Ever since the late 90’s, rock critics/journalists/bloggers/fans/whatever have looked for “the next grunge”: the next wave of bands to bring rock back to the forefront, explore new musical ideas, shape culture, and bring balance to the Force. And most of rock fans would choke on their words if I told them that out of all the trends in the past decade, emo pop was the one that came closest to being the next grunge.
Hell, I was one of them, and between 2006 and 2010, I couldn’t vocalize my hatred of emo pop enough. I thought Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz was the worst thing this side of Fred Durst, My Chemical Romance was a walking Hot Topic commercial, and I’d smirk at any fellow teen with sideways bangs and skinny jeans (then again, at this point I dressed like I was waiting for it to be 1994 again). But, despite all my outward ranting, I thought “Dance, Dance” was a pretty cool tune, and I knew most of MCR’s Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge singles better than a non-fan should.
That said, I never felt more secure in hating band than I did with Panic! At The Disco.
Originally, I thought early Panic! was all of emo pop’s negative qualities in one, tacky package, but the more I think on it, the more convinced I am that they’re more about doing emo pop’s qualities in a ham-fisted way. They take FOB’s penchant for overly verbose song titles (a shaky joke when done right) past its illogical conclusion with “There’s A Good Reason These Tables Are Numbered Honey, You Just Haven’t Thought Of It Yet”. They want the stylized edge of My Chemical Romance, but don’t know how to get there besides hey, costumes. They saw the entire subgenre’s reliance on “quirk” and “irony”, and launched it straight into “Who the hell writes this?” territory that goes by turning “I chimed in with a ‘Haven’t you people ever heard of closing the goddamn door?'” into a hook.
For whatever reason–creative desperation, overeager idol worship, quick credibility to critics that panned them–the big names in emo pop made their influences painfully obvious on their second albums. MCR very nearly became a Pink Floyd/Queen hybrid for The Black Parade, and Say Anything grabbed every other record they came across as inspiration for In Defense of the Genre. And Panic At The Disco dropped their exclamation point and a lot of Beatles for Pretty. Odd.
Ok, I know that was a ton of background, but it felt essential to Pretty. Odd., because it’s a context-dependent, reactionary record. Intro song “We’re So Starving” maintains that “We’re so sorry we’ve been gone/We were busy writing songs for you!” It’s hard not to imagine one of those nebulous “you”s to be the band’s haters, especially with how much Pretty. Odd. reigns in some of the band’s easy-target qualities (the exclamation point, the odd dance influence, and song titles, to name a few). But, for the fans, frontman Brendan Urie says, “You don’t have to worry, ’cause we’re still the same band!”
Which is pretty spot-on. While the lyrics overall are stronger, they have the same verbose and off-kilter vibe, and even though you can comfortably say the song titles in one breath, titles like “Nine in the Afternoon”, “From a Mountain in the Middle of the Cabins”, and “Behind the Sea” aren’t any less labored. And Panic’s still the same scatter shot band that they were on the debut, just now with more Beatles influence.
And boy is it an influence. In an interview with MTV, Urie said that “we never had the intention of doing that [sounding like The Beatles]. And after hearing the album, I can understand why people think that, but I don’t hear it all that much”. I believe he believes that, but the evidence suggests otherwise: “We’re So Starving” threatens to turn into “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band”, even without the wink and smile “Welcome to our record!” mentality. “Nine in the Afternoon” has a trumpet line that brings “Penny Lane” to immediate recall. “Do You Know What I’m Seeing”‘s chorus drifts into “I’m Only Sleeping” before the song’s second half channels some deranged strings ala “I Am the Walrus”. Other points are less obvious but still there: throughout the album, Ryan Ross’ guitar tone invokes late-period George Harrison, “Northern Downpour” sounds like a Let It Be/Abby Road send up, some of the more fantastical moments owe a lot of Magical Mystery Tour, and some of the baroque instrumentation on the album’s second half calls Rubber Soul to mind.
But the influence doesn’t stunt the band’s creativity, and instead gives it something to build on. Like I said, no one’s going to confuse this record for being by anyone other than Panic (ok, maybe Fall Out Boy); there are still plenty of left field choices and oddball moments, and they work. “Nine in the Afternoon” and “That Green Gentleman” never stay still, and have a manic charm to them. Meanwhile, “The Piano Knows Something I Don’t Know” turns from pretty to punk and back again, and “Northern Downpour” and “Behind the Sea” feature strong melodies on an album filled with good ones. At the same time, the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach sinks other songs and leaves other boringly odd, keeping the album from any sense of pacing.
While Pretty. Odd. is Panic’s highest charting album, it’s also easily their black sheep, and that’s what drew me to it for a Feedback. Two members of the band, one of whom–Ryan Ross, seemed to be the creative drive behind Pretty. Odd., left due to creative differences before the band began working on their third album. His absence is telling; Vices & Virtues sounds much more like A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out than its predecessor. But the rechristened Panic! still have their weirdness, whereas Ross’s next project The Young Veins played retro rock too straight and too dull to be anything other than a sub-par Brendan Benson wanna-be, making Pretty. Odd. even more of an anomaly.
Much like the grunge movement, emo pop’s giants quickly tried to distance themselves from the label. Measuring by those terms, Pretty. Odd.’s a success, and I can call it one of the more singular albums from the past decade or so. That said, it ends up slightly too jumbled to be called underrated, but it’s worth giving a listen just for the better parts which are, of course, pretty odd.