octo Expansion is denied the top spot this year, beaten by a crazy fusion of genres that I never saw coming.

#1: Dragon Quest Builders

While I’m constantly in awe at some of the things people build in Minecraft, I’ve never had much of a taste for the game myself. I’ve enjoyed my past forays into Dragon Quest, however, so when Dragon Quest Builders came out, I thought “What the heck, I’ll give it a shot.” It was definitely the right call.

Yes, the combat system is clunkier than it should be, and certain features that are ripped straight from Minecraft don’t really serve a purpose. Don’t let the cutesy art style fool you, however: There’s a lot more of Octopath Traveler in here than you might think. The characters are alternatively humorous and heart-wrenching (and they’re always memorable), the story was excellent and dove into some really dark places (Chapter 2’s plague story, in which you end up having to slaughter some of the very villagers you saved an hour ago, was masterfully executed and might be the most a video game has moved me since I watch Aeris die in FF7), and the Builder is funnier than a silent protagonist has any right to be (who the heck talks back to an all-powerful deity?). The construction and RPG elements meshed surprisingly well (even if the fortress areas felt too constraining at times), and the end result was a final boss battle that was both hectic and exciting.

If I’m being real, I’m not even sure Dragon Quests Builders or anything else here makes my list at all if it comes out in 2017, and had I declared Pokémon Ultra Sun eligible for this list (it came out last year, but my review got pushed back to January), it would have been a no-doubt runaway #1. This year’s field is what it is, however, and DQB is the best among its 2018 competition.

2019 promises to bring some stronger contenders next time around (Yoshi’s Crafted WorldG8 PokémonLuigi’s Mansion 3, and even Dragon Quest Builders 2), but I’ll only say this: If Mario Maker 2 comes out, it’s automatically my #1 game, no questions asked. Please Nintendo, make this happen!

The Current Pulse of Mainstream Country Music: December 9, 2018

Several years ago, Josh Schott started a weekly feature on the now-defunct 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 official numbers are from Mediabase’s weekly chart publication. Without further ado, let’s crunch some numbers!

Song Score
1. Mitchell Tenpenny, “Drunk Me” 0 (5/10)
2. Kane Brown, “Lose It” +1 (6/10)
3. Dan + Shay, “Speechless” 0 (5/10)
4. Luke Combs, “She Got The Best Of Me” +2 (7/10)
5. Jimmie Allen, “Best Shot” +2 (7/10)
6. Dierks Bentley ft. Brothers Osborne, “Burning Man” +3 (8/10)
7. Dustin Lynch, “Good Girl” 0 (5/10)
8. Kip Moore, “Last Shot” -2 (3/10)
9. Thomas Rhett, “Sixteen” +2 (7/10)
10. Blake Shelton, “Turnin’ Me On” -1 (4/10)
11. Scotty McCreery, “This Is It” +1 (6/10)
12. Jason Aldean, “Girl Like You” (5/10)
13. Eric Church, “Desperate Man” +1 (6/10)
14. Chris Stapleton, “Millionaire” 0 (5/10)
15. Midland, “Burn Out” +5 (10/10)
16. Luke Bryan, “What Makes You Country” (5/10)
17. Jordan Davis, “Take It From Me” -2 (3/10)
18. Riley Green, “There Was This Girl” +1 (6/10)
19. Jake Owen, “Down To The Honkytonk” -1 (4/10)
20. Tim McGraw, “Neon Church” 0 (5/10)
21. Maren Morris, “Rich” -1 (4/10)
22. Michael Ray, “One That Got Away” -4 (1/10)
23. Keith Urban, “Never Comin’ Down” -2 (3/10)
24. Jon Pardi, “Night Shift” 0 (5/10)
25. Carrie Underwood, “Love Wins” +3 (8/10)
26. Old Dominion, “Make It Sweet” (5/10)
27. Kenny Chesney ft. Mindy Smith, “Better Boat” +2 (7/10)
28. Tyler Rich, “The Difference” 0 (5/10)
29. Cody Johnson, “On My Way To You” +1 (6/10)
30. Brett Young, “Here Tonight” +1 (6/10)
31. Eli Young Band, “Love Ain’t” -1 (4/10)
32. Chase Rice, “Eyes On You” 0 (5/10)
33. Kelsea Ballerini, “Miss Me More” +4 (9/10)
34. Brett Eldredge, “Love Someone” 0 (5/10)
35. Granger Smith, “You’re In It” 0 (5/10)
36. Rodney Atkins ft. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, “Caught Up In The Country” -3 (2/10)
37. Luke Combs, “Beautiful Crazy” +1 (6/10)
38. Travis Denning, “David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs” 0 (5/10)
39. LoCash, “Feels Like A Party” -2 (3/10)
40. Rascal Flatts, “Back To Life” +1 (6/10)
41. Randy Houser ft. Hillary Lindsey, “What Whiskey Does” -1 (4/10)
42. Lee Brice, “Rumor” (5/10)
43. Morgan Wallen, “Whiskey Glasses” -1 (4/10)
44. Runaway June, “Buy My Own Drinks” +2 (7/10)
45. Maddie & Tae, “Friends Don’t” -1 (4/10)
46. Florida Georgia Line, “Talk You Out Of It” -1 (4/10)
47. Brandon Lay, “Yada Yada Yada” -1 (4/10)
48. Billy Currington, “Bring It On Over” -1 (4/10)
49. Morgan Evans, “Day Drunk” -1 (4/10)
50. Brad Paisley, “Bucked Off” +3 (8/10)
Present Pulse (#1—#25) +8
Future Pulse (#26—#50) +2
Overall Pulse +10
Change From Last Week 0

