The band's new album suggests that its recent success has been a mixed bag for Tank.
Tank and the Bangas treated their Jazz Fest set earlier this month as an album-release party for Green Balloon, their debut album on Verve Forecast. They had green balloons onstage, dancers in green, and vocalist Tarriona “Tank” Ball in a green cape with green chopsticks in her hair. They leaned heavily if not entirely on the album, which features Ball riding psychedelic jazz/funk grooves. It didn’t get over on the Acura Stage quite like the band did in the last two years, but that was likely a function of a rainy morning and a late-arriving crowd that was just settling in during the set because the gates opened late that day. The album itself is a beautifully complete, coherent statement of where and what the band is in 2019.
Who it is starts with Ball, who gives voice to all the conflicting emotions and points of view inside her head. At times, that can be a lot to take, particularly the girlish voices that rarely communicate wonder for me as effectively as I think they’re supposed to. I’m never fond of hearing grown women adopt less powerful voices in a time when audiences need to hear their strength. Still, Ball’s ability to switch gears from singing to rap to spoken word all within bars of each other is technically impressive and often musically smart. The variety of vocal attacks she brings to the songs on Green Balloon makes it clear that we can’t process her lyrics without considering the speaker or point of view represented.
We also have to be careful what kind of weight we put on her words because they aren’t all equally serious. Near the end of “Spaceships,” she signals her playfulness when Ball free associates making money with the things she could buy, then with “getting green,” and green leads spontaneously to “golfcourse golfcourse golfcourse golfcourse.” The moment is funny and adds a fresh, silly energy, even as it clues us in that we can’t take anything on the album at face value.
The story told by Green Balloon is that of a woman who’s dealing with changes, and often the consequences that come with them. In song after song, she finds success and the money that comes with it to be complicated. She doesn’t feel different, but in “Dope Girl Magic,” she becomes conscious that she is by inventorying her stuff. “My car different / my watch different / I watch different / I stunt different / I leveled up,” she singspeaks, in the end tracking her progress in video game language. But winning doesn’t necessarily make her feel like a winner.
“This is no fun / this is too easy, easy for me,” she sings, but it’s not clear in the song if success is no fun because it’s too easy, or if Ball tells herself that this is easy to make herself feel better, or if “This is no fun” is the little voice inside her that is trying to keep her grounded in the midst of an otherwise-triumphant moment.
“Forgetfulness” picks up some of those threads as Ball suggests notes and lists as tools to help to make sure “that you don’t miss your moment.” The song is a series of instructions that could be to a friend, but as the speaker’s own experiences filter into the song, she could also be talking to herself. She gets high as a way to deal with her life, then worries that getting high might derail her progress. Those mixed emotions are common on Green Balloon, particularly where getting high is concerned. It, like success, is a current fact of life that Ball seems to enjoy and fear in equal measure.
One of her recommendations is “Don’t forget that you’re a winner,” and that, paired with the final track, “Colors Change,” makes it hard not to hear the moment as gendered. It’s impossible to generalize Ball’s performance because her talents are so specific and her perspective so personal. You can’t help but hear every thought flowing from a young, southern, African-American woman. “Colors Change” moves the songs’ themes to romance, where she tells her partner, “You say you can't take that I’ve changed / Weren’t you supposed to do the same?”
Musically, the song is one of the most straightforward on the album, recalling early ‘70s soul-jazz complete with Albert Allenback’s flute. The grooves don’t always shape the mood as clearly as one does in “Colors Change,” which clearly and heartbreakingly frames Ball’s story as one of a woman who got what she wanted and now has to deal with the lonely reality that she grew and he didn’t. The song ends with a one-sided conversation with her lover that stakes out her independence. “I'm not some island / You didn’t discover me, you know,” she says, and over the course of song, she reveals that her lover wasn’t her only man. “Did I confuse you at how I could be a sea for you and land for him? / I was both of these women, I am, I is.” In the end, she wonders if she was “too woman” for him, and you know she found her way to the real answer.
Green Balloon is an unusual debut with a major label—Verve Forecast is under the Universal umbrella—and an unlikely statement for a band that has been finding larger audiences around the country since Tank and the Bangas won NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest in 2017. At a time when the band’s narrative would seem to be so positive, it’s fascinating to hear what sound like the inner conversations inextricably tied to being in uncharted waters. The voices in Ball’s head aren’t nearly as worried about the label and those around her screwing things up as she is about how she and those around her are handling things. The mix of triumph and trepidation gives the album the conceptual richness that the music deserves. “Colors Change” give it a beautiful and sad conclusion when the one thing she’s certain of is her womanhood, which isolates her as well.
The album and Ball’s perspective feels right on time because the voices in her head are ones I recognize from women in social media. They’re trying to wrap their heads around having two well-qualified female candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination while early polls show a preference for the two oldest white white men in the race. They’re the voices that talk about how the American game is rigged against them down to the control over their bodies, and no thought comes out simply or solo. Even celebratory expressions come with a side of doubt or darkness. Ball’s point of view is personal on Green Balloon, but that doesn’t mean she alone feels the way she does.