The Lowdown: There’s something kind of magical about NPR’s Tiny Desk series. For music admirers, it’s a chance to watch an organic, often-stripped-down version of a beloved artist’s work, but for musicians, it’s a sign of success: Having Bob Boilen’s stamp of approval is a surefire way to launch a career. So when Tank and the Bangas won the Tiny Desk Contest in 2017 and landed in that comfortably cramped performance space, it’s unsurprising that they were lifted out of relative obscurity.
Led by frontwoman Tarriona “Tank” Ball, the group is the lovechild of the rich New Orleans music scene and spoken word. Their first studio album, Thinktank, showcased their ability to perfectly blend jazz, funk, soul, hip-hop, spoken word — and their weirdness. With their sometimes comical, quick-witted lyrics, Tank and the Bangas captured audiences with their ability to tell a gripping story. After a six-year stretch of not releasing an album, the band is back with their second full-length record, Green Balloon.
The Good: It’s obvious that Green Balloon was not just sheepishly thrown together; it’s a highly refined work made possible by the seamless transitions between each of the 17 tracks. It’s a fluid listening experience, where the emotional shifts aren’t jarring because of the interludes and preludes that prep you for what’s coming next. These short tracks typically involve some sort of instrumentals or an excerpt from a conversation, which exacerbates the emotional pull within the following song. More so, Green Balloon is a testament to the talent of Tarriona Ball. Her vocals are stunning, whether it’s in her soft whispers on “Ants” and “Mr. Lion” or the sexy speak-song verses on “Lazy Daze”. She’s a powerhouse of a front woman, and similar to Lizzo, has a strong ability to alter her stylings based on the music behind her. Throughout Green Balloon, you’re never sure what type of song will come next.
The Bad: There are certain bands who simply sound better live, and Tank and the Bangas are undeniably one of them. What makes the group so exciting and idiosyncratic is the way the members improvise and interact with each other onstage; if you listen to a studio recording of “Quick”, the standout hit on their first record, instead of them performing it live during their Tiny Desk Contest audition, the power and singularity of the song gets lost. And while Green Balloon is an easy listen because of its transitions, you don’t look to Tank and the Bangas for a refined work.
Plus, Tank and the Bangas are weird; it’s what makes them enchanting and captivating. Their lyrics could be an extensive and roundabout tale of a night out — or they could be a grocery list. On “Boxes and Squares” from their first album, Ball sings, “Would have been fish/ Would have been meat/ Would have been eggs/ Would have been greens/ Would have been milk/ Would have been fruit/ Would have been vegetables/ Would have been soup.” Never has listening to recital of edible products been so enjoyable. But on Green Balloon, we don’t really get that lovable weirdness or the loony lyrics that made them so innovative in the first place. At times, the band’s attempts to recreate those eclectic tracks seems forced and even a little corny (See “Smoke.Netflix.Chill”). In the process of sounding polished, the songs on the album got watered down, when in reality, we were craving a scorching desert.
The Verdict: It was a long six years without a record from Tank and the Bangas. Although it might not be as successful as their debut album, there are still strong songs on Green Balloon, which is held together by the album’s cohesive nature and Ball’s talent. However, it showcases more of her talent than the band’s collaborative, endless energy and eccentric nature that we have come to associate with the them. Tank and the Bangas seem to have fallen into a similar trap as Anderson .Paak on Oxnard, in that they’ve struggled to create an authentic album under the weight of commercial success.
Essential Tracks: “Hot Air Balloons”, “Spaceships”, and “Ants”