Song Review: Dierks Bentley ft. Brothers Osborne, “Burning Man”

Darn it, is my 2018 Top Ten list out of date already?

Black was probably the most ambivalent I’d ever felt about a Dierks Bentley album. It was fine, sure, but the album’s slick, modernized style felt like an awkward fit for Bentley’s rough-edged persona. In contrast, Bentley’s latest album The Mountain puts him in a much more comfortable position, letting him return to the hard-charging, Outlaw-esque style that made him one of country music’s biggest stars while also allowing him to ruminate on his experience and contemplate his career mortality. While “Woman, Amen” was a feel-good, well-executed track that moved Bentley closer to his comfort zone, his latest single “Burning Man” brings him all the way back, harnessing his forceful, unapologetic approach and old-school street cred to put a distinctly Dierks twist on the classic “getting old” track.

The driving bass drum is about the last instrument I expected to experience a resurgence in 2018, but it’s been used to great effect in several songs recently (“Run Wild Horses,” “All Day Long,” “Lose It”), and “Burning Man” does the same thing here, pairing it with a nimble-but-dark acoustic guitar to give the track a shot of serious energy from the start. The drums slowly become more numerous and complex as the song progresses, and an electric guitar adds some empathic stabs during the chorus (not to mention a decent solo courtesy of John Osborne), but for the most part the track leans on the simple, unrelenting guitar/drum combination for its energy and momentum. There’s an intensity to this mix that not even “Run Wild Horses” can match, but it meshes with the lyrics to give the song a “raging against the dying of the light” feel that suits Bentley and the material perfectly. It’s one thing to tell your listeners that you can still rock as hard as you used to, but only the best can put together a mix like this and prove it.

Vocally, “Burning Man” requires a special sort of singer to pull off convincing, and Bentley is one of the select few who fit the bill. It’s nothing terribly strenuous in terms of its range or flow (though Bentley sounds totally comfortable here), but it requires a certain amount of cachet and charisma to come across as believable in the narrator’s role. (Forget current singers like Luke Bryan and Sam Hunt; I’m not even sure Alan Jackson could have made this feel earnest.) Thankfully, not only is Bentley the perfect fit as a (sort of) reformed rapscallion who can still get loud from time to time, but TJ Osborne’s weathered voice and recent singles (“It Ain’t My Fault,” “Shoot Me Straight”) gives him enough credibility in this lane to also feel genuine (even if he isn’t really old enough to reflect on a life of hard living and lessons learned). Bentley and TJ Osborne have a surprisingly amount of vocal chemistry, and while John Osborne doesn’t contribute any noticeable vocals, unlike the Brian Kelleys of the world, he adds least adds to the song through his solid guitar work. It’s not a Willie-and-Waylon sort of pairing (yet), but it’s as close an approximation as we’ll get in the genre today.

The lyrics here focus on the duality of a old, wise narrator (or two) who hasn’t fully accepted his age and wisdom yet, and instead declares that while he’s slowed down from his wild and woolly days, he certainly hasn’t stopped (hence the hook “a little bit holy water, but still a little bit burning man”). On one hand, there’s a lot of wit baked into how the narrator describes his current situation, especially in the second verse:

I always loved the highway
I just don’t run it as fast
I still go wherever the wind blows me
But I always find my way back
I still don’t get it right sometimes
I just don’t get it as wrong
I still go a little bit crazy sometimes
Yeah, but now I don’t stay near as long

On the other hand, these sorts of statements are pretty much the whole song, with only the bridge expanding on the concept and looking at the narrator’s future plans. (Bentley elaborates on these plans in later tracks on The Mountain, but I wish he would have done a bit more here to put a bow on this particular single. It’s certainly not bad and I really like what’s here, but it starts to feel a bit formulaic the longer Bentley and Osborne hammer on this point.

Overall, however, I think I like “Burning Man” even better than “Woman, Amen,” and that track was already the sixth-best single I’d hear all year! The topic was tailor-made for an artist like Dierks Bentley, and the production and vocals do a great job making the whole thing believable and enjoyable. I don’t talk about albums much on this blog, but I’d Bentley making a strong case for The Mountain to be my favorite disc of the year.

Rating: 8/10. You’re gonna wanna hear this.

