I sense deviance. The lights shine blue in this boxy venue, sidled to the back of Pianos, a destination bar on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. For some reason, the pockets of bodies sprinkled haphazardly about the club feel more like accomplices than mere Monday night revelers. There’s a feeling that schemes are about to commence, or spells be cast. The Color Guard, taking the stage, are prepped to perform—or, perhaps better stated, they are prepped to bewitch.
Though you wouldn’t guess it, necessarily, from their looks. To the right are two unassuming boys, who cover drums and guitar; two pixie-punk girls play bass and sing, marking center and far left stage. They look jovial, friendly. Slung on the back wall behind the undersized stage is a banner reading “The Color Guard” in a florid, shimmery cursive. From all appearances, this would be an orderly night—but there’s something a bit too orderly about it. I feel like I’m in a suspenseful thriller, with a surprise lurking nearby.
5 May 2003: Pianos New York
Then, as if ghosts have risen in her, Lalena Fisher starts to sing. Her voice is sky high and sharp—piercing your eardrums like a syringe, injecting its ether into your psyche, intoxicating you like a hallucinogenic drug. And, what’s more, it’s just her. “Wreck My Tea”, this opening (off self-released Speech for Heated Hearts (2002, Suziblade Music)), begins with Fisher’s singing, soon joined by the a capella voices of her bandmates, then thickened by dark, plodding bass and drums. It’s an eerie—and striking—effect. As the song progresses, it grows noisy and wide, moodier despite (or maybe, because of) aural trinkets like a glockenspiel. Fisher’s voice fluctuates between the airy soprano and a butch, frank alto. The crowd locks into this duality, standing mostly still. Or maybe stunned.
This is what the Color Guard do: write songs that seem to soundtrack smashing porcelain figurines or ripping up an ex’s picture. Speech for the Heated Hearts is a nugget of eight of these. They match their mischievous, fuzzy rock (think a literate grunge) with tuneful sensibilities, creating an effect that’s simultaneously sing-song and sinister. It’s also, thankfully, smart. The Color Guard’s songs are layered with syncopations and shifting movements more than verses and choruses, giving them a much more curious, and artful, topography.
Coming off as close-knit and brooding recorded, in the live setting the music explodes with fits of emotion, and sheer, unadulterated noise. This room is too small for their guitar lines that scrape, enormous bass, destroyer drums, melodies that wound and sting. Guitarist Josh Zisman sheds his nice-guy demeanor to transform into something much more wild. Jeanne Gilliland, on bass, and drummer Jake Alrich, tick like time bombs as they barrel through the set’s kaleidoscoping rhythms. Fisher, in the middle, is the combination of all of these facets. She’s calm one minute, manic the next, and dangerously borderline in between.
Yet in between it all, the Color Guard play nice. As it’s Cinco de Mayo, Fisher is showing off her Spanish skills for the crowd. The onstage banter is quirky, punchline humor. Though they are serious musicians, they aren’t weighed down by the soberness of their music. Instead, they seem to be energized by it, recycling that energy back into their shadowy brew.
The Color Guard are the musical equivalent of violent play: ripping the legs off stuffed animals, crashing toy trucks together, plucking out Barbie’s hairs, one by one. Like violent play, the appeal of their music is that it’s an innocent, though sometimes disturbing, method of living out the darker emotions. And sometimes, it’s better to let someone else be the deviant for you.