The Waifs must feel like they've aptly named their band. The poor group has been releasing records in Australia since 1996, but no one off the island seems to have noticed. Now, eight years later, the band's first two albums are finally going global, with spring releases in the US and the UK.
Shelter Me, the Waifs' second release, first appeared in 1998, leading to a US tour and enabling subsequent CDs to come out stateside. The folksy roots sound would have fit in with the music scene six years ago, but it's no more out of place this year, when critics have been paying an unusually high amount of attention to mostly-acoustic acts like Iron and Wine, Sufjan Stevens, Devendra Banhart, and Joanna Newsome. A key difference exists between those artists and the Waifs: those other acts (with the possible exception of I&W) have made a name for themselves not only with beautiful songs, but through experimenting and playing with conventions. The Waifs -- with their re-releases and future albums -- will have to see if they can find their niche with such a traditional sound.
As far as traditional folk and roots music goes, the Waifs do lovely things. Driven primarily by acoustic guitars, the music maintains a basic, simple sound that's used to support the song, not to be the song. The instruments fit in well with the overall aesthetic, but the simple strumming and picking is hardly memorable. Josh Cunningham adds some nice mandolin work, as on "Smith St.", to add some variation. The group's original members, sisters Vikki and Donna Simpson, provide pleasing harmonies. The well-matched vocals remind me of Over the Rhine, but the Waifs are more campfire-oriented, lacking both piano and expansiveness. The Waifs perhaps more closely match a less-crunchy, more-mellow Indigo Girls.
"Time to Part" epitomizes the sound of Shelter Me in both its strengths and weaknesses. The track starts off with a bluesy acoustic guitar part and a slow vocal that begs for a smoky lounge. An introduction like this one offers the band a prime chance to vary their sound, and the guitar-and-vocal match on the line "I do believe" hints at heretofore hidden influences, possibly even Chicago blues singers. The singer has a strong enough voice to make this a powerful track, but as the song finishes the intro and starts up the body, the guitars hold it to just a minor-key version of the other songs on Shelter Me. The lyrics are tight on this song, as the narrator accepts the blame for her relationship ending, but comes off feeling less than guilty. While she's a "low down vicious dog", she won't hang her head. The pieces are here for a standout number, but because the Waifs hold to standard practices, "Time to Part" remains a standard song.
That problem pervades throughout the album. The Waifs do what they do quite well and Shelter Me provides an enjoyable listen, but the band doesn't do anything particularly special. On one of the album's strongest tracks, "People Who Think They Can", the sisters sing of a desire to be like those with the confidence to just go out and do it. It's a nice wish, but the Waifs in real life seem stuck where this narrator is stuck. The narrator sings, "You have to tread on other people ... It's not required that you sing, write, or play / You just wear the tightest one and smile in that certain way". This thought suggests that success is built on confidence, style, and aggression. The Waifs too often sound like they'd rather tread water than risk acquiring those characteristics. There's a large grain of truth and honor in this line of thinking, but it neglects the idea that progress and success require risk. If the Waifs are content to be a pleasant folk group, then they're doing everything just right, and there's nothing wrong with that. If, on the other hand, they want to create music that's more than just pleasant, they'll have to turn into the type of people they both admire and dismiss, those who "think they can".