Panic! at the Disco: Pretty. Odd.

On their sophomore effort, Panic at the Disco make the vast, illogical leap from two-bit, 'in-with-the-emo-crowd' sensation to Beatles tribute band. But hey, wait, it suits them!

Panic! at the Disco

Pretty. Odd.

Label: Fueled by Ramen
US Release Date: 2008-03-25
UK Release Date: 2008-03-24

Panic at the Disco is a four-piece from Las Vegas. They were picked up by Fall Out Boy’s Decaydence imprint and won some popularity with their debut A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, which light-heartedly played up to emo’s clichés and allure. Raised as a Mormon, lead singer Brendon Urie was knocked out by an unfortunate stray bottle at a festival when trying to preach such sermons as "Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off"; however, Panic! at the Disco bounced back from that slight mishap, removed the exclamation mark from their name, and are similarly geared to advance with a second album that both reinvents and builds on their cutesy dabbling in emo-pop.

Author’s Note: this is when I scrap everything I have written so far and start anew, in the spirit of the band, who did the same whilst recording their new album.

The first time I saw Panic at the Disco live in 2006, they were like a firework waiting to go off: a young ensemble still in their teens, full of pent-up energy. Fearing a premature takeover bid to his status on the throne of pop-friendly emo-dom, Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy publicly instructed them to hop on their bikes, as documented by his own outfit's comeback single “This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race” (his reasoning in the matter: "bandwagon’s full", occupied by Patrick Stump and his ego). So Panic has invented their own without pausing for a backward glance, one full of extravagance, overlays, and flowery window-sill ornaments. “Emo is bullshit!” they claimed in the New Musical Express. “We want to be the next Radiohead”. They have since rescinded that claim: from a debut album that took the Fall Out Boy template as its big brother influence (and peppered with lyrical references picked from author Chuck Palahniuk), the band has made the dramatic progression to a sophomore effort that channels Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band-era Beatles!

It’s a vast bound to be sure, but maybe the average fan shouldn’t be surprised. When playing the hits from A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out night after night even started getting on the group’s nerves, they responded by bringing out cabaret side-show dancers during their live gigs. This can’t be interpreted as anything if not a warning. Pretty. Odd. is indeed aptly titled -- which is a good thing; better Pretty. Odd. than Pretty. Usual. or Pretty. Boring. -- and is enthusiastically unapologetic in its Sgt. Pepper’s fixation, sweetly harmonized choruses, and wannabe-psychedelic mindset. If you haven’t seen the video clip for “Nine in the Afternoon” yet, watch it below before reading on. The mix is spurted out in bright splotches of color; it would be hard to look at if it were fixed in canvas on your wall. But the Beatles-worship suits the group well, as Panic at the Disco have always been intently self-aware, willing to enjoy a wink with their audience.

To be quite realistic with our influences, though: are Panic at the Disco as good as the Beatles? Of course not, and bandying about the names of the late '60s and '70s pop giants is largely irrelevant when assessing Pretty. Odd.. If you assembled a Who’s Who convention of every artist in mainstream rock, on the other hand, Pretty. Odd. would outshine nearly all of them on a ten-to-one basis. If the band aren’t the best musicians in the world, after all, at least they’re picking from the best trees in the garden, right?

Gearing up to follow in the footsteps of My Chemical Romance, the Killers, and even Green Day must have presented something of a challenge to this pack of barely twenty-somethings, but they pull it off voraciously; even with something of a swagger. There’s a mannered charm they manage to keep without ever breaking into a sweat or sounding diminished as a unit, despite scrubbing the guyliner for mid-'60s fluoro suits. Guitarist Ryan Ross’s catchphrases, which depending on your preference and age demographic are either delightfully witty or incredibly petty, are obscured a little by the myriad of overdubs and lush instrumental sit-in that accompanies nearly every track, but this is not important. Pretty. Odd. still constitutes one brave sophomore voyage.

Additionally, Brendon Urie might just be a more capable singer than anyone had previously supposed: he holds the snaking tune of “Do You Know What I’m Seeing?” without fading into his swirling instrumental backyard -- not bad, for any untrained vocalist. On “Northern Downpour”, he peels off a new timbre to his panting swank entirely, serving an emotionally bare, Robert Smith-esque performance that doesn’t sound like him at all. When he’s not commanding the mic, the quartet takes playful delight in mini-song interludes, shelving their techno for vaudevillian (“I Have Friends in High Places”), pre-album disclaimer (“We’re So Starving”) and “Folkin’ Around”, which is what Bob Dylan may have sounded like if we took him back forty-five years and sucked out all his acerbic irony.

Pretty. Odd. is fine-tuned to such an extent that free-wheelin’ harmonies feel conversational even though they border on ridiculous. However, all posturing is undertaken in good taste, from the stabbing piano chords on “When the Day Met the Night”, lifted from the Beatles' “Getting Better”, to Panic at the Disco’s first guitar solo, ever, on “Pas de Cheval”. On the other side of the fence, Urie and Ross share a notable fondness for quaint baroque arrangements; pizzicato guitar adorns “Behind the Sea”, while a ludicrously stiff chamber pop dynamic coats “She Had the World”, featuring a harpsichord! “The piano knows something I don’t know”, Urie bemoans in a sudden moment of paranoia on the track of the same name. He may well be right: in a sophomore set to this lofty scale, who is really directing whom?

If this is Panic at the Disco’s bid to win oldies fans and bridge the age divide -- leaving behind the teenage girls, seeking former student protestors and hippies -- it may be ridden with cheese. The fact remains, even if this batch of songs is a little clumsy and without nuance at times, most are memorable and enjoyable. Let’s compare again: the scope-expanding vision that characterizes Pretty. Odd. with, for example, "Maybe I’m the one, Who is the schizophrenic psycho!"' (Puddle of Mudd, “Psycho”). The outlook is laughably one-sided.

That leaves only one question left to be asked of Panic at the Disco. Now they’ve successfully pulled of their Beatles pastiche, where the hell do they go now?


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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