Ashlee Simpson

Even before her public immolation on "Saturday Night Live" last year, Ashlee Simpson attracted more than her share of vitriol. A much-improved sophomore album could have blunted both the criticism of her punk-rock-goes-to-the-mall aesthetic and the accusations of opportunism that have dogged Simpson since the debut of her MTV reality series.

But no. "I Am Me" is a deeply grating, synthetic offering that lacks even the modest charms of its predecessor. On her best days, Simpson has an Everygirl appeal that compensates for any number of musical deficiencies. But on "I Am Me" (which may as well have been titled "Ashlee Simpson Doesn't Like You, Either") she's cranky where she probably means to sound edgy, strident where she means to seem fierce.

Her material doesn't give her much help. It's a curiously surly mix of ballads and dance pop that cribs from neo-new-wave acts like the Killers in the same way her debut, "Autobiography," aggressively invoked Avril Lavigne. There are a few subtly rendered "SNL"-inspired ballads ("Beautifully Broken," most notably), one song ("L.O.V.E.") that sounds more like Hall and Oates's "Method of Modern Love" than anything ever should, and several tracks so awful that, contrary to the old expression, they actually aren't better than a sharp stick in the eye.

The sole bright spot is the not-too-perky, not-too-croaky "Boyfriend," the latest in a long line of songs written about actor/Lothario Wilmer Valderrama. If you count Lindsay Lohan's album, Valderrama has had more songs written about him than anyone since Winona Ryder in her heyday. "Boyfriend" may be the best thing here, but Valderrama should still consider leaving it off his resume.

-- Allison Stewart



Somebody should bring Twista to the attention of quantum physics experts. The Chicago hip-hop star might have implications for the theory of relativity, because the faster he raps, the more he seems stuck in the moment.

The problem dogged him on his 2004 breakout disc, "Kamikaze," and it continues on his follow-up, "The Day After." The syllables flow rapidly from his tongue. Famous guests help steer the stream of words. Talented producers provide immaculate backing tracks. But in the end, the verbal velocity merely obscures the fact that the content is so tired. Twista likes women, he likes cars with oversize wheels, he hates slimy record company executives, he knows the street, yadda yadda yadda.

Of the guest stars, Pharrell Williams delivers the best hooks, providing his usual croon to "Lavish" and "When I Get You Home (A.I.O.U.)," which also features some falsetto work by Jamie Foxx, who appeared last year on Twista's single "Slow Jamz." Elsewhere, Lil' Kim sounds preoccupied ("Do Wrong"), Pitbull says very little ("Hit the Floor") and Mariah Carey tries to regress to her natural state as a teenage popster ("So Lonely").

"The Day After" still has some points where Twista's execution is flat-out entertaining. "Check That Hoe" is so ridiculously macho that it borders on self-parody, "Chocolate Fe's and Redbones" is so girl-crazy and corny that it works, and "Holding Down the Game" is so cocky that it could be used to teach Thug Rap 101. Alas, that's the introductory course, not the advanced one.

-- Joe Warminsky


Animal Collective

While last year's outstanding acoustic "Sung Tongs" was released under the Animal Collective name, it was primarily the work of guitarist/vocalist Avey Tare and percussionist Panda Bear. "Feels" marks the return of guitarist Deakin and electronics wizard Geologist, and the album's thicker sound makes the impact of full participation instantly apparent. The ringing tapestry of guitars and piano on "Flesh Canoe" and the shimmering electronics of "Loch Raven" give the album a wholeness absent from earlier efforts: Even the quieter tracks on "Feels" barely contain a empty moment.

Like the group's recent live shows, the album melds its songs into one continuous idea, capturing first the full-blown euphoria of a bacchanal and later, its groggy, hung-over aftermath. "Feels" begins raucously, with the jubilant "Did You See the Words" and the chanted "Grass," which is anchored by a heartbeat percussion. And while that feral, driving beat permeates "Feels," the Collective is markedly less savage here than previously. The sprawling eight-minute "Banshee Beat" begins with a whisper but doesn't grow much beyond Avey Tare's murmured narrative.

That balance between boisterous, brash melodies and delicate, dreamy soundscapes is the album's most defining characteristic. Rather than creating a Jekyll-and-Hyde struggle, the disparate sounds manifest themselves as part of the Collective's natural ebb and flow, making "Feels" a cohesive album that delivers as much of an emotional journey as any of its individual, isolated tracks.

-- Catherine P. Lewis


Gang of Four

Barely a month goes by without another young band's being compared to the legendary British punk/funk outfit Gang of Four, but a surprising number of such newcomers profess bemused ignorance when it comes to their supposed inspiration. Perhaps that is what's behind "Return the Gift," comprising 14 Gang of Four classics freshly rerecorded by the quartet's original lineup.

Then again, considering Gang of Four's longstanding anti-materialist, anti-consumerist stance, "Return the Gift" may also be a cynical swipe at those who constantly recycle the past, whether metaphorically (by borrowing riffs, beats and lyrical themes) or literally (by constantly repackaging and rereleasing 25-year-old records, as has happened with Gang of Four's frequently revisited albums).

On one hand, new, slightly tougher sounding versions of such songs as "Damaged Goods," "Anthrax" and "I Love a Man in a Uniform" epitomize redundancy, their vicious political agendas and militant cadences almost identical in spirit and execution to their original versions. Yet the fact that the reconvened band sounds as angry and agitated as ever speaks volumes. Different year, same old problems, the disc seems to underscore. "Repackaged sex keeps your interest," the group sneers in "Natural's Not in It." Cynical or not, the same holds true for the songs on "Return the Gift."

-- Joshua Klein

Ashlee Simpson's sophomore effort isn't so much underclassman as no class, man.

Gang of Four: Jon King, Hugo Burnham, Andy Gill and Dave Allen.