I only stopped smiling at the end of my first listen to the new Tank and the Bangas album — Red Balloon. So, I played it again to revel in the all sorts of special going on there.
And I smiled some more…
Which is great because on the first track on the album, the band leaves you with a tagline: “we just want to make you smile.”
Mission accomplished, Tank & The Bangas!
Ok, fanboy gushing aside, the first challenge for me as reviewer is to try to give you an idea of what this fine new music from one of New Orleans’ finest young bands is like. I would advise you just start listening but if you need some categories to tempt your musical palate, well, you might want to file this under progressive modern rhythm & soul with a tasty jazz-pop chaser.
Or you could just listen…
From the opening track which introduces the album as a sort of radio show and the first full song “Mr. Bluebell,” you can tell immediately that Red Balloon is going to take you on a richly rewarding musical journey.
“Mr. Bluebell” is is such an uplifting slice of booty-shaking spunky pop soul, it recalls at once the joys of Stevie Wonder jams (“Fun Day” from Jungle Fever comes to mind) yet it feels totally its own. Yet, like Elvis Costello, Tank offers up some very direct, heavier thoughts to consider beneath the pop sheen. Very much capturing the moment America is living through now, the lyrics on “Mr. Bluebell” paint a poignant portrait of compromised government, social media obsession, underpaid teachers, immigration fears, selfish mindsets and long burning questions revolving around race relations.
Like the best Bob Dylan albums, phrases here jump out at you differently with each listen, such as: “the phone is a gateway to hell,” “its so easy to scroll all your problems away” and “desensitized is the new wave.” Some of these resonate deeply with this writer.
And then just when you thought you had it figured out the tune literally winds up into a little – I’d like to think – tribute to The Tubes (ala the end of “What Do You Want From Life”) with a radio announcer’s voice careening out of control and leading into the next song. ”Anxiety” is a wonderfully quirky track, sort of like if Devo had a hip-hop moment at a Kraftwerk show. The subject matter is self explanatory.
And so soars the Red Balloon, taking the listener on a flight that expands on the promise of the band’s wonderful prior release, Green Balloon. If you missed my review of that album — which was my personal entry point on Tank and The Bangas’ music — please click here to catch up on it. And while you’re at it you can click here and here to read my other reviews of their live albums and also last year’s Friend Goals EP.
The sound on Red Balloon is outstanding, achieving a really nice balance between modern production techniques and the vintage vibe of classic ‘70s soul. Expect the bass to be big, but there’s also a nice warm rich chime of Fender Rhodes-type electric piano, Steely Dan-inspired horn sections and rich layered vocal harmonies.
Ok, here are a couple more musical touch stones for you to consider …
The Stevie Wonder vibe on Red Balloon continues strong on “Communion In My Cup.
“Stolen Fruit” blends gorgeous harmonies and melodic twists with an important message. From the Universal Music site for this song’s single release earlier this year, indeed Tank confirms “Stolen Fruit’ is basically about the slave trade. There’s ‘Strange Fruit,’ and I call this one ‘Stolen Fruit,’ because not only were the fruit strange, but they were also stolen. They weren’t from here.”
Still, it delivers a message of hope: “Your roots be golden, your new springs ford, all that was stolen, now can be reborn.’ And if the Stevie Wonder connection on Red Balloon isn’t entirely clear, Tank sings “The visions of the soul, need Stevie to see them.”
I ordered the Deluxe Edition red vinyl version of Red Balloon from the band’s website and I’m not disappointed. The album pressing it is great even though it’s standard weight and translucent colored vinyl. It is happily very quiet and well centered. If I had any disappointment it’s just the reality that there’s only three sides of material here and that the fourth side is a fun etched graphic. I do kind of wish they had been some extra tracks added on but then I also realize that spreading out the music across three sizes is probably going to deliver a better listening experience than having all this music crammed on to one single disc.
Red Balloon is also available on a single disc black vinyl configuration as well as CD, cassette and digital download. You can find Red Balloon streaming on your favorite streaming services including Tidal (click here), Qobuz (click here) in 24-bit, 44.1 kHz fidelity. It is also up on Apple Music (click here).
Right now Red Balloon is well on its way to being one of my favorite albums of the year. It is certainly an important statement for this band. You should listen. It might make you smile and think too…