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How Worried Should Nintendo Be About A Trade War?

Original Image from BBC

Back in January of 2017, I asked the question “How Worried Should Nintendo Be About Donald Trump?” With America on the brink of a massive trade war with the rest of the world, I think we’re about to find out.

Although President Trump had been talking tweeting tough from the moment he won the election, 2017 ended up being relatively quiet on the trade front, with only the country’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership making any headlines. Fast forward to 2018, however, and things have gotten real in a hurry. While it can be tough to figure out which threats are empty and which ones have teeth, here’s what we know so far:

  • Trump has imposed a 20-50% tariff on imported washing machines for two years and a 30% tariff on “solar panel components” for four years (though this 30% rate will drop over time). (source)
  • Back in June, the US imposed a near-worldwide 25% tariff on steel and 10% tariff on aluminum. Some countries have gotten exemptions, but most notably Canada, Mexico, and the EU have not. (source)
  • Starting tomorrow, the US will impose a number of China-specific tariffs, targeting “more than 800 different items, including industrial machinery, medical devices and auto parts.” The only solid number I could find on these tariffs put the rate at 25%, but it may vary depending on the products.

In addition, the president has threatened a 20% duty on European cars (and is weighing the possibility of imposing broader automobile duties), and has suggested that his response to China’s decision to impose retaliatory tariffs will be (you guessed it) even more tariffs. Got it?

So what? I hear you say. Nintendo is a Japanese company that makes video games, so none of these tariffs apply to its products. Why should it be worried?

It’s true that right now, the Big N is not under any direct threat from excess US duties. However, the company still has plenty of reasons to be concerned about what the future holds:

  • The trade numbers that this administration favors do not favor Japan. The numbers that tend to get thrown around in Washington when discussing international trade are trade surpluses/deficits, which is an indicator of the relationship between the value of goods being imported from and exported to a given country. As a simple example, if country A is exporting more goods to country B than it is importing from them, then A has a trade surplus with B, and B has a trade deficit with A.

    President Trump tends to use trade surplus/deficit numbers as an indication of whether the United States is “winning” or “losing” trade with another country, and if the US is running a trade deficit with country X, he claims that X is taking unfair advantage of the US and that corrective action (which tends to mean tariffs for this administration) must be taken. While the US’s biggest deficit is with China (and thus tends to draw the majority of Trump’s fire), it also has a substantial deficit with Japan:

    Largest US Trade Deficits in 2017(according to Fortune)

    Country Deficit
    China $375.2 billion
    Mexico $71.1 billion
    Japan $68.8 billion
    Germany $64.3 billion
    Vietnam $38.3 billion

    The president has already targeted China with tariffs, sparred with Mexico over NAFTA, and started grousing about the deficit with Germany. Trade discussions with Japan have remained cordial thus far, but the two nations are slated to meet this month for bilateral trade talks, and if America doesn’t like what it hears, things could go south in a hurry.

  • Japan has been playing things cool so far, but that could change. When Trump was first elected, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe placed a big bet on forming a strong personal relationship with the new president, hoping he could maintain the two countries’ longstanding alliance. Even as Trump starting turning on other allies and slapping scattershot tariffs on the world, Japan struck a moderate tone, calling the US’s decision “regrettable” and only reserving the right to respond rather than doing so immediately. This reserved approach, however, may change as trade talks hits closer to home—namely, Japanese carmakers.

    Japan is the third-largest carmaker in the world, and it exported $40 billion  worth of automobiles to the United States last year. That’s a lot of money riding on free trade, and the country would likely go a long way to protect it. While Japan and its auto industry still remained measured in their criticism, they’re starting to make a noticeable point about how any pain resulting from a car tariff would be shared:

    “Japan said up to 624,000 people could lose their jobs in the U.S. if a 25 percent tariff were levied on automobiles and auto parts and other countries took retaliatory measures…” USA Today

    “[Toyota] noted that the cost of the Toyota Camry, one of the most popular cars sold in America, would go up $1,800.” CNBC

    Translation: If the US really wants to go down this path, there will be substantial consequences, whether formal or informal. These consequences might push President Trump to look for other industries to target, and an export-heavy business like Nintendo would be extremely vulnerable.

