[B]Covered in continental drool, STEVEN WELLS braves the red-blooded reaction to NATALIE IMBRUGLIA in Italy... and his reaction? Ciao bella![/B]

Natalie Imbruglia

Bologna Jammin' Festival

Natalie Imbruglia is the sentient equivalent of the classic Rothmans cigarette pack - so clean, smart, functional and perfectly pocket-sized that the very sight of her makes the palms itch. She's a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed pop Tamagotchi and she awakes in all adult human beings the same primordial instincts that make us want to cuddle puppies and drop worms down the gullets of infant sparrows.

But there's nothing organic or smelly about our Nat, oh no. Like the equally petite and oh-so ergonomic Ford Ka, she has been tested in wind-tunnels and looks as if she's been designed by incredibly sexy scientists in white coats and Cuban-heeled Gucci loafers. Check out the horrid gurly big hair Natty had back in her bad old sob-horror Aussie soap star days and compare and contrast with the sexually ambiguous, tomboy dead-crow indie-flop fringe that she now combines with cutting-edge tongue-in-cheek Camden indie chick chic. Then gasp at the sheer perfection that is Kylie 2000.

And BELIEVE it when you read the babblings of erection-lobotomised and paternal instinct-crippled male heterosexual hacks when they insist that Natalie is oh-so-so-so-so much MORE that 'just' another lightweight, jumping-Jack-Flash-in-the-pan, fly-by-night, flick'n'fling flibbertigibbet plastic pop puppet. Oh yes. Natalie slips onstage tonight waving a very big Italian flag and then proceeds to strut around the stage like a Viagra-fied Mini Pops Mick Jagger. It's all very rock, this hip wiggling, this suggestive placing of the hands on the thighs, this rather rude cocky rooster prancing. And it's all a bit disturbing. On TV, with the blokey backing band glimpsed only occasionally, little Natty sucks the camera in with her limpid five-mile-wide eyeballs and tree-trunk-sized lashes and the senses are assaulted, subdued and then slaughtered by her total pop perfection.

But here, in front of several thousand Italian Kula Shaker fans, Natty and the blokes do a passable imitation of a pop singer backed by competent session musicians doing a passable imitation of an indie band having a really brave stab at aping a pretty average stadium band. Why, Natty, why? "This is the second best gig I have ever seen in my entire life!" gabbles the NME photographer, insanely. And 100,000 Italian males seem to agree; the ground becomes slippery with drool. Which is cool in a way. For the sexuality which neat little Natty undoubtedly exudes is of a distinctly Roger-the-cabin-boy slap-my-thigh pantomime principal boy variety. Which is to say that she has further muddied the sexual waters (in the tradition of Jagger, Bowie and Manic Street Preachers). Which is a Good Thing.

But this gig is really all the evidence we need to state that the attempts to sell Natty as a 'proper' rock star (what writes all her own songs and is 4 Real and a bit smelly) are ludicrously ill-advised. She has so far recorded one (that's ONE) amazing, brilliant, fantastic and utterly wonderful song in the shape of 'Torn' (tonight's rendition of which made this pop fan yelp with joy) but the rest of the album (and the rest of the set) are honest, worthy MOR rock plodders made to seem even ploddier by the legs-apart let's-rawk trad posturing of the guitar solo-addicted old blokes in Ms Broogleforth's slightly smelly old backing band. Why pretend to be stinky old Brussels sprouts when you're actually delish luxury Belgian chocolates? Natalie IS total pop but she WANTS to be Justine from Elastica.

Meanwhile, sinister faceless men in the background think they can market her as a Lilliputian version of the Sheryl Crow/Joan Osborne/Alanis Morissette/Meredith Brooks/Tori Amos-type mad bag-lady. This conceptual car crash has tragically resulted in Natty coming across live as a neater, smarter and only slightly indie-er version of Celine 'Fucking' Dion. Yuk horror! Stop this indie-madness!

Steven Wells

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