Album Review: “Pretty. Odd.” by Panic! At The Disco

Oh no.

Is it possible to start a positive review of a record with those two words? Have I blown it already? Can I profess my intense admiration for a record while being baffled by its very existence? Is there still room for a “what in the hell were they thinking?”, or more appropriately, a “who in the hell thought this was a good idea??”

The answer, I think, is yes. Yes! Yes.

And so, Pretty. Odd.

Context. Pretty. Odd. was released at the tail-end of 2000s mainstream rock’s brief mid-decade obsession with classic rock, kicking off with Green Day’s Townshend homages in American Idiot and reaching its inescapable apex with the Killers’ Springsteen-ripping Sam’s Town and My Chemical Romance’s Wall-esque concept album The Black Parade. And, from the looks of it, those mall-punked teenagers of yesteryear Panic! At The Disco (I don’t remember if they still have the exclamation point in their name and I don’t feel like looking it up right now) killed that era dead. Cold dead. And all because, at the drop of the hat, they decided to make their own Sgt. Pepper’s!

“But Sean,” you might say. “Who CARES if Panic tried to rip a dad-band like the Beatles? The Killers ripped Springsteen, and they’re still huge and the best!” Point taken. But despite their blatant homages, bands like the Killers and My Chemical Romance didn’t alter their approach on those albums much – they just pulled some dad-rock influences out of a hat and grafted them onto their established radio-grind sound. There wasn’t much at risk, is what I mean; Killers and MCR fans weren’t being pushed into uncomfortable territory.

That is not the case with Pretty. Odd. Not at all. With the exception of Brendon Urie’s “Patrick Stump Jr.” vocals, there is not a single song on this record that sounds anything like the radio-friendly, modernist death march of A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out. No processed guitars, no dance beats. This is nothing but 60s psychedelic pop pastiche, through and through: sub-ELO piano pop, strings, mellotron, harpsichord, mandolin, fade-out singalongs, honkin’ horns, and even a fiddle-driven country-rock excursion called – I shit you not – “Folkin’ Around.”

First of all – alright. Who – okay. I have so many questions about this record. Questions that will never be answered, ever. Who’s idea was this? Who was anxiously awaiting a Beatles-esque 60s pop album out of a band like Panic! At The Disco? Who allowed this to happen? Was the whole band into this idea, or was it just one guy that made the rest of them play along? Who was the intended audience, here? Panic! at the Disco fans? Did the band seriously think that consciously, obviously ripping off the Beatles would gain them even a modicum of respect? Are they that stupid??

I am coming off condescending here, but let’s not beat around the bush – I am absolutely, utterly fascinated with Pretty. Odd. Obsessed, even. I remember listening to it once when it came out and letting it slink by without a thought; my instinctive hatred of bands like Panic! got in the way. The wounds were still fresh, you see. But even then, I remember begrudgingly admiring the band, if only because they had almost consciously decided to release a record that their fans would hate. “Good for them!,” I thought, filing the record away forever.

But Pretty. Odd. stayed with me, and after putting it on again last week on a whim, I was stunned to find my admiration turning into intense, intense enjoyment. I was actually cackling to myself, listening to this record, and it wasn’t mocking laughter. Years separated from the odious sting of Panic!’s popularity, I can finally appreciate Pretty. Odd. for what it is.

How do I explain this. This record is so fucking weird to me. And not because of the music, but where the music is coming from. You know how most indie rock 60s pop homages come from musicians with a studied, encyclopedic knowledge of 60s pop tropes? People who have had these influences ground into them since birth, to the point where they have become obvious cliche? That is not the case here. Pretty. Odd. is the sound of a bunch of kids hearing “Strawberry Fields Forever” on the radio for the first time and saying to each other, “Hey! That’s neat! Let’s do THAT now!!” without realizing that everybody on planet Earth has already done it. This is no Psnoic Psunspot. There is a naive enthusiasm here that you are not going to find anywhere else.

If this sounds like a nightmare to you, well, fair enough. Let’s get the obvious issue out of the way – Brendon Urie is not a good singer, and he is not a good fit for this material (I have never before heard a singer who somehow manages to sound pitch-corrected even when he’s singing naturally). This is not a genre for him. But otherwise, it is hard to deny the enthusiasm and love that was obviously poured into this record, as misguided an artistic choice it may have been.

