Album Review

Ten Ton Man - Chunk of Change: The Toad Hill Sessions

 - Error

I usually don’t review extended play formats (EP) -- 3 to 6 songs -- because I feel I can’t be fair judging an artist from such a lean sample. However, I listened to this new three-song set a few times, did a little research and my curiosity made me listen back to Ten Ton Man’s 2012 self-titled full album. This collection contained ten songs that helped me understand the direction they were coming from.

So, while I'm not reviewing that first album here, I may reference their approach and style by falling back on what came before – Chunk of Change – and how these new songs are shaping their repertoire today. First of all, Ten Ton Man’s deep voiced lead singer Paul Livornese, while not quite as deep as say the Crash Test Dummies’ bass-baritone vocalist Brad Roberts, sings in a similar controlled low register.

Some may incorrectly say Paul is too monotone, but listening closely he doesn't. He has emotion, sincerity and this can be sampled, as well, in their first album’s track “Carry It.”

My ears find Paul closer in style to a Canadian singer-songwriter named Tom Wilson – who has a similar rock style and vocal timbre. The songs that sparked this similarity in my ears are not available on many streaming services but Wilson does have an album on Rdio called “The Shack Recordings – Volume 1” with Bob Lanois. Several tracks would substantiate my claim about Ten Ton Man and their genre: I would say Wilson's “Fennell Square” and “Going By” are closest. This, of course, is a compliment, because Wilson has quite a respected following in Canada and in many songwriting circles.

One other singer from this “school” of deep voice vocalizing is New York’s own Tony Powers who hit big decades ago with an award-winning funky commercial narrative/sung “Don’t Nobody Move, This is a Heist.” Powers has been involved with the success of hundreds upon hundreds of hit tunes recorded by many other artists. A visit to his website would surprise you. 

Nevertheless, my point is this: Ten Ton Man is obviously from this “family” of deep rooted but attractive and musical, breed of musicians. This New York band has a tight sound – and are basically fairly lean by today’s standards. Paul sings, whistles and plays guitar. Paul Dugna holds the upright bass and gives the band a great full sound. Paul Triff (lots of Paul’s in this band) – plays the skins and William Holshouser presses the accordion buttons.

The title track, “Chunk of Change” opens with a clean acoustic guitar, unraveling a tale that could have been taken from the Tom Waits song book. With all the dark overtones and deep vocals the thread that holds the music together on this tune melodically is the beautiful under the surface accordion. It suggests a light approach to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. It’s sad stuff, a little Parisian flavor, Beat Hotel feel, Scott Walker singing Jacques Brel. Heavy and topical. Bottom-line?

It’s cool, but not in a hipster way. It’s cool because it is.

Track two opens with yet another accordion melody with a sharp lead guitar slicing through it as Livornese, once again, unravels a lyric with a story. This time it’s like an imaginative noir film with burlesque overtones. Lots of shadows and Edith Piaf. If Billie Holiday were alive today she might tackle a tune like this but she would add some drunken saxophone runs to emotive effect. She would saloon it up, put a cafe society spin on it. Maybe that’s what’s missing from Ten Ton Man – a little saxophone, a muted trumpet, a Hoagy Carmichael piano. That would make “Fine Line” perfect.

On their first album, Ten Ton Man did indeed have some brass and additional instrumentation and their sound, while not being diminished now on their new EP because of a lack of these instruments, did have more of a variety, distinctness and most importantly -- diversity. With a deep voice like Paul Livornese – the added textures would support his power not interfere with it.

Despite the vintage musical approach it’s still quite modern in its production value and presentation.

This is what makes these songs attractive and the band worth a listen. No one today, is actually mining this musical genre and Ten Ton Man seems to be quite accomplished with this café jazz-avant-garde noir cabaret rock. If they were to consider a female vocalist Bette Bright of the old Deaf School would be a good choice. Or, vocalist Annie Ross -- who has had some show tune experience -- would be a great add. 

