When it comes to modern electric blues, Tinsley Ellis has always been the exception to the rule. He has always understood that the music's roots are more about feel than chops (though he is rightfully celebrated for them). Musically, he displays that different genre bends -- blues, country, jazz, soul, R&B, and of course rock & roll -- are part of an inseparable American musical heritage. Tough Love is Ellis' third set for his own Heartfixer label. He penned all ten tracks and produced the date with engineering and mixing help from keyboardist Kevin McKendree. Drummer Lynn Williams remains, but bassist Ted Pecchio has been replaced by Steve Mackey. Though Ellis has cut many different kinds of records, this is the first to display his considerable abilities as a singer. Things get off to a choogling start with "Seven Years," a minor-key, midtempo heartbreak groover that contains plenty of stinging lead fills, with McKendree's electric piano and B-3 fueling the rhythm section. It's followed by "Midnight Ride," a dirty-ass, good-time boogie. "Give It Away" is a soulful, Americana blues ballad with Ellis playing an acoustic National Steel. And this is the gift of the album in three tracks: he delivers three variants on the blues, in as many vocal approaches -- all of them excellent. Each song has its merits in craft and execution -- these days he's not writing any substandard ones -- but there are other clear highlights. "All in the Name of Love," another minor-key, midtempo slider, showcases electric piano and B-3 as Ellis' voice evokes the soul-blues. (Think Solomon Burke.) His guitar eventually catches up with ringing, emotive fills. A horn section punctuates the margins and it works so well, it makes one wish he'd used it more than on just this one tune. "Should I Have Lied" is a stone-electric blues ballad that crosses Albert King with T-Bone Walker, all in Ellis' phrasing. Leave Me" is a strutting blues rocker, while "The King Must Die" is a dark, brooding, swampy jam that showcases the band at their intuitive best under his six-string storm. Closer "In from the Cold" (on which McKendree plays a Mellotron) is a steamy, emotionally wrought blues. It rumbles from the depths, its emotion wrenching and desperate; Ellis' playing is lyric and forceful, it bites, snarls, and cuts. While he has issued plenty of fine records, he's never revealed himself as such an axe slinger, singer, and songwriter with this magnitude and abundance. Tough Love is a tough record to beat.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek