Song Review: Aaron Watson, “Outta Style”

I have to give Aaron Watson credit for truth in advertising: He called his song “Outta Style,” and by the end of the summer, that’s exactly what it will be.

As an independent artist from Texas, Watson is a relative newcomer to the nationwide charts despite having released thirteen album since 1999. His national profile has been growing, however, and his 2015 album The Underdog not only marked his debut on the Billboard airplay charts (albeit with a measly #47 peak), but it also marked “the first time a solo male artist debuted in the top spot with a self-released and independently distributed and promoted album.” “Outta Style” is the leadoff single for Watson’s latest album Vaquero, and while it’s a decent track, it’s not a terribly memorable one, and it’s not even close to Watson’s best work.

Despite the song’s title, the production here sounds a lot trendier and modern-sounding than a lot of Watson’s other material. The melody is primarily driven by an electric guitar and a loud (but real) set of drums, the combination of which brings to mind a 70s rock song more than anything else. The producer gets bonus points for placing a fiddle prominently in between the verses (seriously, that instrument needs to make a comeback), and a steel guitar pops up occasionally in the background. The track is uptempo, energetic, and in-your-face (especially the percussion), but something about the mix feels a bit generic, as if I’ve heard it all somewhere before. It’s a pleasant enough sound for a summer single, but I don’t see it having a lot of staying power.

Vocally, Watson’s lower, rough-edged voice reminds me a lot of 00s-era country singer Trent Willmon (with maybe a shade of Dierks Bentley thrown in for good measure). While he sounds a bit hoarse at points in the song (especially the “show you a love, love, love” line), for the most part his delivery is solid, and his positive, energetic attitude is perfect for the track. He sounds like he’s having a blast, and he’s able to transfer that joy to his listeners.

The writing here is probably the weakest part of the song, as Watson declares to his longtime love that their love will never fade, waver, or otherwise go “outta style.” The problem is that half of the imagery he uses is generic and overdone (for example, driving around at night for an eventual “hot and heavy” makeout session, just like every other country singer from the Bro-Country era), and the other half is packed full of dated references that went out of style decades ago. I’ll give him the Marilyn Monroe and Chevy/levee references, but does anyone really remember who sang “Rebel Rebel” (it was David Bowie, in case you were curious), or what Steve McQueen movie scene he was referring to? In short, the lyrics are broad, shallow, and way past their expiration date, and they don’t give the listener anything to remember the song by. It’s a crying shame, because Watson has several deeper, weighter songs on Vaquero (“Texas Lullaby,” “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To”) that really deserved to see the light of day before this track.

Overall, I’d put “Outta Style” in the same category as Stephanie Quayle’s “Winnebago”: You’ll sing along with it for a couple of months, and then you’ll forget it ever existed by September. It’s a little disappointing given the quality of the material Watson’s keeping in his hip pocket right now, but I’ll take what I can get for now, and I hope that we see more singles off of Vaquero in the near future.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth listening to, but do yourself a favor and check out his other material as well.

The Transformative Power of Animal Crossing

In the face of a Nintendo Switch shortage, I’ve started expanding my 3DS library in order to get a proper portable gaming fix. The first of my new acquisitions is 2013’s Animal Crossing: New Leaf, and while I’ve only played the game for a few days now, I’m starting to think Nintendo may have much more than a simple life sim on it hands.

On the surface, New Leaf is about building and running a town full of citizens with very different needs and desires. Nothing in the game happens terribly quickly (except house building, where a structure can go from bare ground to a finished product in a mere 24 hours), and as someone with a background full of more-traditional games, I can only catch so many fish and shake so many peaches off trees before I get bored and jump back to games with more immediate challenges and rewards, like Splatoon or Super Mario Maker.

As I continued playing, however, the game started to feel like it had a deeper purpose than just being a simple life sim game. More specifically, it felt like Nintendo was trying to shatter the old “loner playing in a dark basement” gamer stereotype by using Animal Crossing to teach players proper socialization skills.

A crazy thought, you say? Perhaps…but consider the following:

  • Example 1: One of the initial residents of my town was a rabbit named Dotty, and on day two of my adventure, she asked me to visit her house to talk about improving its decor. I quickly agreed to a time…and then promptly forgot it and went off on a quest to gather insects and seashells. An hour later (in the middle of a Splatoon Turf War, in fact), I  realized that I was an hour late for the meeting, and quickly jumped booted up my 3DS and rushed over to Dotty’s cottage.As you might expect, Dotty was not happy, and she expressed her irritation to me in no uncertain terms. Sure, I managed to re-befriend her by complimenting her outfit a few times, but I still felt really bad about it, so much so that I wondered, “If I play games to feel good, why the heck am I playing this game if it makes me feel bad?”

