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Maddie & Tae Bridge Country's Past And Present At New York's Highline Ballroom
Maddie & Tae became an instant sensation when they released “Girl In A Country Song” in the summer of 2014. The lyrics cleverly eviscerated sexist tropes in country music by chopping and interpolating a series of recent hits from male stars, and the single attracted admiring articles from the non-country press. But country listeners also embraced these would-be insurgents -- the song shot to No. 1.
The runaway success of “Girl In A Country Song” was partially due to a crucial revolution happening beneath the lyrics. The song’s sound suggested a commando strike behind enemy lines: though much of the recent shift in country’s sonics has occurred on records made by male artists -- Colt Ford’s “Dirt Road Anthem” (the original version), Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here,” anything by Sam Hunt -- “Girl In A Country Song” was as modern as anything in the genre. Adopting a style that was previously the sole privilege of the boys was one of Maddie & Tae’s most radical acts.
The track opens with either a wink or a warning: a recorded voice that assures listeners “no country music was harmed in the making of this song.” Acoustic guitar kicks in not long after, but the strums are almost immediately looped into a stutter-step pattern, and the specter of rap is present in the beat. The finest detail appears around the 36 second mark, when another instrument enters -- maybe a distorted guitar -- seemingly hell-bent on recreating the signature effect from Ginuwine’s “Pony,” a ‘90s R&B classic produced by Timbaland.
It’s a giddy, exhilarating tune, and also a slick bait-and-switch: when Maddie & Tae’s highly-polished debut album, Start Here, arrived in August (more than a year after "Girl In A Country Song"), nothing on it attempted to match the tone of the lead single.
Kicking off their tour in New York City Wednesday night at the Highline Ballroom, the duo functioned as a bridge between contemporary country’s pop-crossover imperative and the genre’s more traditional pillars. One guitarist regularly switched to fiddle -- an unusual texture in modern, radio-friendly country. (Start Here likely contains more fiddle than any album released this year in Nashville’s mainstream.) “Your Side Of Town” started with a descending riff that evoked Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” while “No Place Like You” could have been a Kacey Musgraves' song, thoroughly enthralled with country’s past.
Country music may be the last refuge for fans of harmony: the power of interwoven voices has mostly been forgotten in other genres. (R&B was once enamored of layered vocal arrangements, but they have gone out of style, or at least out of budget.) Maddie & Tae’s harmonies frequently attract comparisons to the Dixie Chicks, though on stage they pushed towards Fleetwood Mac, making the association explicit with a cover of “Landslide.” Individually, neither singer is as flinty as Stevie Nicks, but their voices meld into something agile, lemony, and sweet. The two are in lockstep on recording, breathing the same air. Impressively, they replicated this in performance, and the melodic luxury helped to save a song like “Fly,” the duo’s second single. The track is weighed down by cliché -- “So keep on climbing, though the ground might shake/ Just keep on reaching, though the limb might break” -- but it floated off stage like cotton candy.
When the duo picked up the pace for “Boomerang” (co-written for Jana Kramer) and covered songs by Justin Timberlake and Rihanna, those tunes felt jarring: it’s hard to focus on plush detail when moving at high speeds or singing other people’s work. The same goes for “Girl In A Country Song” -- their signature track is a bruiser, which mean it is now an outlier.
But the duo is aware of this. After ending the set with “Girl In A Country Song,” they returned for an encore, restoring equilibrium with a slow acoustic ballad, basking in the harmonies. The title? “After The Storm Blows Through.”