Pop country duo Maddie & Tae copped some serious media attention with their thought-provoking hit “Girl in a Country Song,” but the real test is yet to come. The release of their highly anticipated debut EP for Dot Records (a subsidiary of Nashville goliaths Big Machine) marks a make-or-break moment for the high-spirited pair. The four-song EP is anchored by that irresistible, irreverent single, an upbeat anthem with a skittering backbeat in which the two young women cheerfully challenge the sexist tropes that saturate the current wave of “bro country.” The honeyed sting in lyrics like “I got a name, and to you it ain’t ‘pretty little thang’” and the blatant references to some of the genre’s worst offenders (lookin’ at you, Florida Georgia Line) make it crystal clear which side these ladies are on. It feels like a song Taylor Swift could’ve written back in her Fearless days, its compressed crunch and jaunty fiddle slotting neatly into country radio’s status quo even as its message reads maverick. Maddie & Tae look like Nashville insiders, but sound like outlaws beneath the sugary production.
Unfortunately, the rest of the EP falters, overshadowed by its blazing single. While “Girl” positions them as anti-establishment, the rest of Maddie & Tae tends to toe the keg-party line. “Sierra” is a bizarro-world “Jolene,” in which they tear into a rival who “acts like she’s some kind of movie star” and haul out a Kacey Musgraves-style bit of wordplay that aims for clever but falls flat. “Fly” is a saccharine ode to heartbreak and escape, the duo’s light voices blending together in a blur of cliché croons about learning to fly. On the plus side, “Your Side of Town” is a radio-ready morsel of woman-done-wrong snarl that opens with a rumble of surf guitar and coasts through three solid minutes of honky-tonk lite. It’s the strongest of the remaining three tracks, showing that Maddie & Tae do best when they ditch the mean-girl act and run-of-the-mill balladry and embrace their rough-and-tumble side.