    Suddenly, it dawned on me: You know, if someone had done this to me in real life, I’d be pretty cheesed off about it too. I thought back to the times where my forgetfulness had put me in similar situations, and decided that I needed to come up with a better method for remembering appointments, like actually keeping a calendar or something.

    In short, I brainstormed a self-improvement strategy because I missed a meeting with a fictional character. How transformative could an incident like this be with Animal Crossing‘s target (read: younger, more impressionable) audience?

  • Example 2: My town clerk Isabelle kept pestering me to write letters to the other residents, as they would enjoy hearing from their new mayor. I’m not much of a letter writer (or an email writer, for that matter), but I finally decided there had to be some cool reward for writing, so I dashed off a few random letters and left them with the post office.The next day came, and…nothing. I didn’t hear a single thing about the letters, and none of the recipients mentioned them as they walked around. What the heck? I wondered. What was the point of those stupid letters? I spent a whole twenty seconds on each one—didn’t anyone appreciate them?

    Soon, the lightbulb went off: I haven’t written a thank-letter in at *least* six years…how many people are left wondering how I feel when they give me something? As luck would have it, I had a stack of thank-you letters sitting on my table that I’d meant to fill out and mail after last Christmas, and realized I needed to send those things out, late or otherwise.

    Once again, I drew a real-life lesson from a fake-life encounter. At this rate, I’ll be a better person in no time!

Maybe I’ve finally gone off the deep end, but after all the articles I’ve read about the introduction of the autistic muppet Julia on Sesame Street and the benefits of introducing children to such a character at a young age, I’m starting to think that Animal Crossing could have the same kind of impact on its players. At its core, Animal Crossing is a place where players of all ages can learn how to interact with a plethora of different characters by trial and error, and be rewarded for good behavior while minimizing the consequences of bad decisions. While I doubt Nintendo has put the kind of thought into the design of its NPCs that went into creating Julia, I feel like the baby steps they’ve made in that direction were made intentionally.

Despite the climbing age of the average gamer, a lot of children are introduced to video games at a fairly young age (and I would guess that Nintendo’s audience probably skews younger than Sony’s or Microsoft’s). The problem is that a lot of games are isolating experiences, and even encourage players to ignore the rest of the world and focus completely (which in turn can lead to the awkward loner stereotype I mentioned earlier). Animal Crossing, on the other hand, is the rare mostly-one-player game that encourages players to communicate with others and understand their feelings, and developing that sort of empathy feels more important now than ever before. (There are a lot of elected officials in the D.C. area that could use a refresher on this stuff…)

I don’t know what moved Nintendo to create the Animal Crossing series, but the more I play this game, the more I think the world is better off because they did.

Song Review: Walker McGuire, “Til Tomorrow”

Wait, so radio is getting another midtempo, acoustic-based, pensive song involving conflicting emotions? I’m okay with this, but I’m not sure how many other people will be.

Walker McGuire is a Midwest-based duo who have already built up a substantial fanbase via streaming services and…an appearance on the “Big D and Bubba” show? (And I thought Carly Pearce had a unique “discovery” story.) “Til Tomorrow” is the pair’s first official release to country radio, and I’m admittedly a little torn about it: While the fact that the genre landscape has shifted enough to make this song feel generic is a net positive…it still means that this song doesn’t stick out from the crowd much.

Production-wise, this song follows the in-vogue pop-country template: Real drums for the foundation, an acoustic guitar to carry the melody, steel guitar accents for authenticity, an electric guitar to spice up the mix and add a brief instrumental break, and a slightly-dark tone to reflect the seriousness the subject matter. (If there’s any synthetic production here, it’s hidden deep in the background and isn’t noticeable.) It’s the sort of mix that I’ve heard quite a bit of lately, and while it’s enjoyable enough, it doesn’t really stick with me after the song’s over. I kind of wish the producer has worked in a less-common instrument to make the sound a bit more unique—for example, the fiddle hasn’t returned to prominence the way the steel guitar has, so adding it here might have been an easy way to diversify the mix.

