Album review: TINSLEY ELLIS – Ice Cream In Hell

Tinsley Ellis - Ice Cream In Hell

Alligator Records [Release date 31.01.20]

‘Ice Cream In Hell’ is a tasteful album that reaffirms Tinsley Ellis’s contemporary blues-rock credentials. He counterbalances a melodic bent with stinging guitar lines and relationship narratives.

It’s an album shot through with generic songwriting – with echoes of Chicago and Memphis blues and the British Invasion – but with a consistent voice at the heart of contrasting songs, while his intricate guitar work always pays due respect to the song.

From the opening Memphis tinged blues of ‘Last One To Know’ to the closing after hours blues of ‘Your Love’s Like Heroine’, Tinsley Ellis succinctly rolls out his DNA over 11 tracks that feel like a blues man’s work place.

Ellis is a contemporary blues artist for whom the value of a telling note or a lingering lyrical phrase is everything.

There’s the unlikely concept of the funky title track: “When they serve ice cream in hell I’m gonna take you back,” while on ‘Evil Till Sunrise’ he gives us his mission statement: “I know it’s a young man’s game but I’m in it to stay.”

He also opens ‘Everything And Everyone’ with the line: “Living it up, is bringing us down.”

He crafts his music with an innate guitar playing ability and the benefit of experience. There’s also an undulating southern feel at the heart of his unhurried style bolstered by wholesome guitar tones.

‘Ice Cream In Hell’ is an album full of textures, rich melodies and contrasting moods and styles. It derives its coherence from his world weary phrasing and his mastery of the guitar, enabling him to bring emphasis to his songs and dynamics to his music.

He’s forte is crafting a song that draws us in and filling it with the kind of guitar playing that marks him out as a seasoned blues artist.

He never wastes a note, and never overplays. Indeed there’s an understated feel to the album that gives the extended solo on ‘Foolin’ Yourself’ a greater impact.

On ‘You Don’t Know Beans’ he settles into an percussive funky backdrop with some sinewy and slashing guitar lines, while his double vocal line on the swinging piano boogie-led ‘Unlock My Heart’ gives him greater presence.

He’s also in his element on the buzz tone, jump blues intro of the Hound Dog Taylor influenced ‘Sit Tight Mama’. His aching slide playing is that of a performer who has made his living honing his craft in a thousand roadhouses.

The key to the album is his unwavering focus and concentration as he delivers a perfect array of tones to match his lyrical feel. His judicious note choices on the exquisitely restrained finish of ‘Your Love’s Like Heroin’ is framed by a feather light band who sound as if they’ve been with him all his life.

‘Ice Cream In Hell’ is a beguiling album with enough deep grooves to underpin its lyrical integrity. There may be nothing new here, but like most enduring blues artists you instantly know who that touch and tone belongs to. Tinsley Ellis may not have a patent for soulful southern blues-rock, but he’s currently sitting in the driving seat.

His extended solo on the title track levers into an effortless intensity that he too often keeps in reserve, and only a rather perfunctory fade denudes the track of a welcome jamming quality.

And it’s the album’s succession of fades that provides the only downside to an otherwise well crafted work full of good songs and fine playing.

On the Peter Green meets Carlos Santana Latino feel of ‘Everything And Everyone’ for example, his sumptuously toned guitar playing and co-producer Kevin McKendree’s  piano and organ support is robbed of  a cathartic resolution by an annoying fade, just when you feel that the band has more to give.

That said, the stinging attack and resonant vibrato to be found on ‘No Stroll In The Park,’ flows neatly into another fade.

His predilection for fades almost makes the album feel like an aggregation of unrelated tracks rather than a coherent whole, except of course for the consistency of Ellis’s playing throughout.

His intuitive guitar playing is his calling card, from the emotion filled notes to the sonic detail to be found in the clipped wah-wah and organ accompaniment of ‘Evil Till Sunrise’.

Ultimately everything is resolved by the late night sounding ‘Your Love’s Like Heroin’.

It’s always the sign of a confident artist to finish on a slow blues.  And this closing cut has a very late night feel, full of crystal clear tremulous notes with an organ intro leading to a sludgy slow blues, with lots of space, expressive phrasing and pristine note selection.

Listen also to the sustained notes in the middle of the song. At first they are barely an inflection, but they convey so much about the emotion and authority of a great player.

What you are hearing is a man and his blues in perfect harmony on a quite beautiful track.

Chances are that ‘Ice Cream In Hell’ will probably just preach to the converted, but it’s a timely reminder of the qualities of a blues musician who once again sets standards that other will find hard to emulate. ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

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