(feat. track – “Nearly Witches (Ever Since We Met…)” [spotify])

I hold a big sentimental soft-spot for Panic! At The Disco – though I never did catch them in their early days (they barely played out), they came out of Las Vegas while I was living there, and more importantly, were largely responsible for the huge creative explosion that followed. But even beyond that, I remember being absolutely blown away by their debut album, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out. That record’s mix of dance beats and arena punk was unlike pretty much anything else before it (the closest band I can think of is maybe The Faint, who I also love, but who approached their music from a very different direction), and while it was uneven, its highs – “The Only Difference Between Suicide And Martyrdom Is Press Coverage”; “I Write Sins, Not Tragedies” – were truly, fantastically great.  Which is why I was so disappointed when they got their foot caught in a rusty Beatletrap on the followup, Pretty. Odd.  They shed so much of what was (perhaps naively) unique about themselves in pursuit of homage that felt like clunky style-biting at best and straight-up aping at worst.  So it was with way more trepidation than anticipation that I approached Vices And Virtues.  Boy, was I in for a pleasant surprise!

The term “Beatlesque” is, on its face, so broad as to be largely useless – the Beatles were a great many things to a great many people; arguably, the most things to the most people of any pop music act. But considering the overt, stated influence the Beatles’ catalog held over the band during the writing of Pretty. Odd., it’s natural (and probably right) to look at Panic! At The Disco through that lens. It’s clear that the Pretty. Odd. period, while not leading to the band’s best work, was instrumental in stretching their range as songwriters in two particular, distinct and nearly-opposite “Beatlesque” ways: Vices And Virtues contains the most straightforward, most streamlined simple pop song in the band’s catalog (“Always”), and the most experimental, most adventurous complex pop song in the band’s catalog (“Nearly Witches”).  Both work, brilliantly.

Between those tracks are successful experiments in everything from baroque pop to mariachi-tinged raveups to angsty funk, and with only one exception (opening track/lead single “The Ballad Of Mona Lisa” still isn’t doing it for me), they’re winners.  (The deluxe editions [spotify1] [spotify2] of Vices & Virtues tack on a few more tracks; while none are essential – it’s a neatly concise album that’s clearly been intentionally sequenced for both flow and feel – there are some neat moments, including wild falsetto vocals from Brendon Urie in the bridges of both “Stall Me” and “Oh Glory” that push into new territory for the already-formidable singer).  It’s an album with the sort of heavy layers of inventive production that reward repeated listens.  It’s one of those rare albums where extra time in the studio didn’t result in an over-thought mess; the attention to detail really pays dividends.

It’s always funny (and a little sad) when a young band discovers the Beatles and starts acting like they’re the only ones to have ever done so; I’m a little surprised and a lot thrilled that P!ATD have moved through and beyond this phase in the best possible way.  Next time around, I won’t get caught with my guard down.

review of Vices And Virtues (published 3/25/11)