Chicago’s Fitness is a band that hit me out of nowhere. We get a handful of band’s like that every year, the sort that send you reeling with a name you’ve never heard and a sound you’re glad you had. In this case, the connection was Don’t Panic Records, who handled the vinyl of the fantastic Davey Dynamite release last year. Fitness’ Puppet Show is a six song EP, a youthful and scrappy concoction of pop punk with tons of guitar leads, self loathing, and sing a longs.
Puppet Showgrabs you from the first song, immediately familiar and simultaneously new. If you sniff around, you can hear the influences, but none of them ever quite come to define their sound. The first one that came to mind for me was Hot Water Music, who’s dueling guitar leads became an oft-copied sonic idiosyncrasy, but Fitness don’t play it with the same post-hardcore edge. When Fitness plays them, they have a more electric, less serpentine and melancholy feel. It’s this pop sensibility that signals Fitness as more than a band of Gainesville acolytes. They don’t have that droney edge, that sense that they ended up writing singalong songs through mad scientist potion mixing, deconstruction and rebuilding. No, Fitness has a knack for pop songwriting, strong melodies are the glue that holds their songs together, and in this sense they sound a bit like Junior Battles or Problem Daughter. But, Fitness is propulsive, more straight-ahead than either of those– when a song gets out of its cage, it rampages.
Album opener “Road Lizard” is a good example of this: guttural vocal delivery, guitar leads flexing at each other over an insistent beat. It has its own mix of energies, and it always comes as a surprise, that the vocals are as raw sounding as they are. Separated from the rest of the track, they could’ve been from a hardcore band– that’s how much snarl they put on the words. But with the instrumentation’s bouncy energy, it becomes this airy and energetic brand of pop punk.
There’s a difference between good playing and good songwriting. One of them allows a band a spot on bills, it sounds tight live but doesn’t stick with you for the drive home. The latter keeps the songs stamped on a time and place, we grow on them and they grow on us. Fitness has a cool sound, but what they also have is songwriting chops to spare. Puppet Show reminds me of the Dead Bars EP, in that is expresses a sharp and consistent songwriting vision, with defeatist lyrics met with triumphant melody. “Roseanne’s Bar”’s 60s pop chorus starts with the line “Call me a liar, call me pathetic…,” sounding like a Phil Spector penned Nirvana song. These are the types of decisions that make the sort of inward-focused punk that has become popular in the last ten years stick, rather than remaining a competent copy of a copy. The best airings of grievances come with a hook, a recognition in the crowd that as you sing along, there’s a kindred spirit out there, a conversation between artist and audience where the response is: me too.
To sum it all up with a thesis logline: Puppet Show is a great EP from a band poised to do a lot more in the future. They’re exciting, there’s a sense of urgency to their music that’s infectious, enough aggression to sell the venom in the lyrics. Each song is an experience, with busy leads that bounce off each other like billiard balls on break, full throated singalongs begging to be shouted back; songs that come out swinging, gloves in the air and a pep in their step, hungry for connection.