Lead singer Jordan Walker is a capable vocalist whose voice bears a slight resemblance to 90s one-hit-wonder Ty England. His delivery demonstrates decent tone, range, and charisma, and he does a good job in the role of a heartbroken-and-self-aware narrator. I’m not completely sold on the duo’s vocal chemistry, however, as Walker and Johnny McGuire have very similar voices that don’t always blend effectively when they harmonize. Still, while the singers don’t really stand out from their radio contemporaries, I’d argue that they compare favorably with them (and honestly, I’d much rather listen to Walker McGuire than Florida-Georgia Line).

Thematically, “Til Tomorrow” is the story of someone who is finally getting out of the house after a breakup and enjoying a night on the town. Unfortunately, the song is running upstream against two major issues:

To its credit, the song differentiates itself from Aldean’s defiance and Midland’s acceptance by taking the mindful middle ground: Sure, the narrator knows the pain isn’t going away, but at least the night’s revelry will force it into a brief, enjoyable hiatus. Unfortunately, the songwriting comes off as lazy at certain points (“I’ll worry about the morning in the morning?” Really?), and while the production mostly threads the needle with its tone between the highs of the night and the anticipated lows of the morning, it seems to favor its darker tones a bit more, which makes you question whether or not the narrator is really enjoying his night out as much as he claims. For a debut single that needs to stand out amongst its peers, it end up getting overshadowed by its stronger competition.

Overall, I like “Til Tomorrow,” but I wish I liked it a lot more. It’s a decent song that teases the future potential of Walker McGuire, but it’s also a bit too generic to make the kind of radio impact that a new act needs. Luckily for the duo, Aldean’s single will be winding down soon and the winds of change within the genre are at their back, so there’s an opening coming for a song like this to make an impact. I’m just not sure this track is strong enough to capitalize on it.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few listens, but I’m not sure it will stick with you very long.

Song Review: Miranda Lambert, “Tin Man”

So…is Miranda Lambert finally ready to get back in the saddle and release some quality material to country radio? After listening to “Tin Man” a few times, I’m afraid the answer is a resounding “No.”

Lambert’s last single “We Should Be Friends” was a flaming pile of garbage, and it was lucky to get the mid-20s airplay chart peak that it did before its momentum stalled. In its wake, Lambert decided to use her performance slot on the ACM awards to launch “Tin Man,” a fan favorite from her current album The Weight Of These Wings, as her third single from the album. While I have to admit that “Tin Man” is a far better song than “We Should Be Friends” was, it only rises to the level of forgettable background music, and is still a long way from actually being good.

I still stand by my statement that whoever produced this album ought to be fired immediately, but this song tries to limit the damage by giving the producer almost nothing to mess around with. The song is an acoustic ballad that includes nothing but Lambert and her guitar (and some quiet background tones from something I can’t identify). There are no drums, no bass, no electric instruments, nothing. Unfortunately, this decision translates to a song with no energy, no impact, and no compelling reason to listen to it. (Furthermore, the producer still manages to screw up the mix by completely botching the volume balance, which means that depending on your volume setting, either the guitar is too quiet or Lambert’s vocals are too loud.)

Mercifully, Lambert sounds a lot better on this track than on “We Should Be Friends,” and lets people hear what made her a star in the first place. However, Lambert’s calling card has always been her attitude and intensity, neither of which are present on “Tin Man.” Instead, the song is handled in a more-conversational style (which makes sense on the surface, given the song’s premise), and Lambert keeps her vocals much quieter and more restrained than usual. Unfortunately, this restraint leaves her unable to bring her usual vocal charisma and passion to bear, and as a result she fails to convince the listener that this conversation is worth listening to. Despite her best efforts, the song never rises beyond just existing, and instead of making a person feel her pain, it puts them to sleep.

The lyrics of “Tin Man” describe an imagined conversation between the narrator and the heart-seeking Tin Man from The Wizard Of Oz. While the writing is actually fairly solid here, it isn’t clever enough to rise above Lambert’s bland, boring delivery and make listeners sit up and pay attention. Despite being framed as a conversation, we never actually get to hear anything from the Tin Man’s perspective—the whole song is just Lambert lifelessly lamenting the pain of a broken heart. Furthermore, the ‘ooh-ooh’ interludes add nothing to the track, and make it run far longer than it needs to. In the end, whatever wit the song has is swallowed up by the underwhelming vocals and production, and by the end, you’re more than ready to rinse out your ears with a different song.

