In a little under 20 years since their self-titled debut made good on the countless hours and miles spent touring, The Waifs have grown from an interesting and admirable, rootsy trio to being one of Australia’s most feted bands. That commercial success followed them to America and the early buzz on their latest offering, the Nick DiDia produced Beautiful You, is this is their best album yet, we couldn’t agree more.
It was around 2001 when The Waifs hooked up with manager Phil Stevens that things really changed for the band. Phil introduced his new charges to the festival circuit in Canada and North America and in 2002 they wowed the crowd and the critics at Newport Festival and released the London Still EP. In 2003 they supported Bob Dylan in Australia, who then offered a substantial US tour and a return to Newport. By then the album Up All Night was selling strongly, eventually gaining a double platinum certificate in Australia the following year.
They admitted at the time that the runaway success surprised them somewhat. The Waifs had actually already been around for a decade. The young Simpson sisters, Donna and Vikki, who hailed from Albany on Australia’s South Western Coast, were already touring together, when they met Josh Cunningham in the small North Western town of Broome. A 10 minute jam session resulted in an instantaneous bond. It would take four more years touring in a combi van and a move to Melbourne, however, before the trio made their eponymous first record. Over the course of three albums, the trio also picked a solid rhythm section with drummer David Ross McDonald having joined in 1998 and bassist Ben Franz in 2001.
Up All Night really did change everything, for starters the lure of America proved strong. Both sisters met and married Americans and started families in the US, albeit in different states, with Josh eventually moving Stateside too. To update the band’s complex geography, Vikki still lives in Utah, while Donna has returned to Freemantle from Minneapolis. Josh divides his time between California and Western Austrailia and you can add that McDonald lives in Canada, Benz in Australia. But When they entered 301 Studios in Byron Bay, NSW with producer Nick DiDia, the bond between them proved stronger than ever.
The distance between them inevitably surfaces in and around Beautiful You. The track 6,000 Miles is a direct reference to moving great distances, whilst a look back at the Australia they have all, at various times left behind, bubbles up through the songs.
The album starts with one song apiece and although not everything on the record is obviously autobiographical, this opening trio are laced with personal experience. First there is Vikki’s Black Dirt Track, in which she sings about where she grew up and how that place has continued to call to her, although there’s also the sense that she had to leave it to feel that connection as she sings, “Whoever knew whoever knew, That dirt black track, Would lead me to you, When I was a girl, It was my yellow brick road.”
Donna’s Beautiful You is about addiction. She’s had her own battles but here uses her empathy to try and help a friend, although her intervention isn’t immediately welcomed as she sings, “I’ll keep open the doors that you slam behind ya, If looks could kill, You woulda killed me a thousand times over, But your deadly aim, Was to turn away and not look over your shoulder.”
In Dark Highway, Josh recounts the tale of being broken down at the side of the road at night with cars whizzing past and no one prepared to stop and help. It’s a metaphor for our times, although he admits to thinking the same way as he sings, “It could be a trap, a desperate thief, better watch your back, It’s better now if we just drive on past.” He also acknowledges, “The good in a man is only as good as the bad is bad,” before retiring to the back of the van, getting his guitar out and writing this song.
In many ways this opening salvo tells you everything about The Waifs, with three brightly melodic, hook laden tunes, three strong voices, some fine harmonies and gorgeous, carefully arranged instrumentation, blending acoustic and electric textures with great skill. The album starts quietly, with acoustic guitar and muted percussion, but builds cleverly and seems to brim with optimism through Black Dirt Track, before taking a more reflective course through the following two songs. All, however, benefit from a guitar line here, a quick harmonica fill or those voices in unison to prick the emotions and draw you in.
As mentioned above 6,000 Miles returns us to the theme of home, while also referencing the distance the individual band members have travelled to make their own. It’s an appropriately expansive track, as Vikki’s voice has pleasing echoes of the playful swoop and grit of the younger Rickie Lee Jones. There are also more battles with the bottle too in the bruised ballad of When A Man Gets Down, with its rootsy country feel and mournful harmonica wail.
There are more obvious nods to Americana, with the twang and snap of the solos in Donna’s Somebody’s Gonna Get Hurt, with its environmental and economic woes, and Josh’s Cracks Of Dawn. The latter, a churning rocker, is delivered over a classic descending chord sequence, as Josh admits, “Love didn’t stand a chance, neither did I, So I’m slipping through the cracks of dawn.” He flips the other side of the coin with Born To Love, another rocker, but this time more bluesy with the fulsome acoustic bass. Again the snap of the guitar and the powerful finale are impressive, while the message is a potent invocation of the parable of the Road to Damascus and the gift of love for all.
Come Away also visits the theme of love, but in the pursuit of reconciliation, and with a more intimate singer songwriter feel. Again the bass is a powerful woody presence and the optimism surges, with whoops of pleasure and some clever word play.
Perhaps my two favourite tracks are the brightly poppy Blindly Believing, which despite the somewhat barbed tone, gets you singing along with, “Dirty little bird with dirty little wings, That flies through the night to other pretty things.” It’s a slice of instant gratification. Equally fabulous, although once again rather downbeat is Donna’s troubled teen saga of Rowena And Wallace. It gets into serious air-guitar territory, taking on Neil Young’s spit and fire, with added tremolo chords slashing across the mix.
Finally, February, which gives a neat anthropomorphic insouciance to the chill of the winter month in Northern climes, takes a different spin on home. Do you stay put or move to the sunnier disposition of the south as Vikki concludes, “But I know spring’s around the corner and the world is just a ticket away,” deciding the time has come to move on.
This record just gets better each time I hit play. Sure there are plenty of instant pleasures, it’s all so obviously well played and sung for starters, but it’s the finer details that create the lasting bonds between the music and listener. Beautiful You is brim full of little moments and these are songs that nourish the mind and stimulate the emotions in equal measure. It’s a record that’s all about the journey they have been on, one that has taken them through thousands of miles. Yet, whether literally or mentally returning to that Black Dirt Track, home is where the heart is. The Waifs bond remains strong and united, all for the sake of Beautiful You.
Review by: Simon Holland