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BuzzCuts: New Music

Jessica Simpson is back with her first album as a divorcée — is her personal life more interesting than her music? Too Short's latest effort is just right thanks to a top-notch production team. Opera singer Ben Heppner explores one of the genre's most challenging roles. The third time's the charm for singer-songwriter Pete Yorn.

Jessica Simpson - "A Public Affair"
Ben Heppner – "Excerpts from The Ring of the Nibelung"
Too Short – "Blow Your Whistle"
Pete Yorn – "Nightcrawler"

Jessica Simpson, "A Public Affair" (Epic)

When you think of Jessica Simpson, a few phrases come to mind: divorcée, reality star, tabloid magnet, wig designer, burgeoning movie star.

"Singer" may be near the bottom of the list. Although a teenage Simpson entered the celebrity world as an aspiring pop star, she had only so-so success: While Beyonce, Britney and Christina dazzled and excited listeners, Simpson came across as a forgettable singer with equally forgettable tunes.

Only when she put her life on display in MTV's "Newlyweds," with then-husband Nick Lachey, did her career take off. Once the focus was off her singing, fans finally saw something irresistible about Simpson — a daffy, delightful persona that oozed sex appeal, charm and humor.

Now 26 years old, with her marriage and reality series both finished, Simpson is hoping to re-establish herself as a singer with her fifth album, "A Public Affair." But instead of showcasing her overlooked talent, it only serves as a reminder of why we never cared about her as a singer in the first place.

Simpson has a strong voice, and unlike, say, Britney Spears, can make her vocals soar. But unlike Spears, she doesn't have catchy songs to draw us in. Case in point: her first single, "A Public Affair." It takes chunks of Madonna's "Holiday" and Diana Ross' "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" to cobble the song together, and it's still a frothy, fluffy mess that sounds like karaoke.

That effect permeates much of the album, especially since Simpson chooses a decidedly retro feel — '80s covers like "You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)" and dated disco tracks — for much of it. Unlike Gwen Stefani, who managed to turn her '80s inspiration into an inspired, creative gem with "Love.Angel.Music.Baby," Simpson's tunes — eight of which she co-wrote — just sound like retreads. Vocally she also disappoints, choosing to pant and vamp her way through a song instead of really singing.

You wish that she had some strong, quality producers to better guide her.

But wait — legendary hitmakers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis are represented here. So is superhot producer Scott Storch, who has managed to make professional celebrity Paris Hilton sound listenable, as is emerging songwriter Johnta Austin, who had so much success with Mariah Carey last year.

So why did Simpson end up with banal, ridiculous dance songs like "Push Your Tush" and uninspired ballads? Even her attempt to mine her busted love life for emotion falls flat — "I Don't Want To Care" features verses that would barely get a passing grade in a Songwriting 101 class, like, "I don't want to care about us, I don't want to care at all anymore, I used to want to care a little bit, but now I care way too much ... I don't wanna care anymore."

Simpson is enough of a superstar at this point that her name alone will make this record a platinum success, like her last, "In This Skin." But the album comes across as an afterthought from a mega-celebrity stretched too thin. Unless she puts more effort into her music, Simpson's tabloid persona and public affairs will remain the reason for her fame. (Nekesa Mumbi Moody)

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Ben Heppner, "Excerpts from The Ring of the Nibelung" (Deutsche Grammophon)

The highly regarded Canadian tenor has tackled many leading Wagnerian roles over the past 10 years — Walther in "Die Meistersinger," Lohengrin, Tristan and Parsifal. But he has taken his time working up to the most fearsome part of all, Siegfried, the hero who appears in the last two operas of the epic "Ring" cycle.

Now, at age 50, Heppner apparently feels ready, and this CD of excerpts is but a hint of things to come. He's scheduled a concert version of Act III of "Siegfried" this fall in Manchester, England, and his first fully staged performance is due in 2008 in Aix-en-Provence, France.

