Can a “red balloon” fly even higher than a “green balloon”?
Yes, as demonstrated by Tank and the Bangas.
The Bangas’ 2019 album “Green Balloon” earned the multifaceted New Orleans band a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist and national acclaim.
“Red Balloon,” released May 13 via Verve Forecast, builds on and surpasses its predecessor in execution and listening. But he still possesses a lot of the cheerful weirdness that distinguishes Tank and the Bangas.
On “Red Balloon,” the Bangas core—vocalist Tarriona “Tank” Ball, keyboardist Norman Spence, drummer Joshua Johnson, and flautist and saxophonist Albert Allenback—collaborate with various producers, co-writers, and guest stars to create an ensemble consistent with an intelligent framework. There’s plenty to savor, head and hips alike, in its mix of R&B, soul, funk, hip-hop, spoken word and more.
“Red Balloon” is set up and sequenced like a show by the fictional radio station TATB (get it?). Comedian and TV personality Wayne Brady opens the album — given the old and new aesthetic, it’s best enjoyed on vinyl — impersonating a late-night deejay with a rhyme line.
Brady ushers in “Mr. Bluebell.” A sunny groove that straddles the line between R&B and funk belies Ball’s news recap. She happily addresses “Mr. Bluebell” as she casually asks about Jan. 6, “We’ll have a conversation about the FDA/capital and how you got inside.”
The trippy “Anxiety” is a manifestation of its title. The printed lyrics are needed to keep up with Ball’s fast, compressed delivery of syllables. Against flared horns, his distorted vocals in “Oak Tree” are alternately fast and slow.
“Communion In My Cup” returns to more melodic territory with a great hook and sweet backing vocals from the Hamiltones, the vocal trio who first rose to prominence with R&B/soul songwriter Anthony Hamilton.
“Who’s In Charge,” on the other hand, is the weirdest of the Bangas, a “Simpsons”-themed fever dream fueled by Ball’s choppy references to Homer, Marge, Bart, and even Mr. Burns.
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is a guest DJ for the melodic “Why Try”. Ball sings with precision, clarity and judiciously deployed force, boasting that she has “downtown blues like Marvin Gaye”.
Side A ends on a high note with the disco-flavored “No ID”. Jeff Gitty, the producer of this track and several others, also provided the rubbery, full-bodied bass on which the dance party groove depends.
“Green Balloon” was peppered with shoutouts in New Orleans in general and Ball’s native East New Orleans in particular (she graduated from Sarah T. Reed High School). These references are not so important on “Red Balloon”, at least until the B-side opens with “Café du Monde”.
A love letter to a lover about a quiet afternoon in the French Quarter, “Café du Monde” is as easy and airy as a song about such things should be, thanks in part to shimmering electric keyboards. Co-writer Jamison Ross, the acclaimed jazz drummer and vocalist, shares lead vocal duties with Ball. Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, who contributes trumpet and/or trombone on several tracks, is the featured soloist.
“Easy Goes It” recalls Ball’s days as a practitioner of slam poetry. It’s a balanced, verbal assessment of all she would have done for a lover who was ultimately intimidated by her. Featuring guest vocalist Lalah Hathaway, the song encapsulates exactly what was lost: “I’d raise you a sun / or raise your son.” But instead, the object of her affection “said I was in the way/shone in your way….. I had no guidelines on how not to shine.” Allenback’s flute and Joe Johnson III’s piano are the only accompaniments.
Clouds part from the lush, swelling soulful chorus of ’70s-style “Stolen Fruit,” while Allenback’s flute twirls in the background. Then it’s back to the Bangas funhouse with “Big” and special guest Big Freedia, who rides the shotgun with Ball. The haze inherent in the woozy “Heavy,” set to an offbeat beat, allows only a glimpse of Allenback’s alto sax.
DJ Soul Sister presents the chill “Jellyfish” with “Let’s sweeten it up to shut it down.” Falsetto’s background vocals contribute to its throwback vibe. The final “Where Do We All Go” finds Ball contemplating what happens after we die. You can hear the smile and wonder, in her singing as she suggests, “It’s beyond a child’s imagination.”
Interwoven lead and background vocals elevate the arrangement. It ends up floating, towards the sky, a bit like a balloon (red).