Album review: Wild Belle, 'Isles'

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Wild Belle

Natalie Bergman fronts Wild Belle at Lincoln Hall in Chicago in January. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune / March 11, 2013)

3 stars (out of 4)

A year ago, Barrington brother-sister combo Elliot and Natalie Bergman had finished a self-produced album and then released an addictive single, “Keep You,” that ignited a frenzy of record-company offers. Though Wild Belle is now signed to a major label, the album they made doesn’t suffer from any big-budget tinkering. It brims with reggae-infused pop songs, with Natalie singing about affairs and obsessions mostly gone wrong and Elliot adorning them with odd but entrancing flourishes – thumb pianos show up in all sorts of guises and he plays baritone saxophone with guts and gusto.

“Isles” (Columbia) is deceptively breezy. The tunes have a lilt to them, in part because of Natalie’s unhurried delivery and feel for hooks, as when the breaks off from riding the rhythm of “Shine” into a wordless vocal melody. Her narrators consistently find themselves in deep with the wrong guy, struggling mightily to extricate themselves from toxic relationships even as their hearts keep drawing them back. A much-need moment of clarity arrives on the eerie, ominous “Another Girl,” and “Backslider” provides a delicious taste of payback. 

The music has the relaxed, hip-grinding feel of dancehall reggae, but it’s smudged and de-prettified by electronics. Elliot’s background in the world-class Afro-beat dance band Nomo ensures that things never quite settle into formula. With its exotic instruments and spacious arrangements, this is a first-rate pop album that doesn’t sound quite like anything else on pop radio. 

greg@gregkot.com

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