It’s hard to miss the radiant newness of the moving-from-L.A.-to-Atlanta quartet Mamalarky.
This is a band, for example, that met their bass player, Noor Khan, not in junior high shop class or the alley behind a punk club, but on Tinder. “I was swipin’ for a bassist,” says singer and guitarist Livvy Bennett in Mamalarky’s bio, “which makes me cringe to say now.” (Cringe!) And according to Khan, her interest in joining was cemented when she saw a Nintendo Switch at the band’s jam space back in “their early days.” (Nintendo released the Switch in 2017.)
Mamalarky’s newness oozes from their music, too. On their self-titled debut album—in the works for two years—Bennett, Khan, keyboardist Michael Hunter and drummer Dylan Hill piece together an array of disparate influences into a sound that’s fully formed but not fully baked. Their brand of noisy, psychedelic pop is disheveled but painstakingly so, and as a result their songs are likable, even if they feel a bit distant.
Don’t misunderstand: Mamalarky’s got something good going here. They seem to have a clear vision for their music and the ability to bring that vision to life. They’re digital natives who’ve grown up with easy access to classic R&B and soul, 21st-century indie rock, noise pop, electronic music and everything in between. And they capably balance a natural knack for memorable melodies with their weirder tendencies, such as crooked chord progressions, atonal bleeps and bloops, unconventional rhythmic shifts and zigzagging song structures.
Mamalarky’s synthesis of all these elements is impressively seamless, and most often reminiscent of Bay Area experimental giants Deerhoof. On opening track “Fury,” for example, blown-out garage-rock guitars, major tempo changes and a cluttered palette of ancillary noises come together to form a catchy drone-pop anthem for a ride on a sharp-cornered rollercoaster. “Big Trouble” is so pockmarked with warped tones and gruff synths, it sounds like someone poked, prodded and then microwaved a Superorganism cassette. And “Schism Trek” is aptly named, alternating between herky-jerky verses and choruses that contrast the band’s buzzy stomp with Bennett’s gauzy, legato voice: “How is it fair,” she sings, “to love someone who’s never really there?”
Throughout Mamalarky, Bennett’s honeyed vocals are a vital counterbalance to the band’s jagged sonic adventures. As the album’s most relaxed track, “Cosine,” lopes along like a phosphorescent slow jam, she downshifts into a soulful low register, and she manages to sound both unhurried and meticulous on the sparkling single “You Make Me Smile.” Later, when two songs—“Almighty Heat” and “Drug Store Model”—explore a jauntier sound, she sturdies her delivery so as not to get run over. On both, the band offer a cheeky take on classic rock a la Pavement, and Bennett unfurls the latter’s dizzying chorus (“Mercury say, ‘C’est la vie.’ / Eureka! I set free / your thoughts of me to / Venus flytraps who will eat / the bugs of my psyche.”) with an offbeat flair that recalls Stephen Malkmus at his sassiest.
So even at this early stage, Mamalarky have the skills, the instincts and the record collection to be an excellent band, and Mamalarky is a promising debut, no doubt. In places, though, it feels fussed-over, which saps some of these songs of their warmth and intimacy, and keeps them at an arm’s length. If Mamalarky spend more time writing, playing, performing and just being together, they’ll almost certainly overcome that obstacle. And when they do, they’ll evolve from a band worth watching to a band capable of uncommon crossover success.
Ben Salmon is a committed night owl with an undying devotion to discovering new music. He lives in the great state of Oregon, where he hosts a killer radio show and obsesses about Kentucky basketball from afar. Ben has been writing about music for more than two decades, sometimes for websites you’ve heard of but more often for alt-weekly papers in cities across the country. Follow him on Twitter at @bcsalmon.