Once when Elisa Ambrogio’s band the Magik Markers was touring with Dinosaur Jr. in 2005, they played a show in Northampton, Mass., that turned into a trainwreck. The audience shifted from baffled to hostile as the band’s chaotic, churning set progressed, and Ambrogio didn’t back down when the heckling started. After telling the crowd not to grow up to be like their parents, she said something along the lines of, “If you don’t like it, start your own band.”
It was a bravura, totally punk-rock display from a performer who is no less gutsy, if vastly less volatile, on her solo debut. The Immoralist strips away (most of) the noise and murk that are defining features of the Magik Markers’ catalog and sheds the more precious folk elements of 200 Years, Ambrogio’s project with Ben Chasney of Six Organs of Admittance. Without a dense curtain of grotty guitars to shout through, Ambrogio shows a more subdued and tuneful side on these 10 low-key vintage-style alt-pop songs.
She often sounds distant and dreamy, sometimes as if she’s singing softly to herself. Ambrogio’s double-tracked voice floats through reverb on opener on the “Superstitious,” a glitchy rhythm track clicking along under piano chords on the beat and drifting, ambient sounds. She backs her fragile lead vocal with layers of wordless harmonies on “Reservoir,” which adds subtle guitar arpeggios to piano, and lets her wistful voice build in strength on “Far From Home” without trying to compete with the static-y swirls of noise that overtake the woozy electric guitar part that had been powering the song.
Ambrogio takes a more unstructured approach on “Kylie,” which pairs bright piano with discordant strings and gusts of guitar noise, and dials in a riveting balance of serenity and turbulence on “Mary Perfectly.” A keyboard drone anchors the song, and Ambrogio sings in ethereal tones over booming drums set low in the mix. Caustic guitars dart around her vocals, building in volume and intensity until her voice becomes a presence half-glimpsed in the fog of a grinding riff. It’s a masterful construction, and Ambrogio’s ability to court anarchy while maintaining control is a central feature on an album that demonstrates the scope of her abilities as a songwriter, and also as a singer.