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Music Review

Ashlee Simpson: 'Bittersweet World'

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Ashlee Simpson: 'Bittersweet World'
Released on Monday, May 26 2008

Ashlee Simpson's 'Outta My Head (Ay Ya Ya)' is as fresh and hooky a pop single as we're likely to hear all year. Were it performed by Gwen Stefani, who Simpson clearly channels in the video, it would probably be hailed as some kind of minor masterpiece, a smart combination of eighties new wave and glossy urban beats. But from Simpson it's been greeted with a collective shoulder shrug, failing to crack the top 100 of the US singles chart and languishing outside the top 20 in the UK.

Then again, nothing in Simpson's career up to this point has suggested we should take her seriously. She's variously known for being caught miming on America's favorite Saturday night entertainment show, denouncing Hollywood's "twisted view of feminine beauty" while preparing to have a nose job, dating Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz, being the sister of a woman who used her dumb blondeness as a career move, and launching a fairly uninspired pop career off the back of an MTV reality show.

Now, at the ripe old age of 23, Simpson has decided she wants more: a bit of credibility, a soupcon of cool. The US journeymen who crafted the dour, angsty Avril-pop of her previous albums have been handed their P45s, replaced with a cast list that combines the innovative and ubiquitous (Timbaland, The Neptunes' Chad Hugo), the leftfield ('L.E.S. Artistes' star Santogold, genre-mashing musician Kenna) and, rather bizarrely, Tom Higgenson from pop/punk one hit wonders Plain White T's. Their brief? To help Simpson make a "fun party album".

The result, thank goodness, isn't a hip-hop record, but rather a hipper, sleeker version of what Simpson's done before: candy-coated pop/rock with sharp beats and plenty of hooks. Bittersweet World is filled with sounds that, while not exactly exotic, certainly sound bracing on an Ashlee Simpson album: surf guitar, eighties-style casio keyboards, even a N.E.R.D-esque guitar riff on 'Murder'.

Sadly, Simpson remains limited by her voice, which is too thin and raspy to pull off the slinky dance-pop of 'Boys' and insufficiently meaty for power ballads like 'Little Miss Obsessive'. Sometimes she tries to compensate for her vocal shortcomings by going all husky and vampish, but the results have an unfortunate tendency of bringing to mind the more theatrical moments of Geri Halliwell's solo career.

Worse still, Simpson's attempts to make a "fun party album" are frequently undone by her lyrics. She proves she's got a sense of humor on 'Hot Stuff', sending up a skanky, shameless attention-seeker, but elsewhere she's prone to self-pity: Ashlee wants to be left alone, Ashlee's been abandoned, Ashlee's sick of being tossed around like a ragdoll. "It'd be nice to make some mistakes without observations or opinions or distortions," she moans on a song called 'What I've Become'. Didn't she sign away that privilege when she used a reality show to become famous?

These problems aside, Bittersweet World is a step forward for Simpson, a solid, hooky collection with two brilliant moments: 'Rule Breaker', on which she comes off like Joan Jett's snottier younger sister, and 'Outta My Head'. She still has a way to go, but, for now, Ashlee can take pride in the knowledge that this is easily the best album made by a Simpson sister.

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