The last decade has offered no shortage of stylish, dance-oriented acts that have drawn heavily from the early-‘80s post-punk scene, but few of these bands have demonstrated the sheer theatricality that makes Chico Fellini’s self-titled debut such a distinctive and compelling listen. Considering the mileage the band gets out of their charisma, perhaps what impresses most about the record, particularly given that it’s their first proper studio outing, is its deliberate, measured control.
When performance is emphasized to the extent that it is here, there’s always a risk that dramatic flair will reduce to a gimmick or pull focus from the actual music. But guitarist and producer Duane Lundy manages to balance Chico Fellini’s predilection for outsized spectacle—frontman Christopher Dennison’s vocals recall the yelp of Isaac Brock, the vamp of Patrick Wolf and vintage David Bowie, and the lithe, operatic falsetto of Freddie Mercury all within the course of one song—with a respect for what kind of scope the individual songs can actually support.
The result is that opener “Despite the Mix Up” rides its angular electric guitar riff into a simply anthemic refrain that’s all the more forceful for its intricate vocal harmonies, while standout “Eletrolyte” is comparatively minimalist, using a brief guitar loop and Dennison’s falsetto as an ingratiating hook that showcases the band’s sharp pop instincts. It’s that accessibility that affords Chico Fellini the opportunity to explore less conventional, more dramatic song structures. The slinky strut on “Can’t Deny” suggests jazz improvisation and heightens the song’s frank sexual energy, while the unexpected shifts in tempo between the verses and chorus on “Down the Up Ladder” are one of the record’s most effective flourishes.
That these structures work as well as they do is also a credit to the band’s rhythm section, bassist Emily Hagihara and drummer Brandon Judd. Their contributions distinguish Chico Fellini from other dance-punk and post-dance-punk acts like Bloc Party and Interpol that have typically downplayed the importance of rhythm. For Chico Fellini, the use of rhythm is a key element to their charisma. And it’s that verve that makes them deserving of more than just a devoted regional following.