Overall, “Tin Man” comes across as background music you might hear standing in an elevator, and though it’s still a step up from Miranda Lambert’s last single, it’s a far cry from her best work. The song may be billed as a tearjerker, but any tears this song draws from you will be out of boredom, not sadness.

Rating: 5/10. Unless you’re in the market for a non-habit-forming sleep aid, you’re safe to pass on this one.

Yooka-Laylee: Is It Worth Buying?

Image From Nintendo Life

Nearly two years after the project first appeared on Kickstarter, Yooka-Laylee has started to appear in the wild in anticipation of its official launch date on April 11th. The reviews up to this point, however, have been all over the map, making it hard to figure out whether this game is worth buying or not. It seems like every aspect of this game, from the controls to the graphics to the genre itself, has been both loved and hated by some subsets of reviewers. What’s a consumer to do?

From my perspective, the critiques of Yooka-Laylee fall into two major categories:

First, you have the Genre Complaints:

  • “Despite attempts at modernizing the formula, its style of gameplay is still outdated, and it doesn’t stay challenging or interesting for long as a result.”Gamespot
  • “Developer Playtonic has been carefully faithful to what made those first [Banjo-Kazooie] games memorable…But well-regarded as those games were, 19 years have passed since the first Banjo-Kazooie, and Yooka-Laylee remains too true to that original formula.” Polygon

To me, complaints in this category aren’t terribly convincing. We all knew what sort of game this was going in: An open-world platformer with an emphasis on collecting anything and everything you could find. What’s so outdated about that? Heck, even Zelda: Breath of the Wild relies heavily on this formula.

The major draw of an open-world game is the ability to explore, and having collectibles to find gives you the incentive to do just that. It’s no more or less fun to do now than it was in 1998.

The second category, however, is Technical Complaints, and these carry a bit more weight:

  • “There’s literally nothing stable about Yooka-Laylee on Xbox One. Stuttering, slowdown, and frame drops are ubiquitous…” —GameXplain
  • “The game’s camera is dependable enough…but anything that actually requires a measure of precision…can be a headache.” —Eurogamer
  • “…the controls and physics never feel quite as polished as the old-school Mario, Banjo, or Ratchet games.” —IGN

These are substantial problems that must be addressed ASAP. Games shouldn’t just freeze in the middle of the action, and the player needs both the controls and the camera to be in good working order to do what the game requires them to do.

Playtonic is releasing a patch to mitigate some of these problems, and it’ll be worth watching to see just how successful they are in doing so. If the team can prove that they can handle these problems and gradually improve the Yooka-Laylee experience, then I’d say there’s enough here to justify picking up the game. If the problems persist beyond the first few patches, however, then that suggests the game is as good as it’s ever going to be, and unless you’re a diehard Banjo-Kazooie fan, you’ll probably want to save your money.

Just like with the Nintendo Switch, I’d suggest taking a wait-and-see approach to Yooka-Laylee. Unlike the Switch, however, you should actually be able to find a copy of the game if/when you decide to buy it.

Song Review: Carly Pearce, “Every Little Thing”

Let Carly Pearce’s “Every Little Thing” be a lesson to you all: If you have a dream, take every opportunity to showcase your talent, because you never know which one will finally put you on the map.

Pearce is a Kentucky native who struggled to find success despite a 2012 publishing deal with Sony (it was short-lived) and “an EP available  on iTunes” in 2015 (it’s not there anymore). Instead, the performance credited with Pearce’s breakthrough was her turn as a featured artist on the Josh Abbott Band’s “Wasn’t That Drunk.” The cameo generated some much-needed buzz and attention, and she was able to parlay it into a gig with the Big Machine label group, which recently released her “official” debut single “Every Little Thing.”

The production here is organic and restrained, with the melody carried by the unexpected combination of a piano and a dobro (and some cello-like strings hiding in the backgrounds) and a drum set keeping time without any hint of embellishment. The mix creates a somber and serious atmosphere by relying on darker tones from the instruments, but it occasionally mixes some brighter notes in to reflect both the good and bad memories mentioned in the song. The tempo is kept at a molasses-running-uphill pace, which adds an extra layer of gravity and allows the listener to focus on individual lyrics and notes (although it makes the song feel a bit empty when there aren’t any lyrics to fill the space).

The risk of dialing back the production to this extent is that it puts extra pressure on the vocals to deliver, but thankfully Pearce is more than up to the task. Her voice bears a passing resemblance to Faith Hill, but Pearce seems a bit comfortable in her lower range than Hill does on her recent track “Speak With A Girl,” while also doing a nice job showing off her higher range on the verses. Most importantly, Pearce’s vocal charisma allows her to master the role of the heartbroken narrator in the song, and makes the listener feel her pain with every note.