Best Song: “Burn Out,” 10/10
Worst Song: “One That Got Away,” 1/10
Mode Score: 0 (15 songs)

Gone:

  • None!

Leaving:

  • Kane Brown, “Lose It” (down from #1 to #2)
  • Jimmie Allen, “Best Shot” (down from #2 to #5)
  • Eric Church, “Desperate Man” (max-spin week is over)
  • Maren Morris, “Rich” (down from #10 to #21)
  • Travis Denning, “David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs” (down from #33 to #38)

Death Watch:

  • Kip Moore, “Last Shot” (down from #6 to #8, passed by Bentley and Lynch, has Rhett right on his heels, and nothing above it is going quietly. 45 weeks in, this thing has officially run out of juice)
  • Tyler Rich, “The Difference” (holds at #28 with a decent week and didn’t get passed for a change! Still, after 31 weeks it’s too little, too late)
  • Granger Smith, “You’re In It” (down from #34 to #35, lost its bullet, and was passed by Ballerini and Eldredge. Has this thing finally reached the end?)
  • Rodney Atkins ft. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, “Caught Up In The Country (down from #35 to #36, gains only nineteen spins and less than 125 points, and was also blown away by Ballerini and Eldredge. It’s time for Curb to stop beating a dead horse)

In Real Trouble:

  • Blake Shelton, “Turnin’ Me On” (up from #11 to #10, but lost its bullet and took substantial spin and point losses. This thing was on fire not that long ago; what happened?)
  • Randy Houser ft. Hillary Lindsay, “What Whiskey Does” (down from #38 to #41, gained one spin and 22 points this week, and passed by three songs)
  • Maddie & Tae, “Friends Don’t” (down from #43 to #45 after gaining only twenty spins and twenty-two points this week, and hits the ten-week mark outside the Top 40)
  • Brandon Lay, “Yada Yada Yada” (down from #46 to #47, lost spins and gained only eight points this week)

In Some Trouble:

  • Jordan Davis, “Take It From Me” (holds at #17 after a surprisingly-weak week of gains)
  • Jake Owen, “Down To The Honkytonk” (up from #20 to #19, but lost its bullet and took some serious losses this week)
  • Eli Young Band, “Love Ain’t” (holds at #31, but suffered a triple-digit point loss this week)
  • If you’re at #40 or below and aren’t named Lee Brice, you had a rough week (especially Evans and Paisley).

In No Trouble At All:

  • Luke Combs (“Beautiful Crazy” jumped ten spots, and by the time it reaches the Top Ten, “She Got The Best Of Me” will probably still be there!)
  • Mitchell Tenpenny, “Drunk Me” (up from #5 to #1, but expect it to crash hard next week)
  • Kelsea Ballerini, “Miss Me More” (up from #37 to #33)

Bubbling Under 50:

On The Way:

WTF:

  • Justin Timberlake, “Can’t Stop The Feeling” (reappears in the 100s?)

Overall Thoughts: Oh wow…it looks like Santa is bringing the chart a plunger for Christmas this year, and a lot of songs are ho-ho-holding on for dear life.

