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All Time Low -- 'Don't Panic' (Hopeless)

Rating: ** (out of 4 stars) Pop-punk bands have had it tough for a while now. It's been years since the last wave of popular groups (think Fall Out Boy and New Found Glory) made any lasting impression on the radio or record charts. For many of these bands, modest club tours and merchandise sales are their sources of income. Timonium's All Time Low is a rare case in this mostly insular genre. Early on, the quartet showcased promising writing that emphasized sticky hooks, the most memorable being "Dear Maria, Count Me In" from 2007's "So Wrong, It’s Right." Naturally, major-label Interscope scooped the band up, and the results were two disappointing albums (2009's "Nothing Personal" and last year's "Dirty Work"), which failed to cement All Time Low as a Top-40 presence, despite strong opening-week sales. It wasn't for a lack of trying: The group even collaborated with R&B hit maker The-Dream on both albums, proving the band's goal was to rise rather than just tread water. Failing to become the next All-American Rejects, All Time Low parted ways with Interscope this year. "Don't Panic," the band’s fifth full-length album, is a return home in both label (they're back on independent Hopeless Records) and execution (no reaching collaborations, just an album that would sound at home playing in a Hot Topic store). The result is efficient pop-punk delivered in predictable and familiar ways. "Don't Panic" isn’t so much an attempt to gain new fans but to appease the ones who stuck through the major-label efforts. Fittingly, the album starts with an apology of sorts. Describing a "life on the other side," lead singer and lyricist Alex Gaskarth sings that he "didn't hate it, but I didn't quite relate it to my precious little world" on "The Reckless and the Brave." Like the opening track, the album's best moments ("Somewhere in Neverland," hometown love-letter "For Baltimore") gently polish the band's harder edges while retaining enough grit to remind fans of its early work. But "Don't Panic" -- which sounds like a half-hearted rallying cry to let-down fans -- is an uneven effort, bogged down by tracks that sound like tired, pop-punk Mad Libs ("If These Sheets Were States") and face-palm metaphors ("You're the snake hidden in my daffodils when I'm picking flowers" is an actual chorus). Perhaps the most telling moment comes on the moody, dynamic "Outlines." The liner notes explain why it sticks out so much: Patrick Stump, the Fall Out Boy lead singer and arguably the genre's most talented songwriter, co-wrote it, likely explaining the sturdy writing. It also proves All Time Low still has ground to cover before it emerges as anything more than a B-level version of the genre's best acts. -- Wesley Case
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