Give Ashlee Simpson some credit -- she (or her management) knew that the only way to break out of the shadow of her older sister, Jessica, was to be her opposite. So, she dyed her blonde hair jet-black, based her music in rock, not dance-pop, and co-wrote every song on her 2004 debut, Autobiography (Jessica only co-wrote one on her debut, Sweet Kisses). It could be argued that this makeover for the star of the square WB TV series 7th Heaven is a bit too calculated, but regardless of the intent, the end result still works far better than that of her big sister's albums. Where Jessica sounds like a throwback to the late '60s/early '70s, specifically to the variety shows of Andy Williams and Sonny & Cher, Ashlee is modern, using the glossy, punky pop of Pink and Avril Lavigne as the touchstone for her debut. It's heavy on guitars and light on dance beats, although those are bubbling under the layers and layers of six-strings, and Ashlee has adopted a growl that may come out closer to a mousey squeak, but the attitude is appreciated all the same. And that pretty much sums up Autobiography -- it's not perfect, and it's often affected, but it winds up being endearing because of her earnestness. Not only is she trying hard -- and, in the case of "Lala," trying way too hard to be sexy -- but she's succeeding in creating an album that feels like a bubblegum version of Pink's M!ssundaztood, even if it's not quite as catchy. While the album could have used a few more songs with indelible hooks, it nevertheless is an enjoyably slick, widescreen production that's a whole lot more fun than anything her sister has recorded (with the notable exception of "I Think I'm in Love With You"), plus it's varied enough to suggest that Ashlee could make a more interesting record the next time out. All in all, it's an unexpectedly strong debut from an artist who seemed destined to be a footnote to her famous older sister, but just may wind up with a more interesting career.
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine