Panic at the Disco, a Little Too Stuck in the Groovy

In "Pretty. Odd.," Panic at the Disco attempts to make something new out of the baroque and Beatlesque.
In "Pretty. Odd.," Panic at the Disco attempts to make something new out of the baroque and Beatlesque. (By Phil Coale -- Associated Press)
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Turns out that Panic at the Disco doesn't actually need an exclamation point to make an emphatic statement. Not with the erstwhile emo quartet entering its Beatles period.

In January, the Las Vegas group ditched the oddly placed exclamation point that used to be part of its name. (Also out: Guyliner!) Now comes the bizarrely punctuated second album, "Pretty. Odd.," on which the boys abandon the manic, verbose, punk- and synth-spiked emo of their million-selling debut, 2005's "A Fever You Can't Sweat Out" -- and somehow wind up at the intersection of Abbey Road and "Penny Lane." In their new floral-print shirts and Beatle boots, of course.

The orchestra parts on "Pretty. Odd." were recorded at Abbey Road Studios, and one of the chamber-pop album's songs, the brassy, Eastern-tinged "When the Day Met the Night," faintly echoes the decades-old Beatles hit "Penny Lane."

It's an adventurous and strangely appealing album, even if -- or, more likely, because -- it sounds nothing like "A Fever You Can't Sweat." Whereas Panic broke through with "I Write Sins Not Tragedies," principal songwriter Ryan Ross and his band mates (lead singer Brendon Urie, bassist Jon Walker, drummer Spencer Smith) are now writing pretty -- if somewhat hollow -- neo-psychedelic pocket symphonies.

"You don't have to worry/Cause we're still the same band," Panic announces on opener "We're So Starving." But Panic at the Disco is no Panic! at the Disco, having replaced the arch, amped-up angst of "A Fever You Can't Sweat" with a completely overhauled sound. Everything is new, if old, from the baroque instrumentation (fluegelhorn!), songwriting (less wordy, more obtuse) and vocal phrasing (streamlined) to the Beatlesque chord progressions, melodies, hooks and stacked vocal harmonies, which also owe a minor debt to Brian Wilson.

It's perhaps the most shocking stylistic transformation to take place in the upper reaches of the Billboard Top 200 since the Killers tried to become an Important/Deep-Thinking Stadium Act, along the lines of Springsteen or U2. The Killers failed spectacularly. Panic at the Disco only fails marginally, coming up short mostly by sounding so derivative. (That Ross and friends can't quite write like Lennon and McCartney doesn't help.) Beatles references abound here: There's a musical whiff of "Strawberry Fields Forever" on "The Piano Knows Something I Don't Know," plaintive ballad "Northern Downpour" flashes back to "A Day in the Life" and "From a Mountain in the Middle of the Cabins" drops "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" into the mix.

The madcap video for lead single "Nine in the Afternoon" even sets off on its own version of "Magical Mystery Tour." Panic's weird, new lyrical concerns are like a trip down hazy-memory lane, as if the kids in the band spent the better part of the last year in a 1960s hippie-immersion program.

"I won't cut my beard and I won't change my hair/It grows like fancy flowers but it grows nowhere," goes a line in "The Piano Knows Something I Don't Know." In "Northern Downpour," the centerpiece head-scratcher is this: "Through playful lips made of yarn/That fragile Capricorn/Unraveled words like moths upon old scarves."

In the dreamy "Behind the Sea," Ross, taking a rare turn on lead vocals, sings: "Like bobbing bait for bathing cod/Floating flocks of candle swans/Slowly drift across wax ponds." It sounds like one of those sweetly strange Paul McCartney solo songs, only with lyrics by Colin Meloy of the Decemberists.

"Clouds are marching along, singing a song, just like they do/If the clouds were singing a song, I'd sing along, wouldn't you too?" goes the gauzy "Do You Know What I'm Seeing?"

So they aren't actually the next Fall Out Boy. Panic is, like, too far out now.

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Northern Downpour," "Behind the Sea"

Panic at the Disco performs April 30 at Constitution Hall.

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