The holidays always bring back of bunch of old standards that wreak havoc with station playlists, but some of the songs that suffered the most from this transition were surprising. Shelton and Owen went from racing up the charts to losing their bullets, and there were a lot more point losses than usual among the chart contenders (throw out Brown, Allen, Combs, and Morris, and there are still seven point-losers out there). Thankfully, the craziness also loosened the hold of several songs I’ve been waiting to see fall for a while now (Smith, Denning), so this should be good news for the overall Pulse score moving forward.

I didn’t think Tenpenny had enough left to grab the #1 slot, but apparently Columbia Nashville took one look at Santa’s sleigh, said “nope,” and powered up “Drunk Me” to get rid of it before the real chaos started. (His “thank you radio!” ad is in Country Aircheck this week, so expect Dan + Shay to grab #1 next week and sit there for a while.) Brown, Allen, and Combs continue to give the chart a severe case of constipation, but I’m not sure if that trend will continue into 2019. Bentley, Lynch, Rhett, McCreery, and Aldean all look really strong right now (oh hey, suddenly Luke Bryan’s lurking there too) and will likely push the aforementioned trio into recurrency, but then they’ll all have slow, constipating falls of their own.

Overall, I’m optimistic about the direction of the chart right now, but I think we’re going to see a big flush come January.

So what do you think? Are the numbers better or worse than you expected? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Song Review: The Pistol Annies, “Got My Name Changed Back”

Looks like The Pistol Annies are still firing blanks.

The supergroup trio of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley lasted a short two years before going on hiatus back in 2013, but with very little going in the careers of all three women right now, they decided to get the band back together in 2018 and release a new album Interstate Gospel, with “Got My Name Changed Back” serving as the leadoff single. The song hasn’t made much of an impact on the radio since its release in late October, and while Saving Country Music has some interesting theories about what went wrong, I’d argue that a major reason it’s floundering it because it’s a confusing mess of a song and contains a ton of questionable production decisions, all of which leave the listener feeling ambivalent about the track when it’s done.

Seriously, is Lambert cursed to work with incompetent producers for the rest of her career? Let’s start with the (lack of) instruments: The song opens with a sticks-only beat that eventually grows into a full drum set, and is driven primarily by a nondescript electric guitar and a lively dobro (an acoustic guitar also pops up occasionally). It’s a decidedly old-school (but not quite traditional) arrangement, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it…except that the song is surprisingly short and has a very repetitive structure, similar to what you hear in a lot of bluegrass songs. Whereas bluegrass songs usually have a wealth of instruments to fill in the blanks, however, this song is left with just the electric axe and dobro to carry the mail and take a second turn trading the lead, and even the dobro gets old after this kind of overexposure. Furthermore, there seems to be a moment of confusion between the two instruments during the second round of handoffs, as there are a good six-eight measures where the pair don’t seem to know who should be taking the lead (the guitar just kind of fakes it until the dobro finally steps forward). Throw in the intro that’s too long and the outro that’s uninteresting and unnecessary, and you’ve got at least thirty seconds of wasted time that should have been cut out (and this from a song that’s not even three minutes as is!). Despite all these issues, the mix manages to generate enough raw, angry energy to complement the lyrics, and the drums (despite being a bit too loud in the mix) do a nice job driving the song forward and making it as catchy as it is. Still, given all the problems she ran into on The Weight Of These Wings, I think it’s time for Lambert to step behind the mixing board and start handling her own production.

Calling this track a Pistol Annies song is like calling anything Florida Georgia Line does a two-person effort: Lambert is basically the only vocalist here, with Monroe and Presley inexplicably relegated to doing background “yeah yeahs” and a little bridge harmony. Thankfully, this is the best Lambert has sounded in quite some time, as her forceful, lively performance here is reminiscent of some of her early-career work. Her range isn’t tested, but there are some real tongue-busters stuffed into the writing (we’ll get into that later), and Lambert shows off some impressive flow by effortlessly navigating through the minefields. I don’t find her to be a terribly sympathetic character in the narrator’s shoes, but again that feels more like a issue with the writing than with Lambert herself, and she’s able to pass her energy along to the audience if not her emotion. I’d like to her more of this from Lambert (and more of anything from Monroe and Presley) in the future.

We’ve already touched on the issues with the writing, but let’s recap them here:

  • It’s really short, to the point where it only feels like half of a song.
  • It’s really repetitive, especially once you reach the outro.
  • It tries to cram too many words into a line on occasion, especially in the first verse.
  • It sends mixed messages about exactly why the narrator “got my name changed back.” They start by claiming it was a personal decision (“I wanted something new, then I wanted what I had”), but then spend the rest of the song hinting at partner infidelity (“he got along good with a couple road whores”), so…which is it? If it’s the former, then why the combative tone and the schadenfreude on the bridge? If it’s the latter, then why open with a line that makes it feel like the narrator just changed their mind? The confusion leaves the audience a little unsure of who to root for in this battle, blunting the song’s impact.

