Even the most miserable wretch wouldn’t be able to resist the infectiously cheerful Monkey Hotel. This sunny album from Jannabi, well-crafted and endlessly inviting, is a whirlwind of ear-catching melodies.
While some of Jannabi’s previous releases adhered to a more traditional ballad sound, Monkey Island marks a stylistic shift. The album is curiously old-fashioned-sounding, with a character reminiscent of classical musical theatre and the Roaring Twenties. This blast from the past, of trumpets, strings and piano combined with more modern instrumentation, makes Jannabi a fascinating group amidst the modern music scene. Do not be fooled: Jannabi are not a band limited to a single style. Monkey Hotel’s ballads, filled with soaring vocals from the skillful Choi Jung-Hoon (who possesses a very well-controlled voice and falsetto), contrast nicely against its playful pieces; there is a surprising amount of diversity on this 29-minute album. On one end of the spectrum, we have the tongue-in-cheek “The Secret of Hard Rock,” featuring heavy riffs and swagger; in the middle we encounter the danceable, bubbly “Jungle,” and on the more sentimental end, songs like “Wish” and the closing waltz.
The musical theatre comparison comes into play again when you consider that Monkey Hotel is an album with a proper introduction and finale. The audience is led into the work by quiet piano and wavering vocals, and then immediately treated to Monkey Hotel’s warm splendour. “뜨거운 여름밤은 가고 남은 건 볼품없지만” is a dignified ballad full of subtleties, as is the more wistful “Wish.” The joyful “Surprise,” rocking out its nostalgic spirit, nonetheless contains a grand backing harmony of strings.
“The Secret of Hard Rock” breaks away from the mold to show off its unabashed machismo, perhaps as a purposeful pastiche of stereotypical hard rock songs. In any other circumstance, such a song could seem contrived, but Jannabi somehow manages to convey its ironic nature in a purely enjoyable manner. I was impressed with how a track that differs so much from the rest of its peers can fit in this well without disrupting the flow of the album.
The sound of “Hong Kong” lives up to its name, its chorus noticeably influenced by traditional pentatonic harmonies. Jannabi’s knack for writing in effective backing vocals is especially apparent on “Hong Kong;” each time the chorus repeats, more layers are added on, growing the song to a sizable climax.
“꿈나라 별나라” and “Jungle” are both two light-hearted, mischievous pieces. “Jungle” amps up the energy, and shows that less can be more: its simple 2/4 beat and bouncing chorus makes for prime-time boogie material.
“Monkey Hotel,” the (official) finale, is a strong callback to the era that runs through Jannabi’s veins With its ensemble of singers and conspicuous trumpets, it would be a fitting last number of a musical – except for the fact that there is something more.
“왕눈이 왈츠” is the solemn coda and the true closing piece. Muted, yet regal, it has the air of a waltz played from an old vinyl record. I find “왕눈이 왈츠” to be an interesting choice as the epilogue, and I can only theorise that it works to evade the usual extravagant ending associated with musicals (and yes, despite myself, I am treating this album as one).
Monkey Hotel is absolutely enchanting. Submerged in the inspirations of both the past and present, Jannabi have created an album to be proud of. I can’t recall the last time I was so entranced by something so unapologetically positive and confident in its ability to lift a sad spirit.