Tank and the Bangas' 'Red Balloon' Bursts with Infectious Energy
Published May 12, 2022While the term 'magical' is often cliché and overused, describing Tank and the Bangas as such is completely accurate. Whether you were introduced to the New Orleans fusion band in 2017 via NPR's Tiny Desk Contest, or in 2019 with their major label debut Green Balloon, this much is immediately clear and consistently true about the band: their energy is infectious.
On third album Red Balloon, that continues to be true. Here, the group effortlessly combine funk, jazz, hip-hop, R&B and spoken word to tell sometimes whimsical, but more often thoughtful and introspective stories. From the outset, it is jarring how lead vocalist Tarriona "Tank" Ball disguises frustrated lyrics about politics, social media, climate change and mental health with upbeat melodies and beautiful balladry. Even more impressive is the nuance and self-awareness the band display in the production and structure of their stories.
Following an intro from Wayne Brady, the band use the upbeat, catchy jazz of "Mr. Bluebell" to address white America with a forced smile you can practically hear, airing out their laundry list of issues with government, social media activism and fear of desensitization while sounding jovial and non-threatening. They continue to put the honey with the medicine on "Anxiety" and "Oak Tree," as Tank's crisp rap vocals distract from the dark undertones of her lyrics. It is not until the first line of the second verse of "Oak Tree," "I say good morning sunshine contemplating suicide," that one realizes they are having fun at her expense.
Like the Fugees' Lauryn Hill, Tank is both a powerful vocalist and a dynamic lyricist. In addition to Red Balloon's strong production, it is her ability as both a whimsical rapper on songs like "Who's in Charge of the Girls" and a vulnerable songwriter on "Communion In My Cup" and "Jellyfish" that glue the wide variety of sounds together.
However, Tank's most compelling performance comes as spoken word on "Black Folk." Over a soulful R&B beat, Tank leaves the vocal heavy-lifting to featured singers Alex Isley and Masego to deliver an artful and authentic ode to her community. With lines like, "Black sound like old songs, smell like good food / And it tastes like heart disease / But it feel like maze at Jazz Fest," Tank is clearly on a mission to emote a complex feeling, a feat she and the band likely could not have accomplished through song or rap. The track manages to leave one feeling emotionally satisfied while also grounding the entire record with a sense of place.
Red Balloon contains songs undoubtedly meant to be heard live. While "Black Folk" manages to portray the band's personality, the rest of the album falls short of capturing this onstage charisma. In their performance of "Box and Squares" for NPR in 2017, there is a moment where Tank stops singing to explain something to backup singer Anjelika "Jelly" Joseph: "You are like a hoop," Tank sings. "A what, girl?" Jelly responds. "I said you are like a hoop, like a hula hoop. I keep going around and around with you," Tank explains, continuing the performance. It's an incredibly endearing moment that makes the small crowd laugh.
Outside of the two most radio-ready songs on the album — straightforward funk bops "No ID" and "Why Try" — the entirety of Red Balloon would be better experienced in concert. What is undeniable about Tank and the Bangas is their authenticity and talent. The New Orleans outfit showcase an unique sound and appreciation for funk and jazz music, similar to Jon Batiste, early Anderson .Paak, Noname and Thundercat, with odes to hip-hop acts like the Roots and Outkast. While this is likely not an album that will float them to the mainstream, it is one to be proud of. (Verve Forecast)