It’s an interesting take on a well-worn topic and features a little cleverness in its hook callbacks (the court and DMV lines are pretty solid), but there’s just not enough quantity or quality here to really make this track memorable.

“Got My Name Changed Back” has its merits, but overall there are more misses than hits here. The production is sloppy and poorly-planned, the vocals limit the Pistol Annies to one third of their star power, and the writing features too much brevity and not enough clarity. I’m not sure how many shots are left in that six shooter, but if the Pistol Annies are looking to make an impact on the radio, they need to find some stronger material and personnel to work with, and fast.

Rating: 5/10. Skip it.

Song Review: Devin Dawson, “Dark Horse”

MR. DAWSON:

People always ask why I wear black
Where’d I get my style and why I never smile in pictures…

MRS. WOODRUFF:

Senator Bentson?

SEN. BENTSEN:

Sir, I listened to Johnny Cash. I owned his records. He was a friend of mine. Sir, you’re no Johnny Cash.

Country radio will give a debut #1 to just about anyone these days, but apparently Devin Dawson doesn’t even qualify as “just about anyone”: His debut “All On Me” couldn’t eke out a #1 on either major country chart (he got stuck at #2 on both Billboard and Mediabase), and he hit the rookie wall hard with his follow-up single “Asking For A Friend,” which crashed and burned at #52. With his career already at a crossroads, Dawson decided to take a page from Eric Church’s playbook and bill himself as an Nashville outsider with “Dark Horse,” the third single from the album of the same name. While it’s actually a decent song that taps into the powerful sentiment of feeling different or out of step with the mainstream, the lyrics also write checks that Dawson can’t cash, using loaded terms and references and pushing an “outlaw” narrative when right now Dawson isn’t even Justin Moore, let along Waylon or Willie. At its core, it’s an ambitious track that does some good things, but it also stretches itself too thin and doesn’t land all of its punches.

The production has an extremely moody and contemplative feel to it, one that reminds me of a lot of turn-of-the-millenium pop music. The primary instrument here is a slick electric guitar that sounds like it was stolen from Three Doors Down and run through the washing machine a few times to give it a slightly cleaner and brighter sound, and aside from some atmospheric tones and an effected drum set that jumps in at the second verse, that’s basically all you get. (A keyboard adds some background noise during the solo, but is otherwise inaudible.) Despite its minimalist approach, the mix has a real heaviness to it, lending its weight to the lyrics to make them feel serious and lead the listener to really ruminate on them. The energy level is strictly managed here, with enough punch to keep the song from bogging down but also measured enough to not distract the audience from the speaker’s message. It’s got a very different feel from a lot of what you’ll hear on the radio today, which is exactly what you want if you’re billing yourself as a “Dark Horse.”

Dawson throws down a solid performance on this song, but the writing sets him up for failure by asking way too much of his charisma. His range and flow aren’t really tested, but his raspy, serious tone gives him the feel of a person who’s really seen some sh…er, stuff in his day, and makes him feel earnest and believable in the narrator’s role. However, while he leaves no doubt that he is an “outsider” or “dark horse,” bringing up the “outlaw” label (and all its related baggage) is a bridge too far for me, especially for a new artists with all of three singles to his name (all of which feature a slick, modern sound that feels like the exact opposite of “outlaw”). Dawson has shown himself to be a talented artist, but drawing a direct comparison to Johnny freaking Cash in the opening lines is a tall task for anyone to live up to, let alone a singer like Dawson.

As you’ve likely already deduced, most of my concerns about the song stem from the writing, which (over)sells Dawson as an independent, outside-the-mainstream person who doesn’t engage in the sorts of behaviors (drinking, church-going, romantic advances) that are expected of him. On that level, the message is quite powerful: In today’s fractured society, there are a lot of people who feel out of place and different from those around them, and the song is basically saying that it’s okay to be true to yourself and not fit nicely into societal stereotypes. (There are darker sides to this sentiment, of course, but the writing mostly sidesteps these landmines…although I get a whiff of a “sexually-frustrated male” odor from the back half of the second verse.) There’s also some telling meta-commentary as well: Up to this point, Dawson has been pointedly rejected as a “mainstream Nashville star,” and the song is essentially his response that he’s totally okay with that. Overall, the song is aimed to be a positive affirmation of our differences, and I’m cool with that.