  • Even if video games aren’t targeted directly, rising prices will mean less money for video games. Generally, the theory goes that trade wars hurt consumers the most through higher costs, as any product using foreign materials with see their costs rise and likely pass them on to the buyer. (Retaliatory tariffs, which several countries have imposed or are preparing to impose, also mean that domestic companies who rely on exports will likely see demand for their products, and thus their revenues, decrease.)

    A direct tariff on gaming consoles would certainly be bad news—for example, a $299.99 Switch becomes $374.99 with a 25% tariff tossed on top. Even if the Switch was not directly targeted by tariffs, however, Nintendo would likely still feel their effects. Video games are a luxury good rather than a necessity one, and as consumers find their budgets consumed  more by the things they need, they’re going to spend less on the things they only want. Nintendo may still be the cheapest of the three major consoles, but at some point the price become so large that it doesn’t matter.

So yes, even though Nintendo is in a better fiscal position than they were in the Wii U era, they should definitely be worried about what a US-induced trade war could do to their business. Being a longstanding ally or having a sizable American footprint hasn’t protected any nation or corporation from Trump’s wrath, and as a company that leans heavily on outside markets for revenue, a wave of protectionism is the last thing Nintendo wants to see, whether they’re targeted specifically or not.

Kyle’s LEAST Favorite Songs of 2018 So Far

Country music in the first half of 2018 might have been slightly better than the first half on 2017 on average, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t hear our fair share of clunkers on the radio. Dustin Lynch may have gotten his act together just enough to stay off of this list, but a fair share of his contemporaries did not, and they’ve been joined by a few artists that really should have known better than to release such garbage to the public.

I’m not going to waste any more time than I have to on this junk, so hold your nose and plug your ears, because we’re counting down the worst country songs heard thus far in 2018.

Dishonorable Mentions:

  • Shania Twain, “We Got Something They Don’t” (review)
  • Dan + Shay, “Tequila” (review)
  • Blake Shelton, “I Lived It” (review)
  • Sugarland ft. Taylor Swift, “Babe” (review)
  • Travis Denning, “David Ashley Parker From Powder Springs” (review)

#10: Sam Hunt, “Downtown’s Dead” (review)

#9: Miranda Lambert, “Keeper Of The Flame” (review)

#8: Maddie & Tae, “Friends Don’t” (review)

#7: Keith Urban ft. Julia Michaels, “Coming Home” (review)

#6: Maren Morris, “Rich” (review)

#5: Craig Campbell, “See You Try” (review)

#4: LoCash, “Don’t Get Better Than That” (review)

#3: Jordan Davis, “Take It From Me” (review)

#2: Jake Owen, “I Was Jack (You Were Diane)” (review)

#1: Rodney Atkins ft. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, “Caught Up In The Country” (review)

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle – Donkey Kong Adventure: Is It Worth Buying?

She’s back, and she’s taking no prisoners. Only selfies.

Did Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle leave you wanting more? Good, ’cause that’s exactly what you get.

It’s been a long, strange trip for this unexpected Nintendo/Ubisoft partnership, but in the year or so since M+R KB was leaked to the public, this charm-filled tactical RPG  has gone from making people retch at its very concept to becoming one of the best games of 2017, to the point where producing more content for the franchise was an absolute no-brainer. That new content finally arrived last week in the form of Donkey Kong Adventure, a brief romp through the jungle to save DK’s homeland from his giant doppelgänger Rabbid Kong.  At its core, of course, it’s just more of the same winning formula from the original game, but there’s just enough variety here to freshen up the experience.

My specific thoughts on the game are as follows:

