Tuesday, September 07, 2010

"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.


Glenn said...

When I worked in radio back in the late 90's (right before the term "alternative" took its last gasp as a meaningful subgenre of rock), we played songs by bands like this all the time. Lots of Beatley-derived-Squeeze-lite songs with this type of arrangement. Unfortunately, a lot of those snappy, poppy songs got pushed off the map by the stuff that was more popular on mainstream radio at the time. Also unfortunately, alot of these guys had only 1 or 2 decent singles in them. But OH what singles they were! :)

Anonymous said...

Just curioius, what other tracks were on Sonic Saccharine? Any chance you could post the mix?

I enjoy reading your blog.



Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks! I just dug up that "mix tape" (I still think of them as mix tapes, even when they're on shiny little discs) again. Here's the tracklist:

Imagine My Surprise -- Evelyn Forever
You Knock Me Off My Feet -- Dum Dums
Not What It Appears -- The Tories
Full Moon/ Turn My Head Around -- Off Broadway
I Don't Wanna Hear It -- Shoes
Veronica Sawyer -- Edna's Goldfish
Powerkiss -- the Katies
The Big Lie -- Gigolo Aunts
Her Shake -- Adam Daniel
My Paper Heart -- All American Rejects
Devotion -- The Stereo
Don't Let It Get You Down -- Fuzzbubble
PRJ -- Psoma
Take Me Anywhere -- Tegan and Sara
Native Son -- The Judybats
Back of My Hand -- The Jags
Carry the Torch -- Firetown
Heartbeat -- The Knack
Please -- Apples in Stereo
The Sound of Settling -- Death Cab for Cutie
Nineteen -- Old 97s
Teenage FBI -- Guided By Voices
24 Hours -- The Sounds
Stella Heart Queen -- By Divine Right

More than a couple of those have made it onto my permanent rotation!

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing the tracklist. I have about half of those songs in my itunes. Some great stuff on there, especially the Gigolo Aunts, Adam Daniel, Jags, and Firetown.