“What To Do,” is a simple ballad that plods along slow with accordion brushstrokes and splashes of acoustic guitar. This tune, despite the sincerity seems to come from the song book of The Blue Nile. Those men used to produce similar sounding low-fi jazz several years ago and were critics’ favorites. As well, was a band known simply as Double -- who managed to release a very memorable tune in this style called "The Captain of Her Heart." So, there is hope for a Ten Ton Man break through with the right song. 

When the drums start rolling, Livornese starts adding his clean whistling, the song really comes alive beautifully. It’s worth waiting  for as the whistling is as memorable as Vivabeat’s “Man from China.” It has an unforgettable quality to it. Even if at first, you just play it – it comes back into your mind hours later. This one may need a second look arrangement-wise because I don’t believe it’s been fleshed out. It’s a much more exciting and poignant song than Ten Ton Man realizes.

They have a piece of meat that is flavorful, and wonderful but, no one has yet spiced it up sufficiently and sliced it the right way for serving. But that may be alright.

Even famous bands will play new songs in concerts for years before the song “finds itself.” I like it nevertheless – I just think it’s potential has not been fully realized yet.

Maybe that’s why this is an EP and not an album. They are poking around, they are experimenting, looking for that magic that I feel they had on their first album and are being cautious about that sophomore jinx.

Their first album, my reference for this review, is filled with some clever musicianship and songs. However, I don’t think Ten Ton man has missed the mark. Quite the contrary. This is an interesting band. They have something to say, have a unique way of preparing their recipes. On their first album Livornese sings “Ditty” and it is a ditty.

The song is catchy, sticky like a spider web, the musicianship is edgy and quirky in a special way. I compared the band to Tom Wilson and Tony Powers but – Ten Ton Man is not copying anyone. They are their own men. They have a grip on a style that few explore and they are succeeding.

At times, they are a little retro, show tune style, old time romantic, reminiscent of times gone by. But this is not a barbershop quartet. No, far from it. They sing about things a listener can relate to. Build their melodies – as they did on their first album’s “Yes Sir,” by adding instruments as the sad ballad takes shape the way Frank Sinatra would.

My suggestion? Check out this new three song EP but don’t ignore that first album's ten tracks. “Never Know” rocks with an Iggy Pop type-deep vocal and it’s brilliant.

More of that on any new album and Ten Ton Man will have no trouble grabbing and maintaining a rock audience that can appreciate both ass-kicking tunes and the darker neo-classical ballads. Some bands write songs in the studio or on the fly but these sound like someone stayed up late to map out a strategy. They’re tight, creative and for an independent band – deserving of a listen.

I also like that they don't fool with the formula – evidence on “The Drinking Song,” from their first album.

Again, very Brecht-Weill Three Penny Opera intriguing.  Another wild band – The Tiger Lillies are cut from the same cloth as Ten Ton Man. They recorded a song called “Hell”  for the film “Plunkett and Macleane” and it too, has that intensity. If Charles Dickens’ were a songwriter that’s what he would write and sing. This track was sung by a maniacal vocalist in Martyn Jaques (the clear opposite of Paul Livornese) -- what Jack the Ripper may have sounded like had he been a singer. But the addition of the darkness, the beautiful accordion all confirm that this is a music genre that is worth exploring.

I don’t expect Ten Ton Man to be as insane as The Tiger Lillies or even as diversified and resourceful as Tom Waits -- but they would be the logical flip-side of both song books. A respectable addition to that collection. Unlike those artists -- Ten Ton Man prefers to occupy a more balanced musical space where “the world can be a beautiful place” if you look closely. This is what sets them apart and they do have some tunes that will curl your toes.

And quite rightly so. Songs should be compelling…intriguing and exciting. Had he lived, Jim Morrison of The Doors would produce a band like this today. This is that proverbial tea with honey and more than a jigger of whiskey added.

Ten Ton Man -- are available for sampling on Bandcamp and YouTube:

http://tentonman.bandcamp.com/

Visit their FaceBook page and website:   http://tentonman.com/home

Disclaimer: Support Independent Artists -- The opinion expressed in this review / commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression.

John Apice – Contributor – No Depression – June 2014