Spurs on Simpson's high heels

Jessica Simpson

"Do You Know"

(Epic/Columbia Nashville)

* * 1/2

The moment pop princess/reality TV star Jessica Simpson announced her intention to record a country album, Nashville purists were up in arms. Listening to the result, it's hard to see what the fuss was about: She's every bit as country as Carrie Underwood, and maybe more than Rascal Flatts.

The pleasant surprise here is that she's co-written several songs that do indeed probe beneath the cover-girl, tabloid-ready surface of her life.

"Sipping on History," credited to Simpson, Hillary Lindsey and Luke Laird, mourns a lifelong might-have-been romance: "I could've been your June Carter Cash/Waltzed right along side you." "Still Beautiful," by Simpson and the album's co-producers, John Shanks and Brett James, acknowledges the downs in life as necessary to personal growth. Simpson doesn't exhibit much of a gift for vocal sculpting in this material, and Shanks and James don't help much by often burying her voice in over-the-top production.

Her struggle is most striking on the title track, written by Dolly Parton, who shows up to harmonize with Simpson. It's sweet enough when Simpson delivers the first verse, about a woman who's grateful for the connection she feels with the man she loves, but as soon as Parton joins in, the voltage increase is palpable. The gap between novice and master couldn't be clearer.

-- Randy Lewis

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