If the song has a weak point, it resides in the lyrics themselves. Crying over a lost love is probably the most-covered topic in the history of country music, so any song tackling this topic needs to incorporate vivid imagery and raw emotion to make it stand out from the pack. Unfortunately, “Every Little Thing” mostly focuses on the feelings using vague terms (“the high, the hurt, the shine, the sting”), and the specific images it does reference are stale and overdone (wine-flavored kisses, pillow smells, heartbeats, etc.). The lyrics simply do not do enough to move the listener, leaving Pearce to do the emotional heavy-lifting by herself (which, to her credit, she actually does quite well).

Overall, “Every Little Thing” is a solid song that speaks to Carly Pearce’s potential in mainstream country music. While the writing is a little lackluster and pales in comparison to Maren Morris’s recent single “I Could Use A Love Song,” Pearce’s impressive individual performance makes me wonder just how good she could be with some stronger material backing her. She traveled a long road to get to this point, but I’d say it was definitely worth the wait.

Rating: 6/10. It’s definitely worth a listen or three.

Where’s The Hype For Mario Kart 8 Deluxe?

After a month in the wild, the Switch’s hype level seems to be waning from its initial Zelda-fueled levels. As good as Breath of the Wild is, it has a hard ceiling on its replay value—once you’ve crushed Ganon and 100%’d the collectibles and side quests, there’s little incentive to return to the game. With the calendar flipping to April and a growing number of players having beaten BotW, it’s time for the hype torch to be passed to Nintendo’s next major Switch release, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.

…Except that outside of a few trailers like the one linked above, Nintendo’s been pretty quiet about Mario Kart. In fact, they’ve been releasing more info about Splatoon 2 (and even ARMS) lately than about their upcoming kart racer. What gives?

  • The biggest problem I can see is that as an enhanced port, we’ve seen most of Mario Kart 8 already. Sure, the battle mode is completely revamped and a few new characters have been added, but the core of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe has been in gamers’ hands for almost three years now, and thus it lacks the surprise factor of new games like Splatoon 2.
  • The pieces of Mario Kart we haven’t seen before aren’t really things that move the needle. Is the battle mode really that popular of a mode? Do Inkling racers interest anyone that didn’t play Splatoon? At its core, MK8D is about racing with Mario and friends, and the additions don’t add a whole lot to the game’s basic premise.
  • It’s worth noting that we already have a racing game available for the Switch (Fast Racing RMX), and it’s a quality stand-in for hardcore racers who are sick of getting shelled to death in Baby Park.
  • I think the scarcity of consoles is starting to affect the buzz factor for both the Switch and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Two weeks ago, I was fairly confident that there would be more than enough Switches to go around by April 28th, which is partially why I counseled people to wait until Nintendo worked out the kinks of its initial batch. Now, however, it looks like the second wave of Switches I expected isn’t coming, or at best is coming in fits and starts (“Store X has Y Switches starting at time Z. Good luck!”). It’s awfully hard to get excited about a system you can’t find and a game you can’t play.

The big question, however, is not why the hype for MK8D is lacking, but rather what that may mean for the Switch going forward. The console’s made a pretty good first impression, but the Wii U’s commercial failure was so massive that consumers and industry insiders are still approaching Nintendo products with a lot of skepticism. Additionally, Nintendo operates under a more-powerful microscope than most companies do to begin with, so even small things like a lack of buzz will be magnified and presented as evidence of the company’s impending doom.

I think Nintendo needs to counter this skepticism and scrutiny by being a bit more proactive in its pushing of MK8D. Addressing console shortage fears through a “soft re-launch” of sorts would a good place to start. A Nintendo Direct or other large press event focused on the game would be even better. Better still would be teasing some future DLC content (bring back Captain Falcon!) that could convince current MK8 owners that there will eventually be enough new content here to upgrade. (While we’re at it, bringing back some old Mario Kart games as part of a Virtual Console launch wouldn’t be a bad idea either.) Nintendo needs to show off its marketing muscle and make sure MK8D is on gamers’ minds today and in gamers’ hands on April 28th.

My plan is to walk into my local Gamestop at the end of April and leave ready to take my Mario Kart experience on the go. My fear is that I’ll have to buy Mario Kart 7 to make that happen.