Broadway star Laura Bell Bundy’s major label debut Achin’ and Shakin’ is divided into two distinct six-song segments. The first, Achin’, features a series of expressive pop-country ballads which Bundy handles with delightful intimacy. Her voice is a warm whisper on album opener “Drop On By,” while swanky standout track “Cigarette” plays like a cabaret take on a country songstress’ heartbreak. Both songs showcase a voice rich with interpretive ability and technical proficiency. Then again, who is surprised? You don’t get yourself nominated for a Tony Award (for her performance in Legally Blonde: The Musical) by being a vocal hack, after all.
Bundy’s hurtin’ side is aided by a surprisingly organic production turn from producer Nathan Chapman (Taylor Swift, Jewel). Chapman delivers a full but not overpowering aesthetic, keeping things spacey and inviting by focusing on no more than a couple of complimentary sounds at a time. Whether it’s the pluck of the bass or a wailing guitar riff highlighting Bundy’s smoky growl, the instruments here are identifiable and employed purposefully. More notable still is the fact that they have an unusually physical sound that helps keep the overall vibe of Achin’ quite earthy; Listen to these six songs in succession and it’s easy to get the impression that you’re sitting in some dingy club in the city watching Bundy—backed by a trio of seedy house musicians—pour out her deepest confessions.
Rounded out by the driving “Please,” the brilliant “Curse The Bed” and the self-penned gem “Homecoming Queen,” Achin’ is a deeply satisfying and consistent set. The album’s second section, however, is a bit of a different story.
Shakin’ finds Bundy slipping into theatrical mode as she romps through a series of up-tempos that range from fearless and fresh to cramped and campy. The best of these are atypical songs that walk an exceptionally (and strangely) thin line between awesome and awful, while the worst sound like material culled from a short-lived country music musical, complete with hillbilly chorus.
Lead single “Giddy On Up” falls firmly into the latter category; Shakin’ producer Mike Shimshack seems lost on a song that becomes, thanks to innumerable musical twists and turns, a pure chore to endure. The track opens with an isolated bass part, followed by a tinny fiddle and a banjo, and by the time the chorus rolls out the horns, we’re almost distracted from Bundy’s uncharacteristically disconnected vocal. For the bridge, she employs a stellar Dolly Parton imitation that becomes an obvious point of reference as she moves through Shakin’.
Also in the “yikes” category is “Rebound,” which offers up the following gem of a lyric: “I’m not asking you for love or to commit/So, if you like it you don’t have to put a ring on it (Beyonce).” Yes, the background singers actually name-check Beyonce. “Hit me up, lay me down/Won’t you be me rebound?” Bundy sings.
You’ve got to give her credit for bucking the typical Nashville song subjects, but the lyrics of “Rebound” would be unsalvageable even if it weren’t seriously overproduced.
Bundy’s rebuke of Music City’s recycled product pays off much more handsomely on “Boyfriend,” a devilishly clever take on that awkward point in a relationship when you’re not sure just what to call your, “Man toy, lover boy/Sweetie pie that brings [you] joy.”
While Chapman was spot-on with Achin’, Shimshack (and colleague Kyle Kelso) are just plain spotty on Shakin’–which results in the second half of the album sounding much less cohesive than the first. Next-to-last track “If You Want My Love” has a frantic arrangement that fits Bundy’s breakneck songwriting pace, but album closer “Everybody” is like the final number in a cheesy musical that has dragged on about a half-an-hour too long.
Achin’ and Shakin’ is a risky album, from a label standpoint, in the sense that there’s not much hope for any of these songs getting spun on country radio—they’re too different, too jazzy and too adult. Artistically, however, the risks pay off–Bundy is a deft songwriter willing to steer her songs to different (and new) lyrical destinations.
A talented singer and a fundamentally unique artist, she also comes across, at times, as a little too polished, her songs a little too choreographed. The bulk of Shakin’ sounds like a heavy-handed attempt to use tempo and levity to counterbalance Achin’s emotional weightiness.
Drop a couple of the duds and the final product would be a lot sturdier.