  • Did I say the DLC was just like the original game? Actually, the design of the package of the expansion closely mirrors Nintendo’s recent Octo Expansion DLC for Splatoon 2. Each level is a shorter version of the challenges you might see in the original Kingdom Battle, but there’s a lot more variety in the objectives you have to achieve: On top of the usual ‘beat all the enemies’ and ‘reach the area’ battles, you might have to wrest pieces of your broken washing machine from the enemy, destroy piles of enemy bananas scattered across the map, or even track down enemies and destroy them before they reach a specific area of the map. (Sadly, though, there aren’t any 8-Balls to push around.) This mission diversity is a welcome changeup from the original game, which relied on enemy diversity more than objective variety to change things up.
  • That’s not to say there’s no enemy diversity here, however: In addition to the usual Ziggies, Hoppers, and Smashers, you’ll also run across Collectors (who hold the washing machine pieces you need, and will pick up any that you leave lying around the map) and Summoners (that can conjure up an army of extra enemies if you leave them alone for too long). One big thing you’ll notice is the additional mobility some of these enemy additions have: Collectors can cover darn near the entire map en route to washing machine piece, and the mid-bosses can cover so much ground so fast that if Al Davis were still alive, he’d have signed them to the Raiders by now. It was a bit shocking to see how a battle could go from ‘Aw, they’re all the way over there?” to “Oh snap, we’re surrounded!” in a single round.
  • I’m a bit torn on the character design shown here. Rabbid Peach is the same selfie-snapping healer that you know and love, but Donkey Kong and Rabbid Cranky Kong (who was the perfect character to “rabbidize,” by the way) are a slightly awkward fit when it comes to combat. DK’s main benefit is mobility: Not only can he scale cliffs and use special launching spaces to swing himself across the map, but he can also carry items (blocks, enemies, even Rabbid Peach or Cranky) to throw at enemies and increase their potential movement range as well. However, his moveset makes his most effective when he’s up close and personal with his foes, and even at max health, he’s just not enough of a tank to take the punishment of close-quarters combat for very long (especially if Smashers are involved). Rabbid Cranky Kong is even an even worse spot: He’s basically a squishier Rabbid Mario who needs to be near foes for his Tenta Brella shotgun crossbow and jump attack to be effective, and his Vamp attacks are…well, let’s just say he’s no Rabbid Luigi. Both DK and Rabbid Cranky have movement-triggered shots, but no one’s hitting shots from across the map like Luigi did in the original game. The strange disconnect between characters stats and fighting style adds a bit more challenge to some of the encounters.
  • As for difficulty…I found the DK DLC to be slightly more difficult than the original game, mostly due to the aforementioned character issues and the fact that you essentially start the game over at level one (characters don’t actually level up in this game, but you know what I mean). I’m too used to charging in with my superpowered, 500+ HP characters from the original story, so adjusting to the lesser-powered PCs at your disposal here took some time. Toss in enemies who can cover the entire map in one turn, and the tide of battle can change in a hurry. I still wouldn’t call the game overly difficult, but it’s a bit more challenging than before.
  • The same old art/music/figure collectibles are still around to find (not to mention the box puzzles and constrained challenges you need to pass to reach them all, but there’s also a set of puzzle pieces (Banjo-Kazooie reference?) you’ll need to track down to 100% the game. The overworld environments are just are constrained and unexplorable as before, but now you’ve got a bit more motivation to visit every nook and cranny that you can.
  • Just like before, the environments pop with color and detail (though they’re still mostly linear), and the music is fantastic. Instead of the Banjo-Kazooie vibes from the original game, composer Grant Kirkhope dips into his Donkey Kong 64 background to deliver some strong remixes  that really hit you in the nostalgia bone. (The puzzle music modeled after Donkey Kong Country was also a highlight.) If Nashville has any sense, they’d extend an open invitation to Kirkhope to come to town and teach some of the producers there a thing or two about quality sonic craftsmanship.
Oh yeah, BEEP-0’s usual wit and commentary are back too. Yay!

All in all, M+R KB Donkey Kong Adventure is just more of the same great content from the original game, and at $14.99, you get some real bang for your buck. While there’s nothing here that will make people who didn’t like the original game decide to jump on the bandwagon, if you had fun with M+R KB, you’re almost guaranteed to have fun with the DLC.

There’s only question left to ask: Which Rabbid will end up in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate? It makes too much sense not to happen…

Kyle’s Favorite Songs of 2018 So Far

As we pass the halfway mark of 2018, it seems like a good time to copy-paste my opening sentence from my 2017 halfway list revisit my pile of music reviews over the last six months, and highlight the best songs I’ve looked at thus far. 2018 has had a fairly similar structure to its predecessor thus far (namely, it had the same two-month stretch of mediocrity from April to June), but I feel like there was a slight uptick in quality overall. It’s a good problem to have, but it also makes putting together my first-half “best of” list a little tricky. There are plenty of songs that deserve your attention this year, but these are the ten I think are most worthy.

