The most obvious way to make a distinction between folk songwriters is to determine the artist in question’s sense of arrangement. Most prefer a lean approach. An acoustic guitar is almost guaranteed as a starting point, but whatever else is allowed in the picture makes the case for the artist’s unique characteristics. Maybe the singer will get lucky and know someone with an autoharp or a hammered dulcimer. These sorts of uncommon instruments are a sort of shortcut to folk legitimacy. It’s cheap, but I know I’ve been captivated by sets from folk bands with an instrumentalist plucking and yanking at some device that I and most of the audience have never seen before. Sometimes, it’s that easy.
Vanish Valley don’t seem to have any wildly rare instruments in their arsenal. I think I can hear a sitar in a few places on their eponymous debut album, particularly on opener “Bad Things,” but mostly things are kept minimal and traditional. Basically, this means that Vanish Valley has to find other ways to stand out.
Fortunately, the songwriting (in a fair world, the real star of the show) is quite good: catchy, unambitious melodies held together with simple, vivid lyrics. That’s the recipe for a well-respected folk album, and Vanish Valley will likely win the band a good amount of respect, if not fervent admiration. Andrew McAllister’s breathy rasp is perfectly suited for the solitude conveyed in his straightforward compositions, and the remainder of Vanish Valley completely eschews instrumental showboating. It would be absolutely ridiculous to actively dislike this album.
Yet, you might notice that I’ve avoided superlative descriptors. The reason is simple: while this is a perfectly enjoyable album, there’s almost no song that aspires to be anything more than a simple pleasure. “Sunshine City” and “Prettiest Girl in California” rely on familiar melodies and repetition. The album maintains a consistent tempo throughout, one appropriate for riding a raft down a lazy river. The longest song is a shade over three minutes, and the shortest is a hair under two. Even for an album that’s barely over a half hour, Vanish Valley does occasionally drag.
Again, it’s unlikely anyone would find anything to hate on Vanish Valley, but it’s equally hard to find anything to really love. There are intermittent signs of spirit, particularly on an incendiary solo that offers some real life to “Blood of the Famous,” but these are short, uncomplicated tunes. The band rarely gives the listener enough time to truly appreciate any one song in particular before the next one has already begun. Still, you have to admire a band that keeps their formula this uncomplicated. At the very least, the lack of pretension is easy to appreciate.