If y’all were lucky enough to “Shake what yo’ Mama gave ya” to Wild Belle’s “Keep You” when it swaggered into town last year like a stone fox, you’d be forgiven for drooling in anticipation of their debut album Isles. One of 2012’s most deliciously hot 45s, “Keep You” was as close as pop gets to bottled sunshine. Dispatched by the Gods for crazy, hazy evenings “Sur la plage” it shook a hedonistic ‘n’ heady cocktail of drawl ‘n’ sass, hypnotically swaying hips, bee-stung cherry lips and the unmistakably mischievous wink that could only spell “T-R-O-U-B-L-E”. Oh and one damn saucy saxophone (yes, saxophone) honking over a “Mañana, Cherie” rocksteady beat. Mmm, mmm sho’ tasted mighty fiiiine. Though Isles ultimately doesn’t quite pull off that initial promise of dragging your ass through time ‘n’ space to form a global conga through Heaven it’s still bright enough that you should keep your Ray Bans in the “ON” position.
Wild Belle—a cheeky but fitting nod to Prince Buster’s “Wild Bells” record label per chance?—are Chicago-based brother n’ sister duo and musical magpies, Elliot and Natalie Bergman. The “Wild” boy brings the Sax—plus a gazillion other instruments, some possibly retrieved from the trash—whilst our “Belle” star brings one extraordinary vocal. Part Lykke Li, part Amy Winehouse, part Zooey Deschanel. Y’know, quiet but LOUD. Childlike, curious but ancient, wise. An “Old baby” if you will. Their self-produced debut is an unashamedly summery pop record double-dipped in the tropical sounds of dancehall, reggae, ska and afrobeat.
Despite bravely/foolishly playing their ace first, the chipper Isles still unfolds admirably and keeps your attention pretty much ‘til sunset. The lilting ‘n’ bouncy, nodding-dog ska of “It’s Too Late” surfs this beach on an inflatable jumbo bassline whilst the Buffalo Gal hopscotch of “Shine” twists trashy, twinkly Casio synths with percussion fashioned from dustbin lids. It’s Prince on vacation resplendent in Hawaiian board shorts and flip-flops before Debbie Harry whisks him off in an embrace of sweet “Oooh! Wooah!” perfume. “I got a lover / He puts the shine in the sun” exhales Belle. Throughout a myriad of worldly instruments are picked up, tinkered with ‘n’ tickled then tossed gleefully into the ocean. “Twisted” spins afrobeat and cheery calypso atop wooden crate percussion and “Pina Colada’s? For breakfast?” musings like “What’s the definition of love if it isn’t material things?” It all radiates, positively.
The sun rarely sets on Isles but there are moments of shade. The blackcat struttin’ “Backslider” is mosquito bitten and twice shy. Lyrically it rubs shoulders with Amy’s “Back to Black”, a pissed love n’ hate valentine, “You’ll go back to your ol’ flame.” Musically though it’s less back-to-black, more back-to-the-bar…and yes, there will be sax… and possibly glockenspiel. The dramatic “Happy Home” brings mo’ rain though. Square-jawed piano and tempestuous guitar chords crack the blue skies like thunder. “Is this a happy home?..I ain’t gonna cut my hair / Even if you say” spits ‘n’ taunts Bergman, stepping arms-folded from the pages of Tennessee Williams. Bad Belle stays local for “Another Girl”. Shangri-Las’ heartache ‘n’ harmonies, whiskey tear’d psychosis, Bobbie Gentry curses and ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’. “I’m just another girl / Just another one” seethes Nat.
But Isles is mostly here to let the sunshine in. The coquettish, cool dub of “Love Like This” is shiny n’ breezy like the Heptones’ “Make Up Your Mind” with a soupçon of Blondie’s “Island of Lost Souls”. But the “Filler Alert!” appearance of dodgy duet “When It’s Over” momentarily trips Isles into a ‘70s MOR lovers’ rock splitscreen with some finger-wagging “Losing my gal to a rogue” cheesiness. The upbeat ska-lite of “June” helps to steady proceedings with its lovably scrappy honky-tonk piano, bass pops ‘n’ echo bursts rolling merrily towards that higher ground known as Bob Marley’s “Jammin’”. Isles bids listeners ‘Bon Voyage’ with a giddy wink on “Take Me Away”. It’s the “Zooey Deschanel Closing Musical Number”. Trip-skippin’ down the yellow brick road, bright eyed n’ bushy tailed, pearly whites a-sparklin’ with synchronized swimmers, mucho sax appeal and mwah-mwah honey kisses. Light-as-air yet impossible to dislike, Isles floats “Away” in its own shiny bubble.
After a long, cold winter Isles falls like a gentle kiss from the summer sun. It’s cool ‘n’ fresh and spends most of its forty minutes shimmying joyfully and trying to put a smile on your face. At its best (“Keep You”, “Take Me Away”) it sounds like Amy Winehouse on that beach ‘beyond’ raising a tequila sunrise toast to good friends ‘n’ good times. Sure Isles coasts at times, snoozes on occasion and pales if compared to, say, Taken by Trees’ similarly tropical but superior Other Worlds but its bonhomie and infectious, wide-eyed perkiness still warrants a good ol’ holiday-romance romp in the dunes.