Just like last year, I’m not going to comment on these songs here, since a) I’m lazy, and b) I’ve already gone over each one in great detail in my reviews. Let’s go to the montage, shall we?

Honorable Mentions:

  • Brett Young, “Mercy” (review)
  • Thomas Rhett, “Life Changes” (review)
  • Jason Aldean ft. Miranda Lambert, “Drowns The Whiskey” (review)
  • Florida Georgia Line, “Simple” (review)
  • Dean Summerwind, “Parked Out By The Lake” (best song evar)

#10: Jimmie Allen, “Best Shot” (review)

#9: Jillian Jacqueline, “Reasons” (review)

#8: Kelsea Ballerini, “I Hate Love Songs” (review)

#7: Garth Brooks, “All Day Long” (review)

#6: Dierks Bentley, “Woman, Amen” (review)

#5: Willie Nelson, “Last Man Standing” (review)

#4: Cole Swindell, “Break Up In The End” (review)

#3: Aaron Watson, “Run Wild Horses” (review)

#2: Midland, “Burn Out” (review)

#1: Alan Jackson, “The Older I Get” (review)

Song Review: Granger Smith, “You’re In It”

Sorry Granger Smith, but I know what trouble sounds like, and “You’re In It.”

In lieu of the inevitable earache that is Chase Bryant‘s annual single release, Granger Smith seems to have decided to step up and become the new face of regular generic mediocrity. Since breaking through with “Backroad Song” in 2015, Smith has dropped a solitary single every year, and the numbers are trending in the wrong direction (“If The Boot Fits” peaked at #6, and last year’s “Happens Like That” didn’t even happen to break the Top Ten). Now, Smith is back with “You’re In It,”the second single off of his When The Good Guys Win album, and while he at least tried to clean up his act and shake up his formula, the results are no more interesting or memorable than his previous work: It’s just another song from just another singer whose time in the spotlight is running out.

Coming off of the Metro-Bro mix of “Happens Like That,” the production was at least a step in the right direction. The track opens with a spacious electric guitar and washed-out banjo that’s reminiscent of Brad Paisley’s “Officially Alive,” and does a nice job maintaining that expansive feel as louder guitars and real drums are eventually tossed into the mix. To its credit, the mix also does a great job capturing the celebratory exuberance of a blooming relationship (something that a surprising amount of tracks in this lane fail at), and thus complements the tone of the writing very well. The major problem, however, is that even this atmosphere doesn’t make the track feel terribly unique or flavorful, and I just can’t shake the feeling that I’ve heard this song a hundred times before. It just needs something more (another instrument? A less-bland guitar solo? Replacing the post-chorus “whoa-ohs” with some sizzling instrumental sorcery?) to stick the landing and really leave an impression on its listeners. As it is, it’s a nice idea that’s just a bit too bland to really fulfill its potential.

Don’t expect any miracles from Smith here, as he remains the same undistinguished, indistinguishable vocalist from songs past. While he at least sounds more convincing in the narrator’s role this time around, this is mostly due to the lyrics, which prop him up by rarely putting him in questionable circumstances. (Whenever Smith starts mentioning things like “you’re in” certain articles of clothing, that old slimy Bro persona from “Happens Like That” jumps right back into the spotlight.) Beyond that, there isn’t a lot to talk about here: His range is passable, his flow isn’t tested, and he just isn’t distinct enough as an artist to really own the song. Put “You’re In It” in the hands of any other male singer in the genre, and it sound the exact same. (In fact, it would probably sound better.)

While the lyrics deserve credit for keeping Smith from falling straight into the gutter, they do so at the cost of being so unoriginal that you can basically predict where the song is going before it gets there. The hook is that the narrator is telling his partner that they’re in every good memory for the past, and he knows that they’ll be in every good memory in the future. Once you know that, you can pretty much guess where the song is going and what the other person is going to be “in” (Shotgun seat? Moonlight? Church? Rocking chairs? Check, check, check, and check!) I understand that the writers are protecting Smith or not (whether intentionally or not), but they could have at least tried to be clever or interesting about it. Instead, it’s a montage of the same old places that every modern love song takes us, and it just flows in one ear and out the other.

