Madison Marlow and Taylor Dye made a grand entrance in 2014 with their hit song “Girl in a Country Song”, which gave voice to the nameless, faceless female figures in the “bro-country” songs populating the country radio airwaves. You know, the ones dancing in the moonlight, by trucks’ tailgates, in cut-off jean shorts, off a dirt road somewhere? Marlow, Dye and co-writer Aaron Scherz had them express lightly biting sentiments like, “I got a name and to you it ain’t pretty little thing, hottie or baby,” just straddling that line between polemic and satire.
Nothing on Maddie & Tae’s debut album Start Here is as clever or as likely to garner headlines as “Girl in a Country Song”, but that might be for the best. Instead they mainly settle into a sound and focus on harmonies, on unsurprising but carefully designed songs they can saturate with emotion. “Settle into a sound” isn’t meant to sound like a minor achievement. There’s a foundation here for greatness: on Start Here they seem to be aiming less for a towering achievement than for that sort of solid foundation upon which to build a career. The album is essentially packed-full of pleasantly put-together hooks, enjoyable melodic settings and observant if easy-to-slip-past-you lyrics.
Songs like “Sierra” and “Your Side of Town” carry a bit of youthful anger within them, for pompous former friends and no-good former lovers. “Right Here, Right Now” and the opener “Waitin’ On a Plane” do an excellent job putting us in a particular moment, be it infatuation or getting ready to leave. Leaving and moving around seems a theme here; whether the nominal focus is moving on from your childhood home (“Downside of Growing Up”) or travelling the US, possibly on tour, and wanting to be back home (“No Place Like You”). The album occasionally forms something of a statement along those lines: the sacrifices involved in becoming an adulthood. They can sound maudlin and excited about the same things, which seems notably representative of youth.
Their one attempt to have fun like they did on their debut hit is “Shut Up and Fish.” Actually it tells a story a little closer to those of the macho singers they poked fun at in “Girl in a Country Song”. Or at least the setting is similar, down by the lakeshore. But here, as on “Girl…”, they’re revelling in telling the men off. He’s trying to make a move, she just wants to fish. It’s kind of a teenage girl’s version of a Brad Paisley song. (Not a criticism.)
Paisley collaborator Frank Rogers has a co-writing credit on one of the songs, the closing coming-of-age ballad “Downside of Growing Up”. I mention that not to downplay Maddie & Tae’s own songwriting contributions, to every song on the album, but to spotlight the backdrop of expert Nashville songwriting and production that surrounds these songs and no doubt helped to make it as seamless and impressive as it is. Album producer Dann Huff seems the worthy of mention, as Start Here conveys some of the magic touch he’s lended to so many contemporary country artists, from Faith Hill to Keith Urban to Taylor Swift and The Band Perry and onward. (He also played guitar on Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone”, a not irrelevant fact.) The opening track here could be a Keith Urban song, in sound, though Maddie & Tae completely own it.
A certain dreamy atmosphere, in the sound of the album maybe more than the songwriting, is part of what I’m getting at. There are songs here that revel in it. Not least among them is the ballad “Smoke”, which is all about atmosphere but also perhaps the most smartly written song here. “Boy you’re just like smoke”, they sing, again getting at the evaporating nature of youth. The atmosphere in the song is in their voices as much as anything else. Throughout the album, whether nursing a broken heart or giving self-help advice to others, they give the impression they know this is all fleeting, that they’re on to better things, be it adulthood or super-stardom.
// Notes from the Road
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