I mean, they cover so much ground here it’s kind of ridiculous. Every psych-pop cliche in the book, from goofy self-aware band introductions (“We’re So Starving,” featuring the hilarious bald-faced lie “You don’t have to worry, ’cause we’re still the same band!”) to McCartney-esque throwback 20s pop (“I Have Friends In Holy Spaces,” replete with fake vinyl scratches) to regal Left Banke baroque pop (“She Had The World”). Almost every track has an over-the-top, call-and-response Hey Jude-style fadeout, culminating in the pretty guitar ballad “Northern Downpour.” And then there’s maybe my favorite track on the record, “Behind The Sea” (sung amiably by guitarist Ryan Ross, who has a considerably more bearable voice than Mr. Urie), which ends with a full minute of Van Dyke Parks-esque takin’ a stroll string music. This, coming from the same band that wrote this song.

Maybe Pretty. Odd. only has any impact in context – hearing the turgid, hookless A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out immediately before this is a remarkable experience indeed. And it only gets more interesting when you learn that Panic! will likely never release another record like it again; immediately after Odd‘s commercial disappointment, Ryan Ross and Jon Walker – the two guys mostly responsible for the sound of this record – left the group due to artistic differences. And now the split is clear: Brendon Urie wanted to do this, and Ryan Ross wanted to do this. Mystery solved.

If I seem strangely overzealous about a Panic! At The Disco record, it is only because I am rarely faced with a record that forces me to question my own taste. Am I so in love with the concept of a Hot Topic-flirting emo-punk band throwing away their palm-muting antics and making a their own SMiLE that I don’t even care what the music sounds like? Am I such a sucker for goofy catchy melodies that I don’t care if it’s delivered with a slight degree of intelligence? And I that weak??

It’s entirely possible, but at this point I don’t care. Pretty. Odd. is genuinely one of the strangest, most out-of-left-field records to come out of a mainstream rock band in the past decade, and for that I feel it deserves a little more recognition than it has gotten. It is a tremendously entertaining record that was guaranteed to appeal to almost nobody upon release: Panic! fans didn’t want to hear a bunch of corny old people music, and 60s pop fans didn’t want to listen to a fucking Panic! at the Disco album. The only group Panic! pleased with this record, I can imagine, were their dads. And I hope they were very proud!!



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Album Review: “Songs From Northern Britain” by Teenage Fanclub

Sweet, sweet melody. Glorious fat melodic guitar. Love songs for long-lasting marriages. Pop songs to hug a wife to.

Songs From Northern Britain is a domestic pop album. It is music that comes from people who sound happy, satisfied, and grateful for what they have – three traits that were grossly uncommon in rock music in 1997. It’s an album that marks Teenage Fanclub’s transition from a power-pop-grunge outfit to a full-blown sweet kiss band for sweet couples, a transition that would only deepen with every subsequent record released since.

It’s a transition that makes sense to me. As much as I love Bandwagonesque, hearing the Fanclubs sounding like a bunch of hip longhair grungers doesn’t jive well with me. Youth and insecurity don’t become them. Songs From Northern Britain refashions the band as a group of good-hearted grownups, doggedly releasing 60s-esque guitar pop records year after year with little or no regard to current trends in popular music. That, in a nutshell, is how I want to forever view Teenage Fanclub: a bunch of old Scottish men nobody cares about.

This is not to say Northern Britain is tame, or boring, or monochromatic. It is twelve beautiful pop rock songs emboldened by clear, strong production and lovingly melded vocal harmonies. For an album swathed in domestic bliss, there is an unexpected sense of immediacy here – “Start Again” wastes no time in grabbing the listener. Hooks latch on to you and don’t let go. Songs hit the heights of sweet pop glory (the straight-up Byrds tribute “Ain’t That Enough”) and downplayed subtle grace (“Your Love Is The Place Where I Come From”) with equal aplomb. Songs From Northern Britain is the rare kind of comfortable pop record that doesn’t make you think, “well wasn’t that nice?” There’s more to it than that.