Where the track falls apart, however, is when it tries to take the extra step and explicitly claim the fabled “outlaw” label for the narrator:

People always ask why I wear black
Where’d I get my style and why I never smile in pictures…

My heart bleeds for country music
Where the honest outlaw truth is…

(For those who aren’t familiar with Cash’s work, the first few lines above are a direct reference to his iconic song “Man In Black.”)

First of all, there’s more than a hint of irony present when a song about rejecting conventional labels tries to claim what has become a pretty conventional label. More importantly, however, the term “outlaw” is loaded with both sonic and lifestyle stereotypes, featuring a rougher, hard-driving sound and reckless behaviors that often cross over into dangerous territory (and often require penance and salvation afterwards). In contrast, the song here has a slick, Metropolitan-esque sound and explicitly eschews some of these behaviors (drinking is downplayed, and the formal trappings of religion are eschewed completely). Being an outlaw in country music requires a certain amount of gravitas, rebellious experience, and a certain level of punch to your songs, and only two artists active today (Eric Church and Dierks Bentley) can even think about claiming the title today. (Give Ashley McBryde a few more years, however, and she might be right there with them.) Dawson has neither the sound nor the service time to be branded an outlaw, and the writers should have known better than to saddle him with an albatross he’s not ready to bear yet.

“Dark Horse” might be a great song for Davin Dawson in 2023, but in 2018 it feels like a premature labeling of him an against-the-grain artist. There’s still a lot to like here, however, as it offers a level of self-reflection and acceptance that’s rarely seen in the genre these days (most songs don’t go farther than claiming “Oh, I am so country!” Sound familiar, Luke Bryan?). It’s the song that declares it’s okay to be different, and given the bland predictability of a lot of newer country artists, I’m more than happy to hear a little difference on the radio right now. (Along those lines, can we finally address the genre’s gender imbalance now?)

Rating: 6/10. Give it a few spins and see how it make you feel.

Splatoon 2 Is Complete. Where Does Nintendo Go From Here?

Image from Nintendo Life

With the arrival of version 4.3, Nintendo has declared Splatoon 2 an officially finished product, with no future additions planned besides minor balance tweaks. On the day of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate taking over the planet, I decided to take stock of what we ended up getting in the second iteration of Nintendo’s colorful shooter, and see where direction the franchise might take in the future.

First things first: As usual, my predictions from my last Splatoon 2 post were not terribly accurate. I called a few new Kensa weapon packages and the inclusion of the Ruins of Ark Polaris for Salmon Run, but neither the new Ink Battle map nor the Octoling hairstyle options I foresaw materialized. (In truth, I knew my Ink Battle map prediction was toast the moment I tried to take pictures with an amiibo and realized that 23 maps + Inkopolis Square fit perfectly onto two screens.) This gives us a good starting point for Splatoon 3:

  • Include Octolings from the start, and give them as many customization options as the Inklings: They’re DLC now, but they should be full-fledged citizens in the next game, and they deserve the same treatment as their predecessors.

Now, let’s consider the jump from Splatoon to Splatoon 2 for a moment. The biggest thing to notice is there was a lot more there there in the sequel:

Splatoon Splatoon 2
Characters Inklings Inklings and Octolings
Single-Player Modes 1 (Agent 3) 2 (Agents 4 and 8)
Ranked Modes 3 4
Horde Mode None Salmon Run (5 maps)
Amiibos 8 8 (+ Smash Bros. Inkling)
Maps 16 23 (+ Shifty Stations)
Abilities 24 26
Weapons 91 127
Sub Weapons 10 13
Special Weapons 6 + 4 Bomb Rushes 10 + 5 Bomb Rushes
Headgear 70 144
Clothing 121 258
Footwear 67 153

One possibility is to continue this trend into Splatoon 3, and just have more of everything Splatoon 2 had. However, I think certain items (especially clothing) have reached the point where there’s just too many options to ever use them all. (Then again, we hit that point in Smash Bros. years ago and no one seemed to care…) Therefore, I think to take these on a case-by-case basis:

  • The number of Ink Battle Maps should increase to 35-40, with a 60-40 split between new and old maps. Fresh new maps get people excited, and old maps placate longtime fans (of which we can officially claim exist now) of the series.
  • The number of maps available during to usual two-hour period should be increased from two to three. With so many maps available, players may end up going weeks without seeing certain ones in the rotation, so this increases the chances that people will get to play on all the maps. We know it’s possible thanks to current Splatfests, so now we just need to make the change permanent.
  • All four Ranked game modes should return, and a fifth one should be added. That’s pretty much what happened in Splatoon 2, so I would continue the tradition in Splatoon 3. Five remains a manageable number of game modes, and it helps ensure that people will encounter a game mode they like more often (I’m for anything that makes Clam Blitz show up less often…).
  • Gear additions should be minimal, and main gear abilities should be completely untethered from items (and should be available in-game, not in-app). Gear seems to be running into the same problem as Pokémon: New stuff gets people excited, but there’s already so much out there that a bunch of it is bound to get ignored (but heaven help you if you get rid of anything, because everything has a die-hard fanbase that’s as rabid and dedicated as a congressional lobbying group). Any gear additions in Splatoon 3 should be minimal, and the focus should be on allowing items to have customizable main/sub gear abilities that let people get whatever stat boosters they want on anything (and thus gear choices can be based completely on freshness, the way it should be). Annie’s shop should be promoted back to a physical location in the new plaza, and she should offer the ability to change main gear abilities for a (substantial) fee.
  • In fact, let’s get rid of the smartphone app entirely, and make all of the statistical information available in the main game. The Nintendo Switch app remains pretty useless at this point, with SplatNet being the only reason people would actually install it. Unless Smash World takes off (and frankly, it doesn’t look very interesting right now), the Big N should just cut its losses, ditch the app, and make the data from SplatNet easily accessible through the main Splatoon game (maybe as a ‘record house’ somewhere in the plaza?). I like having access to the data, but I don’t like having to use the app to get it, especially when said app serves no other useful purpose.
  • The game should add a new weapon class or two to switch up the meta and give players something new to master. The game’s been pretty good about increasing combat diversity over time (Sloshers, Splatlings, Brella, Duelies, etc.), and honestly, I’m blanking on any obvious additions to the current weapon types. I’m sure some are out there, however, and a snazzy new class or two for Splatoon 3 would help add replay value (more weapons to mess around with!) and also give people more opportunities to use some of the late-added subs and specials by including them in more kits.
  • On the other hand, I’m pretty happy with the sub and special weapons right now, so I wouldn’t make any changes unless the idea is really cool. I wasn’t terribly impressed with the new sub weapons included in the Kensa collections, so I think we’ve reached a decent balance with the options we have now. On the special side, while I’d still be okay with bringing Echolocator back (especially since merging Cold Blooded with Bomb Defense Up was the only way to make Cold Blooded actually useful), I think we’ve got a good crop of special weapons as is, and since I’m assuming the control paradigm will not shift the way it between the Wii U and the Switch beween Splatoon 2 and Splatoon 3, there’s no need to throw them all away and start over again.
  • While Abilities still need a little tweaking around the edges, they can jump over to Splatoon 3 mostly intact. It’s a bit early to judge Bomb Defense Up DX and Main Power Up, but otherwise most every other Ability seems to have found a niche in the current meta. Respawn Punisher is the one ability I might throw out (it’s the only one that has negative consequences), but even that can be useful in the right context (and thanks to SplatNet, you can avoid it if you don’t like it).

Finally, let’s talk about what Splatoon 2 can learn from other games in the genre. Specifically, I’m thinking about Fortnite‘s new Creative Mode, which allows players to customize their environment and design different minigames. While I probably wouldn’t go full-on Minecraft with Splatoon 2, I wouldn’t mind a mode that allows players full customization of the rules (times, weapons, even whether splatting is allowed or not), letting players put together Hide-and-Seek, Laser Tag, or simple squid parties that anyone can join. I seem to keep getting stuck in these awkward half-battle, half-party matches that are no fun for anyone, so giving players a dedicated space to interact and play in peace (while letting the diehard battlers do their thing as well) seems like a huge step forward.

  • Include a ‘custom’ game mode (with full rule control) that anyone can join, not just friends. That way, players can say “Hey, I want to do X today with Y rules,” and find other people doing exactly that.

In short, while I think Splatoon 2 is a mostly-complete game with lots of options and customizations, there’s definitely some room for growth for the franchise in Splatoon 3 and beyond. (Can’t wait for Splatoon Ultimate in another decade!) I’m content with the present, but I’m also very excited for the future.

