Lancaster is an expansive farming region, showcasing some of Pennsylvania’s finest rolling landscapes. During the summer in suburbs like these, golden fields border you on every side, and the sky opens wide with towering clouds. The surrounding landscape feels intimate, and life can move at a much slower pace than the city.
Tyler Burkhart, a Lancaster native, echoes such notions on his newest effort, Sweet Spell. It’s 11 songs of euphoric, meticulously crafted dream pop that reflect the relaxed nature of suburban living.
Such reflections can be seen right off the bat on opening track “Pavement Gazing”: “I recall a simpler time / while walking to the grocery store / when you turned and said to me / you’re happy as you’ll ever be,” Burkhart sings. A moving drum track picks up the feet of the narrator, carrying him through a breakup as he stares at the sidewalk. Sunny, yearning guitar attempts to fill the holes in his heart.
The tambourine on “Front Porch Screen” sounds like crickets chirping through the night as a summer evening wind blows through the door, signaling the end to a beautiful day. But it seems that Burkhart might be a restless night owl, and that vibe carries over into the hazy “Mama’s Buying Us Diamond Rings” – a song for the 3 a.m. lonely crowd that unfortunately have to wake up early the next day.
Title track “Sweet Spell” would fit as a Real Estate b-side, with lightly tapped surf rock drums and mashed arpeggiated chords. Burkhart hides behind this shining curtain of music, whispering “Though I can’t say what I need/I feel you so close to me”, as if making the song will bring him closer to what he desires. “Last Night’s Flowers”, while starting out nothing like its sequel but belongs in your ear when you’re lying down on a beach towel and can just faintly hear the waves. It then breaks down into “Last Night’s Flowers pt. II”, a profuse, reverb-drenched soundscape that could compete with the Cocteau Twins.
The truly marvelous thing about Burkhart’s music is his ability to convey pure emotion through his guitar tone alone. This is best exemplified on the cutesy slow-dancer “What’s This Trouble”. Thinly-veiled ride cymbals putter along as waltzing American Football-style guitar becomes romantic. It flows like a melting ice sculpture – something that gorgeous can’t last forever.
“I Want to Drown in Snow” is ironically named, since the title of the single before this album was basically a long rant about snow. Burkhart seems to have changed his mind here – you can almost see the snowflakes drifting along out the window, even though it’s nearly July. On “Your Cheshire Smile”, Burkhart plays around in the guitar’s low end like David Bazan often did, and adds more American Football-influenced high end to give the song a great split sonic palette.
Burkhart explains the origins of important realizations on “It Revealed Itself to Me”, an acoustic number that quickly dissolves into a flurry of angelic keyboard. On the closing track, he grapples with nostalgia, something that grips all residents of suburban life at some point or another. Memories of swingsets and singing in the garden are bottled up here, swirling through seven minutes of deep thought. “Such a lovely day / And I’m writing just to tell you/I only slipped and drowned/In the bathtub of the world”, Burkhart laments, possibly coming to terms with the way he bathes in a past life.
One of the greatest things about dream pop is the way artists let their primary talents take center stage, which ends up being guitar in most cases. Burkhart follows this pattern – his voice is shy, reserved, and often shooed away from the mix, much like lo-fi projects such as the Teen Suicide / Julia Brown camp. Yet what separates it from all those other buried voices is the fact that he uses it like an instrument. His voice is always there, droning along, adding the rose-tinted atmosphere to his music while the guitar plucks and twinkles away. This is most definitely a guitar album, but don’t count out the rest of Burkhart’s stellar musicianship.
Sweet Spell is an ode to the abyss known as the PA suburbia, with its simple, calming landscape, and the deeper, intricate web of communication that’s harbored in its residents.
Burkhart has two shows coming up: one this weekend, July 5th in Lancaster City, and July 18th at Smokey’s Regal Estate in Philly (with Nicknames and Sports).
You can view his impressive collection of music on his Bandcamp.
Lancaster, Sweet Spell, Tyler Burkhart