“Is this chicken, what I have, or is this fish?” So wonders Jessica Simpson, clearly confused by the “Chicken of the Sea” label on her can of tuna. Her husband, Nick Lachey, stares at his new bride in utter disbelief. Publicly displayed on the couple’s new MTV reality program, Newlyweds, this apparent case of mismatched matrimony (she’s never done a load of laundry in her life, he’s a clean-freak) sounds nothing like the paradise Simpson describes on her new album, In This Skin. In fact, one is led to believe that their marriage is not unlike the fantastical, waterfall-drenched, T-shirt-soaked music video for the disc’s lead single, “Sweetest Sin.” The catchy tune, penned by Diane Warren, is a glossy, ever-so-slightly over-produced affair. And the same can be said for the entire album, which is weighed down by soggy, overwrought pop ballads that find Simpson repeatedly declaring her devotion to Lachey. (There’s not one heartbreak song, which makes the album even more sickeningly sweet.) Though it’s a small step up from the seemingly forced teen-pop crap that packed most of her sophomore effort, Irresistible, Simpson has yet to fulfill the promise of her debut, 1999’s Sweet Kisses. Rather than fill the powerhouse vocal spot left vacant by former labelmate Mariah Carey (Christina Aguilera seems to be currently manning that post), Simpson’s breathy coos are beginning to sound a hell of a lot like Olivia Newton-John’s. “My Way Home” contains one, bizarre 15-second display of Simpson’s lung capacity and a Middle-Eastern ether so faint and wispy it virtually evaporates beneath the track’s slick production. In This Skin contains a few surprises, though, including “Forbidden Fruit,” a track unabashedly inspired by Madonna’s “Music,” and “Loving You,” a seductively contrived reminder that, with teen pop long dead, Simpson should be aiming to recapture the club audience that helped launch her career with “I Wanna Love You Forever.”
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