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Review: Maddie & Tae Tell the Bros to Shut Up and Fish on ‘Start Here’

7
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: August 17, 2015
Label: Big Machine

Part protest, and part indulgence in what they’re protesting, Maddie & Tae’s summer 2014 debut provocation, “Girl in a Country Song,” gently poked fun at the casual misogyny of commercial country by inverting its most hallowed symbols: bikini tops, cut-off jeans, carefree tailgates. Eventually it became popular enough to get airplay without irony alongside the very songs it mocked. For some, “Girl in a Country Song” was a clever distraction from the overwhelming majority of dude voices on contemporary country radio. For others, it was a wake-up call.

Apart from their breakthrough single, the pair’s first full-length steers clear of any big-mouthed statements, focusing instead on the small challenges and goofy struggles of navigating late adolescence. After all, the duo of 20-year-old Madison Marlow and 19-year-old Taylor Dye first met each other at 15 and moved to Nashville to be singer-songwriters shortly after graduating high school.

Comprised of radio-friendly pop-rock and Dixie Chicks-inspired mid-tempo ballads, Start Here speaks loudest with its small-scale anecdotes of teenage mishaps and first-time thrills. They sneer at sweet-talking city boys in “Shut Up and Fish” and celebrate the rush of a first embrace on “Right Here Right Now.” “Just keep on climbin’ though the ground might shake,” Marlow and Dye sing on “Fly.” Indeed, the operational metaphor on Start Here is the notion of taking flight and the necessary risks that come with it, which occasionally include falling down.

With their subtle feminism and down-to-earth humor, Maddie & Tae often feel like makeshift mentors, providing aspirational advice wrapped in country tropes. “There ain’t no shame reachin’ out for the next dream,” they sing on album opener “Waitin’ on a Plane,” in the carefree harmony that’s quickly becoming their trademark. Ten songs later, they’re still providing Hallmark-worthy advice: “It’s the road you gotta take to get where you’re goin,” they preach on “Downside of Growin’ Up.” On that song, Dye and Marlow finally face the consequences of their small-town scheming: “Pack your bags and hug your mom / Been dreamin’ bout leavin’ for so long,” finally culminating in, “You start to cry as you crank the truck.” Start Here does a great job of cataloging the highs and lows of early milestones: first kisses, first breakups, leaving home for the first time.

Maddie & Tae’s emergence conveniently arrives in the wake of Taylor Swift’s departure from country, a 2015 radio landscape still dominated by male-driven nostalgic remembrances of tailgates past. Maddie & Tae, who happen to be signed to the same label as Swift, provide a much-needed teen-girl perspective to mainstream country, an outlook that’s far less interested in the genre’s too-frequent celebration of the status quo. “There’s a lot to see from a windshield view,” they sing on “No Place Like You.” Start Here is about coming to learn that it’s all worth seeing.