“You’re In It” is the kind of forgettable, sounds-like-everything-else song that Granger Smith really doesn’t need right now, because it’s not going to do anything to stop his slow slide into oblivion. There are just way too many people in this lane right now for a lightweight, weakly-written love song like this one to make an impression on people. Smith needs to find some stronger material, or the next thing Smith will be in is deep…well, you know the rest.

Rating: 5/10. No thanks.

Song Review: Clare Dunn, “More”

The “More” I hear from Clare Dunn, the “More” I wish country radio would get over its fear of playing female artists.

Dunn is an artist who tends to live of the rock side of country, and is one of the few artists in Nashville that can throw down a credible lead with a guitar. She’s released four singles on the MCA Nashville label since 2013, but she’s gotten nothing but a cold shoulder from radio in response, with none of the songs even cracking the Top 40 on Billboard’s airplay chart. While I’m admittedly not enamored with any of those tracks (“Cowboy Side Of You” is probably the best of the bunch), I’m intrigued with her latest single “More,”  an R&B-tinged track that sands off the rough edges of Dunn’s past work and captures the light, summery vibe that Little Big Town’s “Summer Fever” seemed to miss. It may not have enough juice to break through radio’s blockade, but it’s a nice track nonetheless.

The production opens with a calming piano and a restrained drum machine, with some warm steel guitar stabs thrown in for flavor. Outside of throwing in some real drums and a slick electric guitar in the background, that’s pretty much all you get here, but it’s enough to establish a soft, relaxing mood that’s easy on the listener’s ears. (It’s sad to not hear Dunn’s guitar work showcased, but a complex display of wizardry wouldn’t have suited the chill vibes of the mix.) Despite the plethora of minor chords here, the instruments are bright enough that the mix maintains its calm vibe while also acknowledging the seriousness of the narrator’s feelings. Unlike “Summer Fever,” which didn’t really have the summer feel it advertised, “More” has the tone and the atmosphere to fit nicely into the “slow summer jam” category even though it’s actually an all-season love song.

I think it’s Dunn’s vocal performance that impresses me the most here. The song mostly keeps the artist pinned in their lower range, but where a lot of singer lose their tone and sound raspy and breathy, Dunn maintains a surprising amount of power and sounds completely comfortable. (She also jumps effortlessly into her upper range upon closing the second verse, making me think she could be a Carrie Underwood-style power vocalist if necessary.) While playing a lovestruck narrator isn’t the hardest job in the world, Dunn has enough earnestness in her delivery to feel genuine in the role, and she’s able to accentuate the track’s romantic vibes and give the lyrics a depth that they wouldn’t have on their own. Her material has tended to be more direct and hard-edged in the past (for example, “Move On”), but given how good she sounds on a more-conventional love song like this one, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear more material like this from her in the future.

The lyrics are…well, they’re about as light and fluffy as you would expect. The track boils down to the narrator wanting “more” time to spend doing fun, romantic things with the object of her affection. It’s far from the best-written song in the world: The hook is weak and predictable, the images are generic (and some feel ripped from the Bro-Country era—do we really need more nighttime drives?) and some of the lines seem to have too many words crammed into them, disrupting Dunn’s flow when she delivers them. It’s yet another song that relies on the singer to elevate it from just another love song, and while Dunn is no Garth Brooks, she’s able to take simple, half-baked writing like this and infuse it with enough emotion to make it feel meaningful.

Despite the positive vibes of “More,” I can’t help but feel sad when I hear it, because unless you actively seek it out, you’ll never know the song even existed. Country radio has already passed judgement on Clare Dunn, and while generic, indistinguishable no-names like Tyler Rich and Travis Denning get a helping hand onto the charts, talented ladies like Dunn, Abby Anderson, and Jillian Jacqueline are left out in the cold (and even woman like Ashley McBryde and Lauren Alaina have to fight for every chart position they get). “More” is a decent song by a talented female singer, and it’s about time tracks like this got a fair shake on the airwaves.

Rating: 6/10. Give this one a try and see how it sounds.