There are no right or wrong answers with music. It’s subjective and everyone brings their own preferences and past experiences to the listening process. So what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. Having gotten that out of the way, Tinsley Ellis does blues rock right and Ice Cream in Hell is positively correct.
Ellis is a guitarist’s guitarist, with 17 solo albums to his name, but not enough name recognition. I’m not sure if Ice Cream in Hell will address that marketing challenge, but in a perfect world, it would, because it’s a phenomenal album. Where Ellis’ 2018 album, Winning Hand, featured the same high-quality guitar playing, there was something a bit staid about it all, like he was striving for perfection at the expense of emotion. Ice Cream in Hell has guitar playing that’s frighteningly close to perfect, but what seals the album is the passion beneath the guitar playing.
Ellis’ guitar work is so good, it’s easy to ignore his singing, which is charmingly ordinary. I have no idea what it’s like to have talent, but I imagine it’s very easy to hide behind it. If I could play half as well as Ellis, you’d hear me jamming on every street corner and subway car from here to Maryland. Ellis could just as easily lean on his guitar prowess, but he doesn’t, putting a lot of work into his vocals. On the title track, he sounds delightfully ragged, like he recorded the track after doing a live show. It’s bluesy and brave as anything.
And while we’re on the subject of the title track, that song is surprisingly pretty. Ellis’ guitar hops through the track with lines that have that bright Allman Brothers feel, but also a dark gritty bluesiness. Keyboardist/co-producer Kevin McKendree sets a beautiful table for Ellis, on this and each of the album’s tracks. The two musicians have a great relationship, obviously listening to each other and playing off each other, while maintaining every song’s structure. There are plenty of gorgeous musical passages and licks, but the two always turn back to the song.
I was blown away by how fluent Ellis is in so many styles. The songs, all Ellis originals, sound familiar. He has his own takes on blues rock classics, but his ability to nail all of those licks we know so well, while still preserving his own muscular playing, which lies firmly in the Albert King/Stevie Ray Vaughan camp, consistently impressed me. “Sit Tight Mama” has Ellis playing slide in the style of Hound Dog Taylor. “Evil Till Sunrise” recalls Jimi Hendrix’s “Stone Free.” “Everything and Everyone” features a Carlos Santana sound. Ellis isn’t stealing licks or trying to present himself as someone he’s not. He’s just paying tribute to his inspirations.
If you’re a blues rock fan and aren’t familiar with Ellis’ work, this is a great place to check in. Ice Cream in Hell is blues rock from a master at the height of his power, vocally and instrumentally. Ellis showcases monster tone, vibrato that feels like an earthquake, and all-around tasteful playing. He is always the right answer.
The Review: 9.5/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– Evil Till Sunrise
– Everything and Everyone
– Your Love’s Like Heroin
– Last One to Know
– Ice Cream in Hell
The Big Hit
– Ice Cream in Hell
Review by Steven Ovadia