In pop terms, this has been the year of [a]Robbie[/a] and [B]NAT[/B]...

In mainstream pop terms, 1998 belongs to two people: [a]Robbie[/a] and Nat. Some wag recently remarked that this five-million-album-selling soap opera escapee acts the part of a pop star to perfection. Which is fair comment, but so does every half-decent rocker worthy of the name. What the arse do we pay them for otherwise?

Sure, the ‘Torn‘ video is a carnival of lip-biting drama-school angst, but the live Imbrugli-fest offers way more than mere luvvie posturing. She has a rich and expressive singing voice, for starters, plus an unfussy chamber-pop backing band who never lapse into session-wank jazz-funk overload. Crucially, she also has songs which are As Good As [a]Robbie[/a], which means very good indeed. Gliding trip-hop serenades like ‘Smoke‘, for instance, or all-new acoustic sobbers like ‘Talk In Tongues‘.

The songs are secondary, though. It’s Nat herself who is the state-of-the-art ’90s pop product: high gloss, low maintenance, millennium friendly. As versatile and durable as Teflon-coated polar fleece, as stylishly practical as a Dyson vacuum cleaner. Rich in Omega 3, loaded with double-action liposomes and coated in alpha-hydroxy fruit acids.

She can’t rock for toffee, mind. Racy numbers like ‘One More Addiction‘ could almost be Bruce Hornsby And The Range deciding to ‘cut loose’ after a sedate supper-club set. And ‘Torn‘ is not quite the stadium-sized singalong scarf-waver it could be either, even though it remains a mighty tune with an impressively low accumulated irritant factor. That tremulous sigh of “to-o-orn” and the huge, liquid-treacle guitar solo which follows it are still two of 1998’s Finest Pop Moments.

Ultimately, whatever reservations we arrived with, we end up marvelling at the modest majesty of La Imbruglia. At the way she balances being as heartbreakingly beautiful as the young Isabella Rossellini with that brilliantly judged, carefully unthreatening, designer-scruffy tomboy-next-door schtick. Or the way she redeems occasional Sharleen Texas coffee-table soul excursions with pristine Harriet Sunday chirrups like ‘Left Of The Middle‘ and broody Beth Portishead laments like ‘Leave Me Alone‘.

The Natalie Imbruglia live experience won’t put fire in your belly but it is curiously refreshing, hygienic without being sterile, wholesome without becoming bland. Not so much a rock show, then, more a foam-fresh all-in-one body cleansing system from Laboratoires Garnier. Top marks.

Click here for Natalie news.