Thursday, September 3, 2015

album review: 'start here' by maddie & tae

You know, it's funny, I think that I've said more about the phenomenon that is Maddie & Tae than their actual music itself.

Then again, I don't think I'm alone in that fact. When 'Girl In A Country Song' smashed into the country scene in the second half of 2014, it was seen as the long-awaited backlash to the sputtering phenomenon of bro-country, and even though the girls themselves were rather coy about the issue, it certainly inspired some anger from the bro-country set. After all, according to them, who wouldn't want to be a girl in one of their country songs?

Now I was a lot more sceptical here, and that had to do with the people backing them, albeit circumspectly: Big Machine, run by Scott Borchetta and the label responsible for introducing the world to Taylor Swift. But with Taylor Swift leaving country for pop, Borchetta knew he had to fill the hole in the country market, so why not introduce a country duo who could replace her, also wrote all of their own songs, and had easy marketing as the tide was turning on the bro-country he helped push to market? Play both sides against the middle, and rake in the cash.

This had been my hypothesis about Maddie & Tae last December, when I made my Billboard BREAKDOWN Special Comment about their success in the context of 'God Made Girls', that piece of overproduced junk from RaeLynn that at the time was on the rise. And I had originally seen Maddie & Tae and RaeLynn as two sides of the same coin replacing Taylor Swift - one would be the confrontational group willing to pick the fight, the other would cater to the more demure, more conservative Christian demographic. But a few important things happened since then that changed the script: RaeLynn dropped off the face of the earth; Maddie & Tae released their second single 'Fly' which proved they could reach that softer market; and most interestingly, they started pushing back. They spoke out against the increasingly stiff nature of modern country production and reportedly fought for more of a neotraditional country sound on their debut album. So okay, you've got me interested, how does Start Here turn out?

Honestly, for a debut, I did get more than I expected, but it's the sort of record that doesn't give me a lot to talk about. It's pretty short, pretty lightweight, it's got its spots of cleverness and no obvious trainwrecks or bad tracks - overall, Start Here is a good album. But it's not quite a great one, not quite hitting the level of detail and nuance that characterizes a Kacey Musgraves or Lucy Hale at their best, although the duo handily steps over Kelsea Ballerini, to say nothing of a big swathe of modern bro-country. 

So let's try to unpack why I don't quite love this album, and the best place to start would be the duo themselves. Now if you know your country of the past two decades, you'll pick up on the inspirations behind their vocal affectations almost instantly: The Dixie Chicks. And this immediately puts me in an awkward place because I've never really been a fan of that group. Yeah, they've got a few good songs, but I've always found a lot of their vocals grating and their harmonies never really got around that. To their credit, Maddie & Tae have a less aggressively nasal tone and that allows them to play off each other better, but it's very clear that Maddie Marlow is taking the main lead on these tracks and that strikes me as a bit of a wasted opportunity to give Taylor Dye's vocals some room to shine - almost a little reminiscent of how Tyler Hubbard has the most dominant tone in Florida Georgia Line. And I'll say what I nearly always say about country acts with multiple singers, especially when it comes to the songwriting: it always strikes me as lost potential if you never play off each other.

But again, it's a debut: I would have been blown out of the water if they had chosen to step into more storytelling with interweaving lines from each girl right out of the gate. Fortunately, I do think they have that potential, because the songwriting is pretty solid. I might not be as moved by some of the songs you'd typically expect from a debut - 'Waitin' On A Plane' is about wistful longing to start, 'No Place Like You' makes a very obvious Wizard Of Oz reference for home while touring, and 'Fly' is your fairly standard self-esteem anthem - but the nuance is in the details, and it comes with Maddie & Tae not mincing words about how tough things actually can be. There's a straightforward bluntness on songs like 'Right Here, Right Now' where they just want the guy to kiss them already, or the blasting of an ex on 'Your Side Of Town' to stay away, that actually makes me wish they were a little more transgressive or pushed harder. 'Girl In A Country Song' remains a standout here and I love how many bro-country references they crammed into pointing out the meat-heated objectification of the subgenre, but I also really liked 'Shut Up And Fish', how they got heartily sick of some guys they invited fishing with them and who were both unprepared for the experience and spent the whole time trying to flirt - so they dumped them in the lake, as you do. It's one of the reasons 'Sierra' doesn't quite hit as hard as I'd like - I get the very Kacey Musgraves-esque dance around calling this image-obsessed vapid socialite a bitch and instead just hoping for karma to hit her instead, but the track ended up just feeling a little clumsy to me. Thankfully, there are moments where they can tackle more complicated situations pretty well, like 'Smoke' where they know it's probably a bad idea to go for a bitter guy who may have been burned in the past but it doesn't excuse bad behaviour now, or the compassion that comes on 'After The Storm Blows Through', which shows some real honesty on how things might not get better immediately, she'll do whatever she can to help a friend who lost someone, whether it requires distance or being there. And then there's 'Downside of Growing Up', very much a coming-of-age song about having to take responsibility and doing things on your own, which easily resonates with me a fair bit and the girls do it well.

So after praising the writing on nearly every song on this album, where do things fall flat for me? Well, I wouldn't so much say flat, but I think it comes in the production and instrumentation. Don't get me wrong, I like the foundation here: far more steel guitar and fiddles and bluegrass-inspired banjo-driven acoustic grooves with enough sizzle lurking the background to give these tracks some energy. And while I could swear there are electronic beats on this album like on 'Smoke' or 'Right Here, Right Now', they're often faded or mixed just well enough to disguise them, and real drums nearly always replace them at some point in the track, even on the most obviously synthetic 'Girl In A Country Song', which always felt choppier and more synthetic than it should, even if it is redeemed by the subject matter. And really, there's enough solid fiddle moments and steel guitar to steal the show whenever they crop up, and there is a fair amount of variety in the songs, between the honky-tonk oldfashioned stompers like 'Shut Up And Fish' and 'Your Side Of Town' to the more ethereal 'Smoke' and the gorgeous strings and acoustic textures on 'After The Storm Blows Through'. But there are two distinctive issues that cropped up for me the more I listened through this record, and the first is production. Dann Huff is a very good producer in making sure all the tones have texture and blend well, but it often feels like the mix can be a tad busy, not giving the primary melodies enough room to breathe and stick in the memory, especially on the choruses. But even if that was fixed there's still a larger issue in the composition, namely that it feels very choppy and staccato. Between the stuttered grooves, the lack of a thicker, more liquid bass, and the very distinctive plucked tones, the songs can feel a little jittery, which chops up the melody even further. It's not always there, but considering how short this album can feel, it doesn't exactly help the overall flow.

So to summarize, as with the entire conversation about Maddie & Tae, I think I like what this album represents a lot more than I like the music. I'm not wild about their singing and current instrumentation, and while good songwriting and texture redeems a lot with me, that instrumental foundation doesn't quite feel established to me. Again, it's a debut, and I'm inclined to be positive about the future and really there's a lot to like about this, which is pushing a 7/10 from me, but I get the feeling that they can do a lot better. But as it is... a female country duo who can write smart songs, know their history, and aren't bowing to modern overproduction? That's a big plus, at least in my book.

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