The Current Pulse of Mainstream Country Music: December 2, 2018

Several years ago, Josh Schott started a weekly feature on the now-defunct 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 official numbers are from Mediabase’s weekly chart publication. Without further ado, let’s crunch some numbers!

Song Score
1. Kane Brown, “Lose It” +1 (6/10)
2. Jimmie Allen, “Best Shot” +2 (7/10)
3. Luke Combs, “She Got The Best Of Me” +2 (7/10)
4. Dan + Shay, “Speechless” 0 (5/10)
5. Mitchell Tenpenny, “Drunk Me” 0 (5/10)
6. Kip Moore, “Last Shot” -2 (3/10)
7. Dustin Lynch, “Good Girl” 0 (5/10)
8. Dierks Bentley ft. Brothers Osborne, “Burning Man” +3 (8/10)
9. Thomas Rhett, “Sixteen” +2 (7/10)
10. Maren Morris, “Rich” -1 (4/10)
11. Blake Shelton, “Turnin’ Me On” -1 (4/10)
12. Scotty McCreery, “This Is It” +1 (6/10)
13. Jason Aldean, “Girl Like You” (5/10)
14. Eric Church, “Desperate Man” +1 (6/10)
15. Chris Stapleton, “Millionaire” 0 (5/10)
16. Midland, “Burn Out” +5 (10/10)
17. Jordan Davis, “Take It From Me” -2 (3/10)
18. Luke Bryan, “What Makes You Country” (5/10)
19. Riley Green, “There Was This Girl” +1 (6/10)
20. Jake Owen, “Down To The Honkytonk” -1 (4/10)
21. Tim McGraw, “Neon Church” 0 (5/10)
22. Michael Ray, “One That Got Away” -4 (1/10)
23. Jon Pardi, “Night Shift” 0 (5/10)
24. Keith Urban, “Never Comin’ Down” -2 (3/10)
25. Carrie Underwood, “Love Wins” +3 (8/10)
26. Kenny Chesney ft. Mindy Smith, “Better Boat” +2 (7/10)
27. Old Dominion, “Make It Sweet” (5/10)
28. Tyler Rich, “The Difference” 0 (5/10)
29. Cody Johnson, “On My Way To You” +1 (6/10)
30. Brett Young, “Here Tonight” +1 (6/10)
31. Eli Young Band, “Love Ain’t” -1 (4/10)
32. Chase Rice, “Eyes On You” 0 (5/10)
33. Travis Denning, “David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs” 0 (5/10)
34. Granger Smith, “You’re In It” 0 (5/10)
35. Rodney Atkins ft. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, “Caught Up In The Country” -3 (2/10)
36. Brett Eldredge, “Love Someone” 0 (5/10)
37. Kelsea Ballerini, “Miss Me More” +4 (9/10)
38. Randy Houser ft. Hillary Lindsey, “What Whiskey Does” -1 (4/10)
39. LoCash, “Feels Like A Party” -2 (3/10)
40. Rascal Flatts, “Back To Life” +1 (6/10)
41. Morgan Wallen, “Whiskey Glasses” -1 (4/10)
42. Lee Brice, “Rumor” (5/10)
43. Maddie & Tae, “Friends Don’t” -1 (4/10)
44. Runaway June, “Buy My Own Drinks” +2 (7/10)
45. Florida Georgia Line, “Talk You Out Of It” -1 (4/10)
46. Brandon Lay, “Yada Yada Yada” -1 (4/10)
47. Luke Combs, “Beautiful Crazy” +1 (6/10)
48. Brad Paisley, “Bucked Off” +3 (8/10)
49. Morgan Evans, “Day Drunk” -1 (4/10)
50. Billy Currington, “Bring It On Over” -1 (4/10)
Present Pulse (#1—#25) +8
Future Pulse (#26—#50) +2
Overall Pulse +10
Change From Last Week +2 🙂

Best Song: “Burn Out,” 10/10
Worst Song: “One That Got Away,” 1/10
Mode Score: 0 (15 songs)

Gone:

  • Chris Young, “Hangin’ On” (recurrent)
  • Garth Brooks, “All Day Long (recurrent)
  • Carlton Anderson, “Drop Everything” (who cares as long as it’s gone)

Leaving:

  • Jimmie Allen, “Best Shot” (down from #1 to #2)
  • Maren Morris, “Rich” (down from #2 to #10)

Death Watch:

