Last month, as I stood in a half-filled Austin, Texas, dive bar watching Ryan Ross, Jon Walker and the rest of the Young Veins fumble and fuss with their vintage guitars and organs, I couldn't help but feel a bit sorry for them. When Ross' girlfriend (the Like's Elizabeth "Z" Berg) began crawling around onstage, attempting to hook up her guitar pedals for him — because, as Ross would tell me later, he had "forgotten" his — I somehow felt a lot worse.
After all, this was Ryan Ross, the same kid I had watched stalk the stage at a sold-out (and very loud) arena in 2006, the same brilliant boy-child who had written one of my favorite albums of 2008. I had such high hopes for him. The sky truly seemed like it was the limit. But then, he left Panic! at the Disco, posed precariously close to a plate of well-manicured cocaine in a now-infamous photo and disappeared into the hills of Hollywood with Walker to work on a record that would presumably never see the light of day. Either Ross was getting truly terrible career advice, or he had fallen victim to the same thing that had snared so many before him: ego. He had believed the hype, had squandered all that potential and this Austin gig — and a thousand more just like it — would be his penance.
It was, for all intents and purposes, over for him.
Only, here's the thing. While the Veins' set that night wasn't particularly excellent — it was, after all, only their third show to date — there was something there: a buoyant, playful charm and a jovial jolt, even if the guitars didn't sound all that great and Ross' voice got buried in the mix way too often. This didn't feel the least bit like a funeral — quite the opposite, in fact. Ross and Walker cracked jokes and exchanged wry smiles, exuding the same vibe I got from them toward the end of Panic!'s lifespan. It was, in some small way, like they were still playing an arena (albeit an arena that smelled like beer) and that they were privy to a very secret joke, one they weren't quite sure they wanted to share with the world.
Needless to say, I left the gig feeling a bit puzzled. But a few weeks later, back in New York and thoroughly deodorized, I finally understood what they were laughing about: I received an advance copy of the Veins' debut album, Take a Vacation! (due June 8), a crackling, lightning-quick effort — 11 songs in just 29 minutes — that's equal parts salty and sweet, heavily indebted to the past, unbelievably catchy and quite possibly the best joke you'll hear all year. In other words, it's pretty much everything I could ask for in a rock record, and then some.
Working with producers Rob Mathes and Alex Greenwald (formerly of Phantom Planet), Ross and Walker have made an album that is totally, 100 percent theirs. Holed up in Calabasas, California, they listened to a ton of old 45s, probably smoked some funny cigarettes, watched the sun rise, made bonfires in the hills, invited all their friends over to sing on the choruses and cranked out songs that bear no resemblance to the rock music of today (and, by logical extension, have positively no chance of getting played on modern rock radio). They took the parts of Panic! at the Disco's last album that fans liked least — the strummy, sunny, really excellent ones ("Northern Downpour," etc.) — and made an entire record of them. And they did this all basically because they wanted to. It's their own private joke (or their own private psychedelic reel), one they eventually decided to share with the world. Buy only after they were good and ready to.
And that's probably what I like most about Vacation! — the fact that it's deeply personal, important mostly to Ross and Walker. These are the songs they've wanted to write, even while the other half of Panic! seemed headed in the opposite direction. And so, they left the band and did their own thing. Repercussions and public opinion be damned. There are plenty of great musical moments too — the "aah-aah-aahs" and undeniable chorus of "Cape Town," the enchantment-under-the-sea-worthy ballad "Everyone but You," the campy stomp of "The Young Veins (Die Tonight)," smoky and ebullient album-closer "Heart of Mine" — but it's that dogged determination to do their own thing, even if it means a lifetime of fumbling with vintage guitars in Texas dive bars that stands out most to me.
It's like Ross sings on "Other Girl," just before the tune breaks out in a stony, sunrise-approved guitar solo: "You were right, I was wrong/ Like I always am, and you always are." There are probably a million people he could be directing the line toward, only you know he doesn't really care about any of them. He's fumbling and stumbling to the beat of his own drummer now. Who cares about the future when you've got the past?
Questions? Concerns? Hit me up at BTTS@MTVStaff.com.