"It used to be so hard being me/ Living in the shadow/ Of someone else's dream.../But now that I am wide awake/ My chains are finally free/ Don't feel sorry for me." So sings Ashlee Simpson, 19, on "Shadow," the best and most personal song on her first disc. Of course, that shadow belongs to big sister Jessica—Ashlee has followed the elder Simpson into the pop-diva biz (as well as into the wacky world of reality television with her own MTV series, The Ashlee Simpson Show). But on Autobiography, Ashlee proves to be a credible talent in her own right. Instead of singing the sugary pop favored by Mrs. Lachey, Ashlee brings a plucky rock edge to tunes like the crunchy "Pieces of Me," the album's hit first single, and the bubbly "Better Off," which should have Hilary Duff worried. Cowriting all 12 tracks, Simpson shows promise as a composer, although she succumbs to cliché on "Love Makes the World Go Round" and could have done without the insipid "La La." And she doesn't quite nail the tough rocker-chick pose on cuts like the Joan Jett-esque "Love Me for Me." Still, after Jessica's most recent release, In This Skin, this round in the Simpson sibling rivalry goes to Ashlee.
It's gratifying to hear Emerson Drive shift out of cruise control on its second album and kick up its heels a little, as the Canadian sextet does on the playful "Fishin' in the Dark" and the bouncy "Running Back to You." Unfortunately, more typical of this disc is "If You Were My Girl," a ballad on which lead singer Brad Mates, in halting voice, waxes all mewly and sensitive about his unrequited passion for the lady of his dreams. Four of the band's members helped write "If You Were My Girl" (along with producer Richard Marx and Pat Allingham), and in general, Emerson Drive is more successful when leaving the composing to others, as on the happily nostalgic "Lemonade." They're clearly better musicians than they are songwriters. Although Mike Melancon's drumming tends to the slappy, David Pichette's fiddling is decorative, and Dale Wallace's keyboards keep things energetic and tuneful. But if they want to compete with groups like Alabama and Lonestar, Emerson Drive will need to travel a different road.