Eighteen albums into nearly a four-decade career finds blues-rocking guitar slinger Tinsley Ellis still growing as a recording artist, singer, and songwriter. In 2018 he returned home to Alligator Records after delivering four albums on his own Heartfixer label. The chart-topping set was met with Blues Music Association nominations for album of the year and artist of the year. Ice Cream in Hell was recorded in Nashville and co-produced by Ellis and longtime co-producer/keyboardist Kevin McKendree. Its 11 originals were consciously inspired the examples of the three Kings: B.B., Albert, and Freddie, as well as Peter Green, Carlos Santana, and Hound Dog Taylor. This is one of the rawest-sounding records in his career. 2015's killer Tough Love showcased Ellis' improved singing, while 2018's Winning Hand marked a return to house-rocking blues. While those traits continue here, this set adds songwriting to Ellis' list of growing accomplishments. These tunes are tight, diverse, immediate, and powerful. For guitar freaks, the production mixes the instrument way up front with the vocals, making this his most guitar-centered record ever.
Opener "Last One to Know" deliberately evokes the spirit of Stax-era Albert King with biting reverbed leads dueling with horns; it's lowdown and desperate. When the horn section crescendos in the refrain, Ellis' guitar frames his baritone vocal growl with emotion and presence. His solo is so jagged it almost tears right through. "Don’t Know Beans" is funky, fast, and soulful, with a choogling B-3 courtesy of McKendree. The title track is late-night blues, menacing, snarling, and heartbroken. Ellis' soloing is sparse and edgy as the band plays slowly. "Everything and Everyone" weds the Latin strut of Santana to the sparse, minor-key melodic sensibilities of Green. "Hole in My Heart" is a 21st century update of the sound that B.B. King explored with Bobby "Blue" Bland. Ellis' fingerpicked fills enunciate the emotion expressed in the lyrics, while McKendree's piano runs add depth and dimension. "Sit Tight Mama" is Hound Dog Taylor stomp-and-roll. It's an uptempo boogie with a dirty, squalling slide doing the talking. "Evil 'til Sunrise" sounds exactly like its title, with swaggering, sweaty funk appended by a punchy B-3. "Hole in My Heart" touches on hard-swinging roots rock and Texas jump blues. The set closes with the most dramatic tune in the bunch: "Your Love Is Like Heroin." Its 12-bar tension is enabled with lyrical guitar fills that evoke the twin six-string spirits of both Green and Albert King. Ellis' vocal on this crawling seven-minute jam is arguably the most soulful of his career. His playing underscores the emotional depth in the lyrics. Ellis' meaty solo digs so deep it's party to the protagonist's revelation of grief and pain. Unlike most bluesmen, each of his recordings over the last seven decades or so is stronger, more confident, and unabashedly more musical than its predecessor. On Ice Cream in Hell, Ellis' songwriting and singing finally match the prowess in his playing, and we are all richer for it.