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BENT NIGHTS Panic! at the Disco; The New Pornographers
by Vern Hester

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Panic! at the Disco vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and one-man band Brendon Urie ( who recently came out as pansexual ) looks exactly like what he is—a Las Vegas entertainer in rock-star drag.

Despite his fashion-model looks, what really gives Urie away are the videos and music: loud, flashy, antiseptic, a tad vulgar, aggressively entertaining and served with enough juice to power a nuclear reactor. Snip if you want, but Urie has sold millions of records with this recipe and now he's set his sights on world domination with his first headlining arena tour and the release of Pray for the Wicked ( on Fueled by Ramen/DCD2 Records ).

If you were hoping for a departure the cover clearly dashes that notion, with Urie perched atop a skyscraper ledge like filmmaker Wim Wenders' angel from the film Wings of Desire. Urie's version replaces Wenders' murky elegance with computer-enhanced imagery and cool pastels and you can expect the CD, like the six that came before it, will lack for genuine grit, sweat or any suggestion of funk.

Channeling influences is what he seems adept at but, this time out, Urie manages to fudge on the cheat sheet. "High Hopes" and "( F*ck A ) Silver Lining" are punchy, hooky, noisy and unmemorable, sounding like forgotten Wham! B-sides. "Dying in L.A. ( Pray for the Wicked )" is the fallen angel ballad here and, although he invests heart and soul in the vocals, the production is so slick it never clings like cigarette smoke the way that, say, The Cars' "Drive" did. The real gem here is "Say Amen ( Saturday Night )" a rowdy stomper of an anthem with a wraparound chorus and an elegant hook so enchanting that no amount of overkill can mess it up. ( The video for the song is hilariously violent and reveals Urie to be far less plastic then he looks. )

Onstage in front of a sold-out United Center on July 17, Urie and his hired guns gave the restless audience just what they wanted; a massive dose of shiny entertainment, with some rock 'n' roll. Popping out of the floor in black sparkles and leather like a caffeinated bunny, he opened the show with a muscular strut through "Silver Lining" and "Don't Threaten Me with a Good Time." It was all too calculated and slick for my taste but, really, it was hard to complain with that grand piano whirling overhead as Urie sang "Dying in L.A.," or that rainbow flag popping up during "Girls/Girls/Boys," or that tip of the hat to queers everywhere with a cover of Robert Hazard ( by way of Cyndi Lauper )'s "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." Clearly, I was the only grumpy face in the place, since everyone in the stadium screamed their heads off with glee.

At the opposite extreme, we have The New Pornographers' recent show at Thalia Hall in support of 2017's Without Conditions ( Concord Music Group )—and both could qualify as textbook examples of what pure pop sounds like. Granted, this is the first album ( out of seven ) by the collective without Dan Bejar ( of Destroyer ) and that pretty much explains the quirk-less sound, the prominence of bright poppy tempos and the cushy featured harmonies of vocalists Neko Case and A.C. Newman. ( The band also includes Kathryn Calder, John Collins, Todd Fancey, Joe Seiders, Blaine Thurier, and Tara Szczygielski. ) This is dense, sweeping pop at its most indulgent and if the album weren't so rich, intelligent and incredibly enjoyable, I would shame them for the audacity of releasing such a thing.

"Without Conditions" displays Newman's finesse at melding wordy lyrics neatly onto winsome melodies and though the song is pretty dark he makes it sound like a celebration of spring. Better still is "High Ticket Attractions," a sleek, propulsive bliss out of a song laced with pungent wit and Newman and Case darting around each other with like giddy squirrels. I have yet to hear anything on the radio anywhere near this delicious or addictive all year.

Onstage at Thalia Hall, The Pornographers didn't fiddle with gimmicks, relying instead on a set list which covered the entirety of their career. The show had the feel of a bunch of old friends lounging in your living room for a personal concert on a Sunday afternoon and apart from Newman cracking jokes about the current president "shitting the bed," it was a low key affair. "Dancehall Domaine," "Brill Bruisers," "Mass Romantic," "The Laws have Changed," "All the Old Showstoppers" and "Play Money" all turned up in the set and the show was designed to please old fans and entice new ones. Regardless of the lack of flash and the absence of Case ( Calder generally performs her parts on tours ) The New Pornographers provided a nice, satisfying sane, uneventful evening.

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