On the basis of this first outing, Heppner has a good chance to make the part his own. The finale of Act I, in which Siegfried forges the sword with which he will slay the dragon, finds Heppner in splendid voice, with supple phrasing and gleaming high notes. He is well-partnered here by the Mime of tenor Burkhard Ulrich. He also sings with beauty and sensitivity in the more introspective scenes that follow — the Forest Murmurs of Act II, the awakening of Bruennhilde in Act III, and the death scene in Act III of "Goetterdaemmerung."

Curiously, Heppner is less effective in three snippets from the end of Act I of "Die Walkuere," where he sings the role of Siegmund, Siegfried's father. There's a distressing wobble in his lower register at times and the voice doesn't ring out freely. It's also annoying that the producers didn't provide a soprano to sing the role of Sieglinde so the glorious finale to the act could be heard in its full sweep.

Peter Schneider and the Staatskapelle Dresden provide the rather stolid accompaniment. Two orchestral excerpts, Siegfried's Rhine Journey and Funeral March, fill out the disc. (Mike Silverman)

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Too Short, "Blow Your Whistle" (Jive)

Other rappers pony up lurid details of groupie love and strip-club sexploits, but no MC upstages Too Short when putting pimp-game specifics to music.

On his 16th album — the unforgivingly graphic "Blow Your Whistle" — the Oakland hip-hop veteran has employed some friends to help the raunch go down smoother.

A rap icon for his simplistic delivery and unique pronunciation of the B-word, Too Short has recently stayed relevant by recording with buzzworthy artists (check his verse on Kelis' "Bossy") and employing hot producers. This disc is no different: Fellow rappers including Rick Ross and E-40 make cameos and Atlanta hitmakers Lil Jon and Jazze Pha provide the bulk of beats that cover Bay Area hyphy, Southern crunk and blaxploitation funk.

The Lil Jon-produced title cut moves to a swampy bass line and piercing whistle bursts. Too Short explains his longevity in his laconic, twangy flow: "I go on and on/ Can't understand how I last so long/I must have superpowers."

It may be hyperbole. But it helps to explain "Keep Bouncin'," an unlikely collaboration between Too Short, Snoop Dogg and Will.i.Am. The Black Eyed Peas frontman layers the beat with thumping drums, a Public Enemy sample and a female voice that repeats, "It makes me wanna bounce."

Despite the disc's guests, Too Short's plainspoken approach rules — especially on cuts such as the oral sex ode "Nothing Feels Better" and the self-explanatory "Strip Down." And while Kurupt and Daz tease aloof women on "Sadity," Too Short declares: "You ain't ever too cute to get slapped/ (Expletive) don't change when you get with a mack." Needless to say, the disc is not for the easily offended. (Brett Johnson)

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Pete Yorn, "Nightcrawler" (Columbia)

Pete Yorn is at his best when he's at his most ambitious.

Following a somewhat disappointing sophomore effort — 2003's "Day I Forgot" — Yorn reaches for the sky on his third disc, "Nightcrawler."

The singer-songwriter's 2001 debut, "musicforthemorningafter," demanded repeat listens and was one of that year's strongest debuts. On "Day I Forgot," Yorn seemed to be wearing his influences on his sleeve and the stripped-down approach failed to hit the mark as consistently as its predecessor.

He stretches his sound quite a bit on "Nightcrawler," offering shades of 60's pop, 80's Britpop, a few Springsteen-style touches and even a bit of bombast here and there.

Yorn's knack for injecting the most simple guitar riffs with subtle sonic touches lifts the songs a lot higher than they may have gone in lesser hands.

The opening trio of "Vampyre," "For Us" and "Undercover" showcases Yorn's knack for painfully catchy hooks and lifting, romantic choruses.

He slows things down here and there with a few sweet ballads, "The Man" and "Ice Age," and offers up the Petty-esque "Splendid Isolation" — but most of the disc's 14 tracks center on driving retro alternative rock.

Yorn can stumble a bit — the electropop of "Same Thing" seems a bit out of place — but he rises to the occasion with undeniably strong tracks such as "Policies" and "How Do You Go On."

"Nightcrawler" may have one foot set firmly in Pete Yorn's roots-rock past, but it manages to take an enjoyable leap forward. (John Kosik)

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Previous BuzzCuts: New Music from Pat Green, Outkast, Kelis, Carrie Rodriguez, Danity Kane.