"We didn't ever really see it as part of our name," drummer Spencer Smith explains. "He [guitarist Ryan Ross] wrote it like that on our very first PureVolume Web site, before we even had 5,000 listens. But it kind of caught on, and as fans told each other about us, it grew from there. When they [the record company] asked us if we wanted to put it on the new album cover, we said, 'Nah, leave it out.' We didn't think it would cause all this uproar."
Never mind that the erstwhile "Panic! At the Disco" deep-sixed the punctuation mark right around the time it unveiled the first single from its second album, Pretty. Odd. Never mind that the Las Vegas pop-punks who used to write riff-fueled songs with unwieldy titles such as "The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide Is Press Coverage" and "There's a Good Reason These Tables Are Numbered Honey, You Just Haven't Thought of It Yet" were now going all baroque-pop. And never mind that the four kids who sold 2 million copies of their debut album while still in their teens can now legally order beers (except for Smith, who turns 21 in September). They claim that the excision of that exclamation point should not be symbolically read as a new beginning for Panic at the Disco.
Fine. We'll accept that. But the new album, which debuted at No. 2 in March, sure sounds like a fresh start for a band that barely made a blip when A Fever You Can't Sweat Out was released in September 2005. It certainly doesn't sound like the same group that sent a link to its PureVolume site to tabloid-magnet and Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz, who was so impressed with Panic — and, presumably, their shared affinity for guyliner and really long song titles that have absolutely nothing to do with the songs themselves — that he signed the band to his Decaydance record label before the foursome had even performed live.
Fever's three-minute pop-punk blasts have been replaced by strings, horns and lavish arrangements that can leave the most fragile emo kids dizzy. And it all started with Mom and Dad's record collection.
"We were growing out of some of the stuff we liked as teenagers," says Smith, who founded the group with Ross when they were 13. "And we just discovered things that our parents grew up with, a lot of the late-'60s stuff. It was stuff we all knew, but when you're young, you want to have your own thing and not listen to what your parents like. We just came back to that and realized how good it really was."
The new disc's best songs — the single "Nine in the Afternoon," "That Green Gentleman (Things Have Changed)" — are swathed in Sgt. Pepper's shimmering accessories. Horns blast, strings swell and Brendon Urie sings like he's leading a parade of rainbow-colored frogs to a poppy-filled meadow, where they'll frolic peacefully with tiny hippopotami. The strings were even recorded at the Beatles' old stomping grounds at Abbey Road Studios.
"Nine in the Afternoon" by Panic at the Disco
"There weren't many rules back then, and bands kind of did whatever they wanted," Smith says. He adds that the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour and David Bowie's Hunky Dory were constantly played during recording. "We took that mentality rather than specifically mimic something. It's timeless."
Panic worked out most of the string and horn charts with producer Rob Mathes, whose credits include Avril Lavigne and Rod Stewart. Some cuts, such as the tossed-off and twangy "Folkin' Around," grew out of jam sessions the band hatched in the studio. "We were just messing around," Smith recalls. "And we came up with these playful ditties. We had a lot of fun recording them with these different, old microphones."
At least most longtime fans — and by longtime fans, we mean those who've been around since A Fever You Can't Sweat Out broke out a mere two years ago — seem happy with Pretty. Odd. Message boards buzzed more about that missing exclamation point than Panic's paisley makeover. Besides, Smith says, he really doesn't think the group has changed that much. "It just felt right," he says, "even though it was musically different.
"If we had the recording budget for the first album that we had this time, there would have been a lot more stuff on it [Fever]. We knew that we loved the songs. That was the same feeling we had from the first one, when there were no expectations."