We gave it a B-
She’s not exactly a household name, but she’s undoubtedly been in your household — via your television. Two years after it hit the charts, Natasha Bedingfield’s R&B-informed top 5 hit ”Unwritten” can still be heard in L’Orél hair commercials (because you’re worth it!), and the opening credits of MTV juggernaut The Hills are alive with the sounds of her blithe independence anthem.
To be Ms. Bedingfield must be an odd thing. While her Brit-girl cohorts Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen are as well-known for their libertine exploits as for their signature sounds, she plays the role of a modern Doris Day — blond, nonthreatening, prettily chaste. And her label seems determined to keep it that way. As with Bedingfield’s last release, 2005’s Unwritten, different singles have been chosen for the U.S. market. The coquettish ”I Wanna Have Your Babies” was her current album’s leadoff single abroad (and went top 10) — here, it doesn’t even appear on Pocketful of Sunshine. Instead, there’s a new track, ”Love Like This,” featuring baby-faced Jamaican crooner Sean Kingston (”Beautiful Girls”).
The song is…fine, a perfectly respectable piece of NutraSweet fluff. But it’s disheartening to hear the girl who, on her last album, made a track as giddy and idiosyncratic as ”These Words” — and one as defiantly personal as the I-don’t-need-a-man anthem ”Single” — be shoehorned into the bland platitudes and studio-spit-shined hooks that make up so much of Pocketful. When, on the title track, she wails to be taken to a place where ”…nobody cries/There’s only butterflies,” one can’t help thinking ”butterflies” should be replaced by ”relentless test marketing and scaredy-cat industry toads.” If, you know, that rhymed.
Then again, perhaps we’re asking too much of Bedingfield, only because her debut showed such promise; after all, she’s never professed to be a rule breaker or pop renegade. And granted, she shouldn’t need a beehive or a scandal to succeed, but still, some essence of who she really is seems AWOL. Beyond the well-crafted melodies of songs like ”Soulmate,” ”Put Your Arms Around Me,” and ”Piece of Your Heart” — which all have solid single potential — the highly confessional lyrics, co-written by Bedingfield, are often too dear-diary to resonate. (”Angel,” with its treacly promises to protect a lover from pain and hurt, is no ”Umbrella.”) And the ”love is good, love is hard” sentiments become, after 13 tracks, mildly repetitive. Then again, her well-meaning bromides, as on ”Freckles,” which celebrates the beauty of imperfections, may just be Shakespeare to an audience that considers Hills ugh-bots Heidi and Spencer the Romeo and Juliet of their time. B-
DOWNLOAD THIS: Stream a preview of ”Piece of Your Heart” at barnesandnoble.com