Ashlee Simpson, "Bittersweet World" (Geffen)
Cast as the daring rock rebel in the Simpson family, Ashlee is hardly less plastic than her "nice girl" sister, Jessica. Her debacle of a "Saturday Night Live" appearance exposed her as a lip-syncher, and when she's not singing about her independence, she's working on Broadway. Lately, she and her fiancé, Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy, have been teasing the tabloid media by refusing to confirm or deny pregnancy rumors.
But on Simpson's third album, "Bittersweet World," the defiant pose -- "I just wanna color outside the lines," she pouts in "Rule Breaker," sounding about as dangerous as an unruly kindergartner -- gives her fertile songwriting territory.
Simpson is smart enough to work with expert hitmakers, among them the producers Chad Hugo from the Neptunes and Timbaland. And she's shameless enough to mimic Gwen Stefani, Avril Lavigne, Madonna and 1980s hits from Toni Basil, Tom Tom Club and Missing Persons. It pays off in songs with crisp beats, teen-seeking choruses and cheerfully obvious lyrics.
"Outta My Head (Ay Ya Ya)" and "Ragdoll," her collaborations with the Brooklyn electro up-and-comer Santogold, are perky, syncopated staccato complaints. "No Time for Tears" segues spooky Eurythmics verses into a pop-punk chorus. Simpson ricochets from vampy self-esteem ("Hot Stuff," "Boys") to post-breakup sulking ("Little Miss Obsessive") to generically sincere protestations that "it's not easy bein' me." It couldn't be more calculated, but that doesn't prevent it from being catchy too.
JON PARELES, NEW YORK TIMES
Phil Vassar, "Prayer of a Common Man" (Universal South)
Vassar has undergone plenty of change in the four years since his last album. He and his songwriter wife, Julie Wood Vassar, filed for divorce, and he switched record labels. He changed his sound, too, pushing the piano into the background while emphasizing guitars and string sections.
He sets the tone right at the start, using dramatic orchestration to set up lyrics blasting corporate "fat cats" and heralding working-man struggles in the opening "This Is My Life." Two songs -- "Around Here Somewhere" and "I Would" -- testify about how it's hard to turn around a failing relationship. Even the album's first hit, "Love Is a Beautiful Thing," has a reflective nature.
Vassar doesn't turn away completely from celebratory songs: "Why Don't Ya" is an old-school Tennessee rocker with Los Lonely Boys. But, this time out, fun is only a diversion. With "Prayer of a Common Man," Vassar reaches for something more ambitious.
MICHAEL MCCALL, ASSOCIATED PRESS