At first blush, it seems that the last thing Nashville needs at the moment is another young blond starlet competing for face time in a crowded market. But Laura Bell Bundy's Achin' and Shakin' puts nearly all of her contemporaries on notice. Showing infinitely more personality, ambition, and genre know-how in any given 10 seconds of her debut than some current country stars have shown in their entire careers, Bundy demands attention and develops a persona built on equal parts theatricality and a love-me-or-hate-me abandon.
Even the way that Bundy has structured her debut speaks to her willingness to take risks. Divided essentially into two EPs unified by tone and theme, Achin' and Shakin' gives Bundy the opportunity to show off the real breadth of her talents. The six tracks on the Achin' side draw heavily from the lush production style of the countrypolitan era, with hushed string arrangements, heavy pedal steel, and delicate piano lines. It's a style well matched to the songs, which trade in traditional country tropes of heartbreak, loneliness, and reflection. Opener "Drop on By" is a sultry come-on reminiscent of Sammi Smith's landmark cover of "Help Me Make It Through the Night," and "Please" is a bluesy, desperate number that sounds like vintage Tanya Tucker.
It's the songs that showcase a more unique point of view, however, that make the Achin' half more than just a simple genre homage. On "Cigarette," Bundy considers the vices she could have turned to for comfort on a lonely night instead of a one-night stand, singing, "Should've let my hair down for dancing/Should've wrapped myself in a blanket/Should've been drinkin' just to forget/Should've left my lipstick on a cigarette," with a heady mix of regret and shame. "Curse the Bed" is even better, drawing a protracted and effective metaphor about setting fire to the bed "where love was made before" after a relationship has soured. "Bed" is by far her most dramatic vocal turn, proving that her Broadway-honed pipes are more than capable of serious interpretive singing.
The first half of the album also proves that Bundy isn't afraid of conveying a tone of frank sexuality in her music. While many of her peers project more chaste images, Bundy never hesitates to admit what she's done or to ask for what she wants. It's a refreshing change of pace and a perspective that stands in stark contrast with much of the country genre's conservatism and casual misogyny. It's been 15-odd years since Shania Twain and her exposed midriff got Nashville all atwitter, but it seems that Twain finally has a successor with the same fearlessness.
That tone carries over into the Shakin' side of the record to even greater effect. Opening with divisive lead single "Giddy on Up," which has already garnered Bundy considerable notoriety in trad-country circles, Shakin' is ultimately the more impressive half of the record. What Bundy and her team of producers and co-writers do remarkably well is balance a respect for country traditions—particularly in the way the fiddle and banjo riffs are foregrounded in most of the song arrangements—with spot-on pop instincts. The inspired horn section on "Giddy on Up" is straight out of Mark Ronson's playbook, while "I'm No Good" and "Boyfriend?" structure their massive hooks in a way that recalls Taylor Swift at her absolute best. The style may be off-putting to some audiences, but there's simply no faulting the construction here.
"If You Want My Love" is perhaps the best illustration of the superior songcraft on Shakin'. The verses find Bundy fast-talking her way through a crowded bar with lines like "There you were with the devil in your eye/Mmm-mmm, I can't pass you by" demonstrating both the singer's wit and a rare gift for understanding how the natural meter of language can be used to enhance a song. The track's hook takes the opposite tack and is far more concise, and it works because of its delivery: "If you want my love/Well, come on." Bundy leads a church choir in an exhilarating, full-on gospel rave-up. This type of song and performance haven't been done this well since Dolly Parton's "The Seeker" and "Light of a Clear Blue Morning."
Comparisons to at-peak Parton don't come easy, but Bundy earns them. It isn't simply a matter of talent, but of a willingness to take meaningful, productive risks and of having a distinctive and fully realized point of view. Bundy's music may not always sound like that of country legends like Parton or Loretta Lynn, but she shares with those women a clear understanding of how to create both well-crafted music and an artistic persona over the course of a set of songs. However roundabout her path to Music City may have been (she's best known for originating the Elle Woods role in the Legally Blonde musical), country is already fortunate to have Laura Bell Bundy in its fold. Achin' and Shakin' is sure to have its detractors, but it's easily the most loaded, fascinating country debut since Big & Rich's Horse of a Different Color.