Worth mentioning – there are three songwriters/vocalists in Teenage Fanclub. I didn’t realize this until I read a few reviews mentioning it. They’re one of the few bands I’ve seen that started off having one primary songwriter (in this case, Norman Blake) and gradually blossomed into having three individually-credited songwriters sharing equal tracks on every album. Norman Blake, Gerard Love and Ray McGinley each get four tracks here, and they sound so thematically in-sync with each other that it’s almost uncomfrotable.

As far as I can tell, Fanclub records after Songs From Northern Britain skew in a more low-key, comfort-food direction, which is fine. They are only getting older, after all. In the meantime, please enjoy the following six-year video time jump:


Album Review: “Fathering” by Mark Mulcahy

So if you have come to know me in any respect over the past year you might be aware that at some point I made an attempt to list – and explain – my top 25 albums of all time. I stopped at #9 almost a year ago and never finished it, because you know, this is me we’re talking about. I’ve tried to bring myself to take initiative and actually write up the last eight albums since (the list itself has been finished for a long time and is sitting in a Notepad file somewhere) but no, no. Nothing. Too late. At this point there are so many albums on that list I would toss out – and glaring, inexcusable omissions that haunt my dreams to this day – that it isn’t really worth it.

Of all those glaring omissions – and there are lots of them, not included for one dubious reason or another – none was more inexcusable than Polaris’s The Adventures of Pete and Pete soundtrack, a record that I actually already reviewed a few years back. Reading that review again (or skimming through it – it’s hard to me to stomach stuff I wrote when I was 20), it’s obvious that I was making an attempt to disclaim my love for the record right off the bat and chalk it up to nostalgia as kind of a safety net. But the truth is that my love for those 12 tracks only grew after that review was posted, to the point that even those last four tracks I casually dismissed in the review I now view as maybe the four most important songs on the record (“Ashamed Of The Story I Told” and “As Usual”, in particular, standing as two essential pieces of melancholy). It might have just taken on a new meaning after I graduated from college and found myself alone and painfully nostalgic, but nevertheless The Adventures of Pete and Pete soundtrack has ingrained itself so deeply into my musical self-conscious that it embodies a fragile, hopelessly contemplative part of myself that no other record can hope to touch.

Why didn’t I include it in my list? Because it was music from a Nickelodeon show for kiddies and I felt weird about it. Welp.

And so we have Fathering, former Polaris singer/songwriter Mark Mulcahy’s first solo outing after Pete & Pete‘s cancellation in 1996, which somehow manages to take the Pete & Pete soundtrack’s quietest and most meditative moments and deepen them further. There are no sweet, summery pop-rock tunes here; most of Fathering consists of naked, unaccompanied electric guitar and Mulcahy’s strangely comforting voice, warbling through a set of longing, melancholic songs that almost beg to be heard at 3 the morning. And that is honestly the most concrete descriptor I can muster for songs like these; I don’t think Fathering really hit home for me until I put it on while alone in my apartment, very late at night, after a particularly rough day. It is music designed for being alone.

The key word is “comfort”, here; these are songs that envelop the listener in warmth, despite not being particularly happy songs. “Hey Self Defeater” has got to be the one of the more convincing “self-help” songs I’ve heard; elementally, the song is a friend comforting another friend, but with Mulcahy’s inimitable voice and gentle guitarwork it functions as an audible arm over your shoulder. It’s not a song that offers easy answers – the opening lines “never mind overjoyed / just start with happy” make that clear – but it offers reason and understanding to someone during a time of self doubt, which is arguably much more valuable. Simply put, it’s Mulcahy at his best. And while I can’t go to bat for most of the lyrics on the album (mostly because I am not that familiar with them), songs like “Tempted”, “In The Afternoon” and especially the aching falsetto of “Ciao My Shining Star” embody that same understanding, cutting through with a beauty that is hard to discern.

I can’t speak for the entire body of Mark Mulcahy’s work. Fathering and Pete & Pete are the only two records of his I know well; I’ve barely heard any of his Miracle Legion stuff and am only just beginning to dip into his solo work. So maybe this is the beginning of a long, fruitful musical relationship. I can only say that Mulcahy’s work digs into me in a way that, at this point in my life, I can’t fully understand.

So to make up for my shortcomings, I will urge to wait until the quietest hour in the night and listen to this: