"Not What It Appears" / The Tories
It's curious how some songs wind up on my iTunes. Take this number by the Tories. A Kinks friend of mine sent me a compilation CD titled Sonic Saccharine, which was put together by a guy we both knew from another internet message board, one dedicated to the Replacements. (The guy's screen name, as I recall, was Monkey.) It was an insanely good compilation, filled with sparkling pop songs from bands I'd never heard of, and I loaded most of it straight onto my iTunes, including "Not What It Appears."
Now, I have no idea who the Tories are. From the Beatle-y power-pop sound, they could be either English or American, and could have recorded this song anytime from 1967 to yesterday. When this song pops up on my shuffle, half the time I think it's Squeeze; the rest of the time, I'd probably think it was Jellyfish if I'd ever heard Jellyfish. (I know, I should be reading Clicks and Pops more faithfully to learn about Jellyfish -- must be a California thing.) But one thing I can tell you: When it pops up on my shuffle I perk up immediately. It's a delightful little gem of a song.
iTunes quite helpfully tells me that the Tories' debut album Wonderful Life (produced by Phil Ramone) came out in 1997, followed by The Upside of Down in 2001. The group disbanded in 2002, and its various members have been knocking around the L.A. music scene ever since. But seriously, listen to this bouncy, bright, tuneful number -- a band this good (and most of their other tracks I've sampled live up to the promise) should have been way, way bigger.
Listen to those power chords of the opening, the crisp whacks of the drums. And like a movie opener, we see our heroine in long shot: "She walks right by, her mind made up / Her face was just as well / My breath she took with just one look / And I could tell." But this is no Hollywood love story; their relationship hasn't got a chance, as he quickly figures out. The tuneful curve of melody stalls with a dark, diminished chord at the end of the verse, and lead singer Steve Bertrand plaintively declares in the chorus, "But it's not what it appears, / No it's not what it appears. / Dropped a bomb upon my head and left me in a hole half-dead" -- ouch! -- "No, love's not what it appears after all." (It's like the dark John Lennon chorus alternating with the cheery Paul McCartney verse.)
In the yearning bridge, he doesn't moan about winning her love -- he already knows he can't -- he's just lamenting the fact that he can't seem to find a girl who'll make him happy. This song isn't about this particular relationship, it's about the doomed nature of modern love. For all that power-pop brightness and energy, it delivers a bracing jolt of pessimism (or reality, depending on your view of life). Maybe that's why it reminds me so much of Squeeze.
Yet in the long run, what stays with me is that peppy beat, the cheerfully churning guitars, the youthful earnestness of Bertrand's vocals. It's not such a downer, when all is said and done. It makes me feel like driving a convertible with the top down, pounding on the steering wheel. More than anything else, it reminds me why I love power pop, when it's done right. The Tories did it right.