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CD Reviews:
Listening Room: Ashlee Simpson, Phil Vassar and more...

Of the Oakland Press

Posted: Monday, April 21, 2008

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Ashlee Simpson, “Bittersweet World” (Geffen) **1/2

On the balance, Ashlee Simpson’s life has been more sweet than bitter. Despite stumbles like the “Saturday Night Live” lip-syncing episode and recent, apparently false, pregnancy rumors, she’s riding a wave of two previous charttopping, multi-platinum albums, a batch o’ pop hits and a recently announced engagement to Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz. And, according to this album’s “What I’ve Become,” she’s “just begun to find my way.” “Bittersweet World” at least finds the younger sister of Jessica progressing, mining a new set of influences — primarily ‘80s new wave and dance styles — for a credibly entertaining 11-song outing. The opening “Outta My Head (Ay Ya Ya)” is her take on Missing Persons; “Ragdoll” tosses in vintage Madonna hiccups and Police eee-yo-ohs. Producers Timbaland, Chad Hugo of the Neptunes, Kenna and Jack Joseph Puig bring Simpson the most beat-centric material she’s had, while rock guitars make their way into “Rulebreaker” and “What I’ve Become.” “Boys” rides a more modern tip, kissing up to the Lily Allen/Kate Nash brand of British semisoul, while Plain White T’s Tom Higgenson provides guest vocals on the moody first single, “Little Miss Obsessive.” Simpson’s much-maligned voice is strong throughout the set, richer and more flexible — perhaps partly a result of her recent stage turn in a London production of “Chicago” — with more convincing ‘tude when necessary. She’s clearly finding a new way, which makes her “Bittersweet World” a bit tastier.


Phil Vassar, “Prayer of a Common Man” (Universal Records South) ***

It’s been four years since Vassar’s last album, but the wait — which includes a label change — has been worth it. Though he’s struck gold and platinum writing hits for Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson, Jo Dee Messina and others, Vassar is just as potent on his own, and “Prayer ...”, his fourth studio album, boasts some of his most evocative songs brought to life by even richer arrangements and production. A piano man in a twangy guitar world, Vassar’s instrument of choice gives each of these dozen songs a full-bodied bed on which he and co-producer Mark Wright build country and Americanastyle tracks that range from rowdy rockers (“Around Here Somewhere,” “Baby Rocks,” “It’s Only Love” and, with Los Lonely Boys, “Why Don’t Ya”) to more reflective pieces such as “My Chevrolet,” “Let Me Love You Tonight,” “Crazy Life” and the title track. Plenty of country superstars (and their producers) will surely check be checking out “Prayer ...” for their own purposes, but let’s be thankful Vassar got to take his own shot at these tunes first.


Barry Adamson, “Back to the Cat” (Central Control): The eighth solo album from the member of Magazine and Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds.

Atmosphere, “When Life Gives You Lemons...” (Rhymesayers): The Minneapolis hip-hop duo brings fatherhood into the lyrical mix on its sixth album.

The Cat Empire, “So Many Nights” (Velour):

The jazz-rooted Australian quintet made its third album with producer John Porter (Roxy Music, Los Lonely Boys, the Smiths).

Elvis Costello & the Imposters, “Momofuku” (Lost Highway): The British veteran’s latest eschews CD issue and will be available only on vinyl and digital download.

Blind Melon, “For My Friends” (Adrenaline): The “No Rain” group’s first fresh set in 13 years introduces new singer Travis Warren.

Billy Bragg, “Mr. Love & Justice” (Anti-): The politically minded British troubadour and his Blokes deliver his first set of new material since 2002.

Michael Doucet “From Now On” (Smithsonian Folkways): The BeauSoleil leader’s latest solo turn includes a rendition of Allen Toussaint’s “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky.”

Elbow, “The Seldom Seen Kid” (Fiction/Geffen):

The British modern rock quintet delivers its first album since 2005’s “Leaders of the Free World.”

Flight of the Conchords, “Flight of the Conchords” (Sub Pop): The first full-length by the New Zealand comedy duo collects gems from its HBO series.

From First To Last, “From First To Last” (Suretone): Guitarist Matt Good steps into the frontman spot on L.A. quartet’s fourth album.

Goldfinger, “Hello Destiny” (SideOneDummy):

The latest ska-punk excursion by genre innovator John Feldmann and his crew.

Love, “Forever Changes” (Rhino): The psychedelic rockers’ landmark 1967 epic gets a two-disc overhaul with alternative mixes, outtakes and other bonuses.

Lyrics Born, “Everywhere At Once” (Epitaph): The Oakland, Calif., MC (ne Tom Shimura) and singer gets help from Jurassic 5’s Chali 2na, Baby James, Amp One and others on his seventh long-player.

Stanton Moore, “Emphasis (on parentheses)” (Telarc): The Galactic drummer focuses on a trio for his fourth solo album.

The Replacements, “Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash,” “Stink,” “Hootenanny” and “Let It Be” (Rhino): Remastered and expanded editions of four seminal albums by the Minneapolis underground rock heroes.

Sleepercar, “West Texas” (Civil Defense League/ Doghouse): Sparta’s Jim Ward began this solo set seven years ago, during the final tour by his previous band At the Drive-In.

Story of the Year, “The Black Swan” (Epitaph): The modern rock quintet switches labels for its third album, produced by Goldfinger’s John Feldmann.

Tokyo Police Club, “Elephant Shell” (Saddle Creed): The anxiously awaited full-length review from this Ontario quintet rides on the heels of the 2005 EP “A Lesson in Crime.”

The Weepies, “Hideaway” (Nettwerk): The frequently licensed folk duo’s sophomore album comes two years after its celebrated debut, “Say I Am You.”

Whitesnake, “Good To Be Bad” (SPV): The hard rock group’s first studio album in 11 years coincides with the 30th anniversary of the band’s formation.

Your Vegas, “Your Vegas” (Universal Republic):

Debut set from the melodyhappy quintet from Leeds, England.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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