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Music

The Waifs: Live from the Union of Soul

Joshua O'Neill

The Waifs remind you just how similar are the American and Australian mythologies: the wide open spaces, the cowboys, the hard livings carved from unforgiving land.


The Waifs

Live from the Union of Soul

Label: Jarrah
US Release Date: 2009-06-16
UK Release Date: 2009-02-17
Website
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The Waifs are changeless. Their sound -- seemingly born in the dirt, forged on long dusty roads -- emerged fully formed: weathered, lovely, and durable. Aussie sisters Vikki Thom and Donna Simpson have a little of the weird old America somewhere in their bones, and multi-instrumentalist Josh Cunningham textures their haunted roots music without flourish, underlining and coloring their powerful yet delicate voices and loose, graceful songs.

There's no formal play, no experimentation, no clever hook. This music is extremely conventional, which is the kiss of death for folk-rock in the freak-dominated Aughts. In the '90s, pretty pick 'n strum stuff like this had a shot on commercial radio, and the Waifs would fit more comfortably between Sheryl Crow and the Dixie Chicks (though they're far better than either of those) than between Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsome. Their strengths are their versatility, their sincerity, their beautiful melodies, their sweet and strong singing -- unhip virtues all. Despite an acclaimed (in Australia) career stretching back for a decade, and a tour opening for Bob Dylan, a search for their name on Pitchfork turns up no results at all. The Waifs have missed their moment. Barring some sudden reinvention of their sound or unexpected shift of the musical tides, they will become no more popular or wealthy than they are this very minute.

On their new live album Live from the Union of Soul they sound less than concerned. To the contrary: there's something valedictory about the tone of the concert, and deservedly so. The Waifs have never garnered the audience they might have, and they probably never will, but over five albums and 13 years they've built an impressive and wide-ranging catalogue of songs that aspire to be nothing more than beautiful and affecting pieces of music. Their show has a casual and intimate feel, despite what sounds like a fairly large venue. The Simpson sisters are funny and relaxed -- they sound utterly at home on the stage, off-handedly improvising new melodies, chuckling mid-lyric, shifting effortlessly between genres and moods.

They make it all sound so easy. A haunting, heartrendingly delicate folk rendition of Paul Kelly's beautiful Australian protest ballad "From Little Things Big Things Grow" sits comfortably alongside the jazz-inflected, honeydew-sweet torch song “Stay”, which could have been written at any point in the last hundred years, and the radio-ready country rocker “Take It In”. Their generic pastiche might be scattershot if it weren’t for their tremendous vocals. There's nothing waif-like about these full-throated voices, earthly and belly-deep, haunting and wispy or wild and free. They make modern Americana without bothering to hide their Outback inflections. It reminds you just how similar are the American and Australian mythologies: the wide open spaces, the cowboys, the hard livings carved from unforgiving land, the bounties of God and the toll of labor. Just as well that the Waifs have missed their moment: they sing for a vanishing world.

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