Saturday, February 8, 2014

Cheekbones By the Book

This song has been playing in my head for days now, yet it's been an entire year since I first heard it properly. It's by a Canadian artist, and it's, as you'd expect, from the 1980s.

It was late December, 2012, when I heard it in my car. I was downtown with a friend, just driving around. It sounded extremely polished and full of style, well-executed, and I remember my friend Shawn reacting to one of the lyrics - "I thought I heard 'cheekbones by the book."

It's called 'Cosmetics' and it's by Canadian solo artist (and since 1999, lead singer of American veteran band Styx) Lawrence Gowan (or just "Gowan" as he was referred to back in the day). Now you might think it sounds kind of effeminate or silly at first glance - when I asked an older co-worker what he immediately thought of when I gave him both names, he immediately said "gay" - but it's quite far from it. Interestingly, this co-worker of mine (who is 57) would clarify that the name 'Gowan' sounded gay, but put it into the right context - the guy was born in Scotland. It's his surname. What's so gay about that? Why not just say any surname is gay then? What a stupid way to look at things.

Rather, the song appears to be an observation or comment on the superficial lifestyle. All the lyrics refer to a woman who "flew in from London, [only] to shop 7th Avenue." The entire song is about this woman's perfect beauty in every means, from high fashion to, indeed, cheekbones by the book. He gives some explanation here (I can't embed it).


I'd hear it on the radio many times, on Boom FM, and enjoy it quite a lot thanks to the song's very flashy, stylistic bass groove. It's largely on C#. I like how fast and flashy it sounds, and exact. Gowan's voice is good too.

As for Gowan, this song wasn't the first I'd heard of him. Actually, I'd first seen the name on my mother's ancient VHS tape of music videos/interviews from the mid-late 80s to the mid-90s. A couple of his songs/videos are on there - 'Moonlight Desires,' 'All the Lovers in the World,' etc. - and I never took one listen to any of them when I came across them on the tape. There's that post on here in which I listed all of the songs on the tape - 75 of them - and he's listed a few times. I never played the tape during his videos to watch/listen, as I wasn't interested. I just wrote his name and song info down in compiling that list, and that was it. Fast-forward. I had no idea who he was, or that he was Canadian, or that he did anything I liked, just that he was on the tape and that was his name and song name. When I finally heard the commentator on Boom FM mention the song was by Gowan (and called 'Cosmetics') I looked it up and matched it. Neat. The radio station would also play 'Moonlight Desires' and 'Strange Animal,' both of which I do enjoy.

'Cosmetics' was the fourth single from his 1985 album Strange Animal, which was considered his breakout album. He'd started solo earlier in the 80s and had a band in the late 70s called Rhinegold. Some have apparently looked to him as the "Canadian Elton John" because his main instrument is the piano, for which he was classically trained in; he finished in the Royal Conservatory of Music with the instrument at the young age of 19. I think most people (at least in Canada) probably know Gowan the most by his signature song 'A Criminal Mind' which is a great piano song but not my favourite. It's his signature song, I think.

In the late 90s, while still enjoying a modest solo career here, he opened for Styx in Quebec City while they were looking for a way to do a big tour without Dennis DeYoung, their original long-time founding member, organist and lead-singer/songwriter (who had an illness at the time). Gowan ended up meshing so well with the band that they had him go on tour with them, by which time Styx decided to make him a permanent replacement. He's still with them today, and they even play his signature hit 'A Criminal Mind' with him.

As for 'Cosmetics,' the song, along with the rest of the album, was helped along by session musicians that worked with Peter Gabriel. Tony Levin plays that neat bass groove - though while I thought for awhile that it was keyboard bass (it sounds like it) it's actually very likely a Chapman Stick - an instrument that's basically just a fretboard. Instead of picking or plucking or fingering with one hand while fretting with the other, both hands just fret. The sound is instantly created when you fret the string down on the board. Most people who play it see the instrument as a combination keyboard/bass/guitar, etc., as you can fret with both hands and create chords just by fretting on the board. One hand can fret a melody while the other does the bass or a chord. Because the bass is so perfectly fretted out and fast and polished in the song, I'm pretty sure Levin's fretting a Chapman Stick - and furthermore, he plays the instrument in the concert footage I've seen of Gowan performing that song.

Something I find kind of funny about the song in general is the lack of any actual piano. There's the nice introduction, and lead-ins, and bridge, etc., but otherwise Gowan plays two sustained chords throughout all the verses, with more in the chorus. He holds down a B major (third inversion), then C# major (second inversion). The chorus has more chords to correspond with the rest of the musical procession but otherwise the verses are kind of empty, and he's the big pianist. That little riff of notes that immediately proceed the chorus? D#-B-G#-C#.

I'm not mocking him or how he plays the song or his talent; I just find it a little funny that he doesn't really actually play much during the song. He sings more than he plays. Those chords are flashy-sounding - largely due to the sound of the keyboard itself than the notes - but that's it.

In general, the music does what it set out to do in my mind, if it tries to reflect what high fashion might sound or be like, superficial desires, magazines, the Parisian Look. The bass groove really helps out that style, and I'm sure similar-sounding music can be heard at fashion shows, with runways and all that stuff. I like quite a lot of the lyrics - "everything for the girl next door," "Manhattan styles, Parisian Look," etc. He gets quite illustrative and contrasty. There's quite a difference between a high fashion model and 'the girl next door' in my opinion (to me a big fashion model would be tall, skinny, dressed in very artistic or stylistic clothes, and made-up completely with make-up while the girl next door would simply just be very cute and alluring and attractive without any of that). Manhattan Style and the "Parisian Look" are basically two separate continents/styles altogether, one very European and the other very urban. There's the lyric "shadows and highlights, she'll make you burst at the seams." Complete opposites. Gowan's a pretty good songwriter.

Then there's the music video, which doesn't make much sense to me but is still fun and kind of creative. Gowan visits the Moon (where, I guess for authenticity, there's an American flag, though I'd still prefer a Canadian one). Technicians are watching him on a big screen in wherever, Houston maybe, and commenting as he acts on the screen. He takes his space helmut off, sits at a white grand piano, and acknowledges the human-like creature sitting next to the piano, who presents him with a fashion magazine (The Moon Issue?) He simply says, "Good morning."


One obvious thing I find quite funny about that whole video are the random little scenes of what look like an animated drawing of some sort of space probe thing. It sort of floats in an out of scene now and then, looking extremely cartoonish and amateur. It almost looks like a child drew it, really, and it just appears out of nowhere from time to time. The very low-quality, primitive, almost childish-looking probe-thing actually makes me laugh because it's silly-looking in every way, including in how it moves.

Through his singing, piano-playing, and physical antics, Gowan transforms the grey, dusty moon into a sort of warm paradise with plant life, as the nondescript grey people join in and turn into mildly attractive women, moving with him. The bit of him at the end of the last chorus making that contrived arm-to-chest movement to coincide with the grunt he makes in the song makes me laugh; I bet all the girls who liked him back then swooned over it.

That music video is a perfect showcase of Gowan's persona; he's like that on stage in real performances if he isn't completely restricted to his piano. I can't embed it, but here's a video of him performing the song live in the 80s. Considering he doesn't constantly play the piano in this song, he's pretty much free to be all fun and bouncy as he is in that video.

Music: A-
Lyrics: A-
Video: B+

All in all, I like his lyrics and how they differ from each other, the music's authenticity to the subject matter and its style, and the silly, but fun video (I almost think the little probe-like thing looked intentionally silly in that video).

Justin C. (Not the boy next door).