  • Kip Moore, “Last Shot” (up from #8 to #6, but after 44 weeks on the chart with some strong competition behind it, has it hit its ceiling?)
  • Tyler Rich, “The Difference” (holds at #28 and has a decent week for a change, but—say it with me now—it was passed by another song. After 30 weeks on the chart, it’s time to make like Queen Elsa and let it go)
  • Rodney Atkins ft. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, “Caught Up In The Country (up from #36 to #35 with yet another weak week of gaina. After thirty weeks on the chart, this needs to join “The Difference” on the scrap heap)

In Real Trouble:

  • Travis Denning, “David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs” (holds at #33 after another awful week of gains)
  • Granger Smith, “You’re In It” (holds at #34 after a week that was only slightly better than Denning’s, and nowhere near good)
  • Maddie & Tae, “Friends Don’t” (up from #44 to #43 despite gaining only seven spins and less than 55 points this week)
  • Brandon Lay, “Yada Yada Yada” (up from #47 to #46 and barely regains its bullet, but gains only twelve spins and 26 points, and is about to get steamrolled by Combs and Paisley)

In Some Trouble:

  • Tim McGraw, “Neon Church” (up from #22 to #21 but gained only three spins and lost points this week, and has stagnated over the last month or so)
  • Kenny Chesney ft. Mindy Smith, “Better Boat” (down from #24 to #26, gains only eighteen spins and lost points this week, and has tire tracks from Pardi, Urban, and Underwood on its back)
  • Rascal Flatts, “Back To Life” (holds at #40 after gaining only 36 spins and less than 100 points this week)
  • Morgan Evans, “Day Drunk” (up from #50 to #49 but gained only 34 spins and lost points this week, and was passed by Combs and Paisley)

In No Trouble At All:

  • Luke Combs (the man has two songs in the Top 50, and “She Got The Best Of Me” went up from #4 to #3 this week and may never leave!)
  • Jason Aldean, “Girl Like You” (up from #18 to #13)
  • Dustin Lynch, “Good Girl” (up from #11 to #7)
  • Runaway June, “Buy My Own Drinks” (up from #48 to #44)
  • Florida Georgia Line, “Talk You Out Of It” (up from #49 to #45)
  • Brad Paisley, “Bucked Off” (up from #52 to #48)

Bubbling Under 50:

On The Way:

WTF:

  • Ed Sheeran, “Shape Of You” (appears at #98?)

Overall Thoughts: Welp, so much for my future in fortune-telling. Jimmie Allen did not hold the #1 slot, Chris Young stopped “Hangin’ On” and went recurrent, and Maren Morris lost her bid for the #1 crown to Kane Brown and is now sliding towards the exit herself. (For his part, with Allan and Combs fading and Dan + Shay at least two weeks away from #1, things look pretty good for Brown right now.)

While I do think Brown’s eventual exit will be slow like Allen’s and Combs’s, I see some a bit more action coming to the top of the charts next week: Morris will be gone, Church (who’s now calling for a max-spin week in Country Aircheck) will be on his way out, and a trio of strong contenders (Lynch, Bentley, and Rhett) are steaming towards the top. (Dan + Shay are a threat for a multi-week #1 as well, so I’m betting that Tenpenny and especially Moore don’t even get to sniff the top slot.) Throw in the wildcard that is the holiday music season, and things could get very interesting as 2018 draws to a close.

Farther down, there seems to be a surprising downward trend for older artists:

  • Garth Brooks went recurrent with “All Day Long,” and “Stronger Than Me” doesn’t sound very strong at all.
  • Blake Shelton got bounced from the Top 10, and despite a respectable week of gains, “Turnin’ It On” is suddenly the weakest-looking song (outside of Eric Church) in the top fifteen.
  • Tim McGraw seems to have hit a wall in the low twenties, and his spin/point numbers are starting to flatline.
  • Kenny Chesney not only lost points this week, but “Better Boat” got bowled over by three artists this week (Pardi, Urban, and Underwood), and Old Dominion almost made it four (they’ll pass him next week).
  • Rodney Atkins didn’t lose points this week, but “Caught Up In The Country” has had the look of a dead song walking for at least two months now.
  • Even Rascal Flatts had a surprisingly bad week compared to its immediate competition.

I’m rooting for Brad Paisley, but if his contemporaries are any guide, he’s in for some rough uphill sledding.

So where do things go from here? The charts tend to be less flexible at this time of the year compared to others, but there are still some leftovers from the fall rotation that are cycling out. After my poor round of predictions last week, I’m just going to kick back with some hot cocoa and see what transpires.

What do you think? Are the numbers better or worse than you expected? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!