Four years ago, having just seen The Waifs perform for the first time, I was rewarded with the signatures of Donna and Vikki Simpson and Josh Cunningham on their just released CD Up All Night. Tellingly, Vikki Simpson (now Thorn) wrote, "Thanks for supporting independent music." Some hours later, a day of very fine music finished with a masterful set by Bob Dylan.
Subsequently, Up All Night went triple platinum, The Waifs toured the USA in support of Dylan, and they became entrenched as festival favourites from Byron Bay here in Australia, across Canada from Vancouver to Halifax, and in the USA at Austin City Limits, Falcon Ridge, and Bonnarroo.
Sound like a fairytale rise from obscurity to the upper echelons of the folk/rock elite? It is emphatically no such thing. Vikki Thorn's "independent music" inscription on that CD gives an insight into the Waifs' mission. Their journey has spanned more than 15 years, they have honed their craft at thousands of gigs in the most unlikely places, gained recognition by word of mouth, resisted overtures from the majors, and established Jarrah Records from the ground up with California-born, fellow Australian "indie" artist John Butler.
Integrity, and fierce, uncompromising independence is The Waifs' credo, and does it ever show on Sundirtwater, their first studio release since Up All Night. After considering several alternatives for the recording, the sisters and Cunningham plus bassist Ben Franz and drummer Dave McDonald settled on Nashville's Compass Studios. As influences on their decision, they cite the feel of recent recordings by Ray Lamontagne and Ryan Adams, and a story that the great Waylon Jennings practised his bowie knife throwing skills in the studio parking lot.
The result is a fuller, funkier sound than before, the usual sparse instrumentation bulked up by Reese Wynans' keyboard wizardry, Dan Dugmore's tasty steel, and a greater employment of electric guitar from Cunningham. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than on the opener, "Pony," a joyous bluesy romp propelled by Wynans' piano and Thorn's harmonica that sets the tone of this uniformly impressive collection. The trio's songwriting shows a growing confidence and calmness throughout, switching from uplifting love songs like the title track and "Eternity," to the churning rock of "How Many Miles," to the wrenching regret of "Vermillion" in which the protagonist's "Pa was as drunk as a barroom rag."
The guitar and B3 organ-driven groove of Vikki Thorn's "Sad Sailor Song" nicely counterpoints the smooth, jazzy feel of "Get Me Some" and the Memphis soul of "Sweetest Dream," all this leading to the recording's centrepiece, a triple treat of songs kicking off with "Stay." This song just doesn't quit, punching along with fairground organ and Thorn's thrilling vocals. Then there's the darkly brooding "Love Let Me Down," which epitomises The Waifs' fully formed maturity and confidence in their oeuvre. Bleak and melancholic to a degree only glimpsed in their previous work, the song is replete with threateningly atmospheric electric guitar, ominous rumbling bass, and wailing harmonica. The vocals are stunning, unmatched anywhere else in their catalogue. Having taken us on this draining excursion, The Waifs complete their remarkable recording with jauntily strummed ukulele on the delightful "Feeling Sentimental."
Sundirtwater is the best stop so far on The Waifs' impressive musical odyssey. • Michael Hansen
see our review of a recent Waifs collaboration