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EW review: Ashlee's 'I Am' dreadful

Also: Terrific Animal Collective, not-bad Cullum

By David Browne
Entertainment Weekly

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(Entertainment Weekly) -- Let's start with that album title, shall we?

It may be clunky and comical, but for Ashlee Simpson, "I Am Me" is probably a profound statement of defiance -- her way of standing up for herself after her onstage fiascoes and, by insinuation, taking some responsibility for them.

The title is also an extension of her shtick. Sure, she screws up, doesn't always sing in key or dance well, and can't decide on her hair color. But that's okay, because she's a regular person, just like you and me! You have a problem with that?

Not surprisingly, an air of defensiveness and self-pity hangs over Simpson's second album. "Beautifully Broken" ("It seems like yesterday that my world fell from the sky") and "Catch Me When I Fall" allude to life after her post-Saturday Night Live lip-synch train wreck, even if the wound was self-inflicted. In "L.O.V.E.," she implores "all my girls" to gather 'round for support; in "Dancing Alone," she asserts that "it's my life, I'm doing fine."

"Hollywood sucks you in, but it won't spit me out," she semi-snarls in "Boyfriend," which finds Simpson rhyming "for sure" and "my tour," certainly two phrases of equal importance in her universe.

But who is this "me," anyway? Little Ashlee was, of course, never the "bad-ass girl" she claimed to be on her debut, 2004's gangly "Autobiography," which proved definitively that ersatz punk was the new middle-of-the-road pop.

"I Am Me" does at least confirm that she's a producer's dream: a singer of no discernible personality who can be altered to suit the demands of the marketplace. With its shameless knockoffs of Gwen Stefani (the cheerleader bop of "L.O.V.E."), U2 (the stadium-rock throb of "Dancing Alone"), and Fiona Apple (the piano ballad "Catch Me When I Fall"), "I Am Me" practically amounts to a NOW tribute album. Every song feels like a retread of some hit you've heard before, somewhere.

Blaring like Karen O one moment, crooning like a husky version of her sister the next, Simpson (who's listed as a co-writer on the songs) is a pop changeling -- if, in fact, that's her we're actually hearing. The way technology works, you never know.

For sure, Simpson's Svengali, John Shanks, is one cunning producer. The new-wave-y bounce of "Coming Back for More," the funk-punk shimmy of "Boyfriend" (the disc's grabbiest song by far), and the wide-screen hook of "Beautifully Broken" are like studio exercises, ways for Shanks to practice his craft and prepare for his next jobs. (Recently, he's also pumped up Sheryl Crow, Liz Phair, and Alanis Morissette.)

As for the reality-show star at the heart of "I Am Me," it turns out the title song is actually about a breakup, with Simpson telling the insensitive guy who dumped her, "I am me/And I won't change for anyone." Even he must have found that line ironic.

EW Grade: C-

'Feels,' Animal Collective

Reviewed by Will Hermes

In the space of five years, this quartet of Brooklyn-cum-international freaks have gone from making barely listenable abstract-folk-rock records to making irresistible ones. Last year's "Sung Tongs" was sweet, but "Feels" is breathlessly giddy and shamelessly trippy -- like what might've happened if the Beatles expanded "Tomorrow Never Knows" into a concept album, with kindergarteners contributing song ideas. Somewhere up there, John Lennon and Timothy Leary are grinning.

EW Grade: A

'Catching Tales,' Jamie Cullum

Reviewed by Raymond Fiore

The jazzbo's multi-genre sophomore disc, "Catching Tales," is a potentially disastrous proposition: a gumbo of Billy Joel-style piano pop, Chet Baker's fragile sentimentality, and the underlining smirk of British melancholy.

But it works, mostly. Credit Jamie Cullum's limber, sassy twine of a voice box for making ordinary songwriting more memorable and giving dreary lite-jazz arrangements a kinetic infusion of young blood.

EW Grade: B-


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