Ashlee Simpson vs. t.A.T.u.

Guess who made the better new album.

The band t.A.T.u. was a product that one could only sell, or buy, once. Even as the goth-chipmunk ardor of their 2002 single “All the Things She Said” was steadily denting stateside radio playlists, it was safe to assume there would be no competing teenage-lesbian Slav duo that year. Lena and Julia took the waning Britney-vs.-Christina debate and resolved it as only a reeling post-socialist mind would—Both! Making out! In a way, they formed the ultimate, albeit belated, punch line to the 1990s: liberation as political correctness as farce. Not bad for two girls in Catholic-school uniforms, especially considering there are no Catholic girl schools in Russia.The highbrow reaction was a mix of bemusement and horror, with Gary Shteyngart doing the requisite hand-wringing in The New Yorker. His conclusion: The girls were in need of deprogramming, and the duo’s manager, Mr. Shapovalov, was a man capable of mesmerizing Mesmer.

One small detail spoiled the otherwise immaculate picture of corrupted youth, hair-raising exploitation, and proto-capitalist greed run amok: “All the Things She Said“was a terrific song. Tightly constructed by craftsmen unknown and given a steely sheen by the celebrated producer Trevor Horn, the killer single ostensibly about same-sex lust was, in fact, a valentine to all of us who like a bit of a challenge with our pleasure. In an era when one good hook is enough to hang an album’s worth of filler on, “All the Things She Said” contained at least five distinct parts, each catchier than the other. What’s more, it drew freely from disparate sources, both above- and underground: goth rock, industrial, sleek ‘90s techno. In short, it was a ubiquitous hit that also doubled as a hip discovery—a phenomenon that hasn’t recurred until Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.”

Second albums by pop groups always demand a shift in narrative—Clarkson “matures,” Pink “goes punk”—but how do you follow up an act that involves strategically timed onstage snogging during guitar solos? For their sophomore disc, Dangerous and Moving, t.A.T.u. have bravely downgraded love to very, very tight friendship. The video for the first single binds our heroines in blood as they violently dispatch a date rapist: The new template is a buddy movie, not Girls Gone Wild.

The main risk to such a flippant disposal of a gimmick is, well, financial. Indeed, t.A.T.u.’s Dangerous and Moving arrives to an audible yawn from its teenage target audience (who appeared to have long moved on) but to some genuinely eager anticipation from the overage music-geek crowd. An odd thing happened in the intervening years: t.A.T.u., the most shameless of all manufactured pop sensations, have become critics’ darlings. Dangerous and Moving can be described, without reservations, as a very good second album. It’s stronger and stranger than the debut, and t.A.T.u.’s improbably winning songwriting formula—equal parts Roxette, Nine Inch Nails, and Buddha Bar—has, by now, been sharpened into the kind of sound you recognize from the opening bar. This is not to call the album homogeneous. Even the single, “All About Us,” conceals some new rewards—for instance, a disarmed and disarming bells-and-timpani bridge that dawns after each squall of a chorus.

In lieu of a great novelty cover (last time around it was the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?”), Dangerous and Moving brims with collaborations that appear more bonkers than they actually are. Richard Carpenter—yes, that Richard Carpenter—handled the strings arrangement (they’re a little bit lesbian, he’s … ah, forget it). The most toxic-sounding group effort—a tune penned by the Eurythmics’ mastermind Dave Stewart with Sting (!) on bass—turns out to be the catchiest song of the whole affair. A bitter ditty titled “Friend or Foe,” it rides an anthemic chord progression that wouldn’t be out of place on an early Eurythmics record as the girls demand loyalty in its simplest terms: “We used to love one another … / So/ Are you friend or foe?” For his part, Sting’s laconic bass riff is not the fretless atrocity you might expect but a taut reminder why the Police sounded pretty damn good. Interscope would be insane not to release this song as the corrective second single.

Unlike t.A.T.u., Ashlee Simpson belongs to the wonderfully elastic category of pop attractions designed to be resold indefinitely. Whereas sister Jessica has managed to elevate a sort of honed vacuousness to the level of physical comedy, Ashlee appears to harbor no ambition more specific than to be photographed with a microphone. This makes her a perfect vessel for show business: As the market demands change, she can be recast as absolutely anything with no danger to the bottom line. That’s why it’s so surprising to see Ashlee cling to the snoozefest of her original narrative: self-definition through hostility.

Like fellow rebel Lindsay Lohan, whose very first single curtly demanded that we leave her alone, Ashlee excels at telegraphing mild, all-purpose annoyance. On her new album, I Am Me, she finds time to complain that “Hollywood sucks you in/ But it won’t spit me out” on the otherwise fun single, “(I Didn’t Steal Your) Boyfriend.” This song grafts a Franz Ferdinand stomp onto a melody that could have just as easily accommodated Interpol’s saddo drone (as “Since U Been Gone” did) and remains the liveliest on I Am Me. The rest of the album alternates between Extreme-sized ballads and tentative nods at louder rock genres like emo. This would be fine if every song, soft or loud, didn’t give itself a hernia trying to tell you Something About Ashlee.

The ghost of Ashlee’s little SNL snafu casts a pall over the whole production. Apparently, the producers decided that it’s as good a grist for the mill as anything. In the singer’s own words, the event and its aftermath inspired not one but two songs on the record. One of the two, “Beautifully Broken,”opens with sorrowful guitar harmonics under a line that skillfully mixes about three metaphors: “It seems like yesterday that my world fell from the sky.” The expansive chorus, when it arrives, serves up an exquisite logical pretzel by offering this as a mea culpa: “I’m beautifully broken, and I don’t mind if you know it/ I’m beautifully broken and I don’t care if I show it.” As an album, I Am Me plays a game of courting pity by loudly rejecting it, which amounts to annoying passive aggression. Dangerous and Moving, on the other hand, is that rare thing—a pop confection that doesn’t seem to give a damn if you like it.