Monday, September 6, 2010

Monkey (Band of Joy song of the week, No. 11 of 12)

Note: Robert Plant's Band of Joy is now available for listening in its entirety online thanks to National Public Radio. Streaming ceases Sept. 14, when the album is released in the United States.

Low's Mimi Parker and Zak Sally accompany a monkey
on a ride during the music video for their 2005 song
"Monkey." © ℗ 2005 Sub Pop Records.
How fitting that an album with a monkey depicted on the cover would have a song on it called "Monkey." Yet Alan Sparhawk, one of the composers of that song, chalked it up to sheer coincidence when we spoke this June (listen to the interview). This possible coincidence didn't go unnoticed when I saw Robert Plant perform the song live in July, as he referenced the monkey on the stage's backdrop when introducing the song to the crowds in both Memphis and Little Rock.

© ℗ 2005 Sub Pop Records
Sparhawk takes writing credit for the song along with his wife, Mimi Parker, and their former Low bandmate Zak Sally. Like Plant, Low also used the monkey as a visual. In the video for their song, the three members of Low rode in a car with a toy monkey. The chorus includes the lyrics, "Tonight the monkey dies." During the video, the monkey lifts its arms to cover its eyes, presumably to shield itself from seeing the impending death alluded to in the song.

"Monkey" is one of two songs from their 2005 album The Great Destroyer to receive the video treatment. The song stands alone as the only album track to have received the remix treatment on a CD dedicated to it. Five remixes of "Monkey" appear on a CD called Tonight the Monkeys Die.

Low is popularly recognized as one of the bands to have originated an alternative rock style dubbed "slowcore." Just as famous as this categorization is the group's rejection of the term, much the same way members of Them Crooked Vultures object to the term "supergroup." However undesirable the term "slowcore" may be, it denotes some musical traits heard in some of Low's original material, such as simple arrangements, crawling tempos and unimportant lyrics.

Photo added by Gloria Klempert
to photo album on Robert Plant's
official Facebook fan page
According to that definition, "Monkey" stands out because plenty of layered vocals and electronic effects adorn the song's arrangement, because it's played in a moderate speed rather than a sluggish one, and because the lyrics do have a meaning. Note well that Sparhawk says the suggestion of killing monkeys is not to be taken literally. He does offer, however, "The line, 'Tonight you will be mine, tonight the monkey dies' -- it's sort of indulgence and denial and, at the same time, that moment when you either go on one side or the other of the knife."

This early favorite from the Band of Joy tour is a moody piece for sure. As Robert Plant says, "Mood and lilt and, through the years, swagger and some sort of physicality through the music [have] been really quite important to me, to get it beyond the words."

On the original, Sparhawk sings the melody, allowing Parker to add harmony. Plant's cover version benefits from the late addition of Patty Griffin to the in-studio personnel. "There were times as the record progressed when we needed a really high salutation, a voice that soared above it all and brought home integral parts of the songs," says Plant. "Buddy had just been producing the most recent album for Patty Griffin [Downtown Church]. It seemed perfect because she was so free and easy about approaching 'Monkey' and 'Silver Rider' where it kind of needed a real vocal approach in an area where I hadn't heard her sing before."

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