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Sophomore slump: Panic at the Disco and The Raconteurs show that springtime growth should not mean uprooting

By Sarah Cook     3/27/08 7:00pm

Yesterday, both Panic at the Disco and The Raconteurs released their sophomore efforts, and in my excitement, I bought them both. As a way early Christmas present to myself, I first opened Pretty.Odd., the beautiful Panic at the Disco album, drawn to the gorgeous nineteenth-century-style cover, thick with flowers and butterflies.As the first song, "We're So Starving," came on, I remembered why I love them so much. It's not because they're indie-cool (because they're not). It's not because they're technically the best musicians (because they're not). It is because of their fast, upbeat, fresh sound, a sound that evokes smiles even when the lyrics are filled with prostitutes, adultery and sleazy hotels. Unfortunately, as the album continued, I realized that these snarky pop kids seem to have thrown out their old sound for something much sunnier and, sadly, much more boring.

Some of the songs do showcase the old band, especially "We're So Starving," "Pas de Chavel" and "That Green Gentleman." These are the big theatrical songs that work so well for Panic at the Disco, who are at heart an arena act. In songs like "She Had the World" and "The Piano Knows Something I Don't," they try a new psychedelic feel, and here they seem to have made a cardinal mistake: they are trying to be The Beatles. It is as if they went into the studio wanting this to be their Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and decided halfway through just to copy the sound of that amazing album completely.

It is the stripped-down tracks that seem the most removed from Panic's roots. After all the horns and drums and cymbals and choirs have disappeared, one might expect the band's old ironic lyrics to shine through, even to be highlighted. Instead, they take a much more straightforward and earnest attempt with the lyrics on this album. In addition, Brendon Urie's voice seems to strain during these bare songs, making him sound more whiny than flippant.

The entire album comes across as decent, but not original. "Folkin' Around," a fiddle- and harmonica-laden joy ride that sounds a little like Bob Dylan on crack, is probably its most innovative track. Panic has taken many of the great bands of the '60s, from The Beatles to The Kinks to The Beach Boys, and tried to use them to create something new. The sad thing is that they failed.

A more successful effort, Consolers of the Lonely, the second effort of Jack White's pet project The Raconteurs, holds onto its roots while reaching for something new. Their familiar syrupy Southern rock, the love child of Ohio rockers The Black Keys and White's other band, The White Stripes, fills the album. The opening track, "Consoler of the Lonely," begins with a heavy electric guitar and is slowly joined by drums, as though one is hearing the beginning of a real show. White's voice fades in and reveals that he can still pull out some new tricks, as it sounds smoother and calmer than usual.

The next track, "Salute Your Solution," brings back the strained and colorful vocals that fans have come to expect from White. It resembles a more thought-out "Icky Thump," with stronger drums than on their first album as The Raconteurs' drummer moves more towards a White Stripes style.

A few slow-paced songs give the album variety and texture, but the real strength appears in "Top Yourself." This is the masterpiece of the album, with a bluesy, sparse beginning that leads languidly from verse to chorus in a dark new direction. Although some songs, like the short "Many Shades of Black," feel like filler, the rest are pure gold.

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