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Natasha Bedingfield "Pocketful of Sunshine" (Epic) ** ½
G-RATED pop queens have a hard time growing up. The transition to real live woman is usually signaled by a declaration of sexual power, even if, years after Janet went Nasty, Mariah became Honey, Christina got Stripped and Britney showed she was Toxic, all the stripteasing has become tedious. A "mature" pop star has to show her bad side, even if it's as fake as her tan.
Give credit, then, to Natasha Bedingfield, who's trying to make adult dance pop that's not overly promiscuous, in the sexual or self-promotional sense. The 27-year-old Brit, who spent her teens on the Christian-pop circuit, has a nicely husky voice and a style that's modest without being prudish. Her 2004 solo debut, "Unwritten," yielded a few appealing hits, one of which became the theme for that televisual chronicle of tartiness, "The Hills."
Bedingfield's sophomore album, released abroad under the title "N.B.," had some inevitable flailing, including "I Wanna Have Your Babies," a bizarre portrait of woman-as-vessel that charted in the U.K. "Pocketful of Sunshine" salvages about half of "N.B.," adding tracks helmed by Rodney Jerkins, J.R. Rotem and John Shanks to supersize an already star-producer-heavy album (in stores Tuesday).
There's no "Babies" here, which is really too bad -- as awkward as the song is, it fleshes out Bedingfield's vision better than Jerkins' Mary J. Bligean "Angel" or Rotem's Fergilicious "Piece of Your Heart." ("Tricky Angel," the most adventurous club track on "N.B.," is also absent.)
Of the new material, the self-empowerment anthems "Freckles" and "Happy" show Bedingfield's best side. Summery elements -- loopy guitar lines, sighing background vocals -- play against the grain of her voice to evoke unshmaltzy hopefulness. "Love Like This," the single featuring Sean Kingston, would be unobjectionable if it didn't make you want to put on a T-shirt that reads, "BAN THE VOCODER."
Young Ms. Bedingfield's also very good at nostalgia. "Backyard" is this year's "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?": a rapturous expression of desire for the simple boy-girl games of childhood ("Your cowboy hat, my tutu/you hide and seek, I catch you") that simultaneously embraces and makes light of gender stereotypes. This is where the real Natasha Bedingfield seems to live: inside the question of what it means to be a nice, normal girl, even as she refuses to abandon that dream.