Birds & Batteries frontman Mike Sempert delivers the pining charge “One look, wide-eyed and alive” in Panorama‘s opening (and title) track. It turns out to be a great description of the band’s outlook as conveyed through this album. On the whole, the arrangements are tight, but opulent, the lyrics optimistic, yet clear-sighted. They reflect the same kind of insight and exhilaration you might feel after ascending a mountain and gaining a different, wider perspective on the world.
Over the course of four full albums and two EPs, Birds & Batteries have treated fans to various iterations of a core sound built on the backs of Moog synthesizers and pedal steels. Here, we get some of their most accessible, poppiest songs yet. Minus the string section, “Another Inferno” could conceivably be part of the Tom Petty songbook, references to dark highways, music on the radio, twangy guitars and all. Standout track “Strange Kind of Mirror” is radio-ready lovely, a perfect autumn tune and a great love song in the tradition of Bob Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” where faults and authenticity maintain a slippery coexistence with honest, open-hearted affection.
Sempert and his bandmates are adept at blending digital and analog instruments without creating songs that sound messy or gimmicky, but Panorama‘s tracks tend to either keep the realms separate or combine them in a more orchestral way. It’s a choice that delivers on bombast but strips away a great deal of the urgency and some of the fun. Fortunately, we’ve got a great point of comparison for the band’s evolution in “The Villain,” which is Birds & Batteries’ second version of the song. The first version appeared on 2009’s Up To No Good EP; it’s darker, churning, synth-edged, and ultimately better suited to the song’s melody and lyrics than the softer, guitar-laced arrangement on Panorama. The synths that work double duty as percussion and bass line are absent from this iteration, replaced by a cooing saxophone that doesn’t deliver the same arresting punch. The closing track, “Some Hypnotic Flash,” actually captures the feeling of the original version of “The Villain,” pairing arpeggiated guitars with an arresting harmony-laden minor key melody, punctuated by slide guitars and orchestral bursts. It’s an arrangement that builds a pretty study bridge between the band’s past and the new direction they’re edging toward on Panorama.
The album’s bookending songs, “Panorama” and “Some Hypnotic Flash,” contain the lines “I could dissipate into the landscape” and “cold bones and ringtones,” respectively, and both are unintentionally great summaries of the album’s highlights and lowlights. “Cold bones and ringtones” succinctly captures the Birds & Batteries’ ability to seamlessly meld electronic and organic sounds. “I could dissipate into the landscape” reflects the band’s newfound affinity for dense, lush orchestral production — which at its best adds dimension to clever songwriting, but sometimes overpowers the deft, nimble harmonies, sweet pedal steels, and other subtle, simple elements that make Birds & Batteries such a unique band. A panoramic view is certainly impressive, but you have to sacrifice some details to gain this wider scope.