There’s an uncanny sense you get when it starts to feel like a band is defining its era in real time. When Mamalarky issued their debut EP Fundamental Thrive Hive in 2018, the indie quartet’s spirited combination of quirk and melody fit right in alongside peers like Wombo, Floatie and, the most well-known of the bunch, Cherry Glazerr. Mamalarky vocalist/guitarist/bandleader Livvy Bennett, in fact, spent time in Cherry Glazerr as a touring bassist. No surprise, songs from all these groups can flow together rather nicely on the same playlist. Aside from the musical elements they share, there’s a common lightheartedness and an overall aesthetic that anchors them in the pop-culture fabric of today.
Nevertheless, Mamalarky’s full-length debut came on like a strong gust of fresh air. Released in early 2020, Mamalarky saw the band, then based in Austin by way of L.A., refine their sound into a powerful, diamond-like refraction of multiple elements, with dream pop and post-2000s psychedelia most apparent on the surface, but with traces of Nintendocore, math rock, jazz fusion and freak folk also quite evident. A vibrant affair, the album captured the band’s ability to be playful, solemn, lavish and angular all at once—without making it seem like an effort for themselves or, crucially, the listener.
Where likeminded bands might have aimed for a herky-jerky listening experience on purpose, Bennett and company seemed more intent on touching the sublime. And they succeeded, making a place for themselves among those rare acts who can revel in their musical oddness while sounding graceful somehow. Though it would be fair to say that Mamalarky are part of a movement, they embodied contemporary indie-pop sensibilities with such distinct flair on their first album that it felt like they were nudging us to the cusp of a new paradigm. And sure enough, their sophomore effort Pocket Fantasy tumbles over the edge and lands in uncharted waters with a magnificent technicolor splash.
After two songs of continuing in pretty much the same vein as the last album, Pocket Fantasy veers off the familiar path with “Little Robot,” which might best be described as glitter prog. The song begins in an odd gait, with a mechanistic guitar line that would make experimental six-string godfather Adrian Belew proud. Although the meter proceeds as if the band decided to simulate the feeling of walking with a rock in your shoe, bassist Noor Khan and drummer Dylan Hill absolutely nail a groove, as if they’d just come back from playing all night with a funk band and just couldn’t help but make the song swing.
Bands like Tera Melos and Parlor Walls have mined this kind of territory before, but it’s to Bennett and keyboardist Michael Hunter’s eternal credit that they’re able to carve out space for melody—sparkling, resplendent melody that floods the music with daylight—over a guitar part that basically sounds like broken machinery. Likewise, “Building Castles” nods to the Thundercat/Flying Lotus brand of contemporary soul music. As the rhythm section creates a rubbery foundation, Bennett’s voice soars so high into the clouds during the chorus that it’s impossible not to get swept up and swoon along with her (presumably) lovestruck narrator.
“Shining Armor,” by contrast, allows us to imagine what “Long Distance Runaround”-era Yes might’ve sounded like had they anticipated punk. But then Mamalarky reach for the sublime yet again with “Dance Together.” A more emotionally immediate descendent of Stereolab’s sun-drenched hybrid of exotica and art-rock, “Dance Together” perhaps sums up the tone of the album—and this band’s appeal—in a nutshell. As Bennett scales the stratosphere with a soft monotone that still manages to be goosebump-inducingly tuneful, keyboards gurgle and dart around her like strangely colored fish.
The plainspoken lyric, “I don’t know how to dance / Maybe you do,” captures an utterly uncomplicated feeling, and yet the combination of the words and music speak volumes about the universal craving for acceptance, as well as the exposure we all have to risk in order to find it. Mamalarky play with such an abounding sense of brightness, and such an unburdened, inviting demeanor, that it’s easy to miss that they’ve gone out on a musical limb with Pocket Fantasy. Much has been made about the supposedly dire future of rock music, and guitar rock in particular, but if Mamalary continue to grow as they have with this album, rock has a bright future, indeed.
Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a longtime contributor at Paste. He believes that a music journalist’s job is to guide readers to their own impressions of the music. You can find him on Twitter and Substack at feedbackdef.substack.com
Watch Mamalarky’s 2022 Paste session below.