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New CDs: Jessica Simpson, Michael Franti
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.
Groovy rhythms, childish rhymes
Michael Franti & Spearhead "All Rebel Rockers" (Anti)
* * 1/2
San Francisco-based Michael Franti has covered a huge amount of stylistic ground over the last two decades, playing punk with the Beatnigs and rap with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Whatever his musical mode, though, Franti always has kept his lyrical focus on the quest for social justice, and that hasn't changed with his current outfit, Spearhead, in which he flavors a reggae-based brew with dashes of everything else in his well-stocked creative cabinet.
To make Spearhead's new album, "All Rebel Rockers," Franti traveled to Kingston to record with Sly & Robbie, the veteran Jamaican production team. Sonically, the result is Franti's juiciest effort yet: "A Little Bit of Riddim" revolves around an irresistible funk-rock guitar riff; "Say Hey (I Love You)" has a sweet choral-vocal hook; and "High Low," which features Marie Daulne of Zap Mama, rides a dreamy global-soul groove.
Yet if "All Rebel Rockers" showcases Franti's growth as a record maker, it also reveals his regression as a wordsmith. "There are 6 billion people on this earth / Can you tell me what every single life is worth?" he demands in "Hey World (Remote Control Version)," sounding not unlike a sixth-grade social-studies student.
There's no doubting Franti's passion here, but you'll find these themes expressed more eloquently on records by ., another style-conscious internationalist with a fiery sloganeering flair.
Spearhead plays the Hollywood Bowl on Sept. 21 with L.A.'s like-minded Ozomatli.