Reggae is the foundation for Wild Belle, but psych-pop, Afrobeat, and blues-rock are the unlikely building blocks that make the band’s Isles a compelling debut. Siblings Natalie and Elliot Bergman gained indie cred thanks to their opening spots on tours with Of Montreal and Toro Y Moi, but Elliot’s prior work in renowned Chicago jazz group NOMO is a hint that Wild Belle might not be just another fleeting buzz band. Isles is a curiously diverse record, but because of all the genre crossover throughout, it’s easier to hear what Isles isn’t rather than pin down what it is.
The deceptively simple island grooves and Jamaican upbeats can disguise Wild Belle’s dynamic compositions to a fault at times. The album’s standout single, “It’s Too Late,” is a midtempo dance-party-starter, but no other track comes close to matching its energy. “When It’s Over” is another strong effort, but it’s also the only track to feature Elliot on lead vocals, and his delivery is a little dry compared to Natalie’s sultry tones. Elliot’s blaring baritone sax is a rousing highlight throughout the album, yet somehow feels underutilized despite its presence on more than half of the tracks.
In spite of how warm and easy the songs are, they’re subtly challenging. Natalie sings about pretty dresses, boys’ lips, and other unapologetically girly things that wouldn’t be out of place on a She & Him album, but when sung over rocksteady rhythms and electric kalimba licks, the focus is drawn deeper into the form. Ultimately, Isles falls somewhere between juvenile and sophisticated, which puts it comfortably in the mystifying realm of American pop.