Tinsley Ellis,
The Hard Way
(Telarc, 2004)

If Tinsley Ellis's name was Eric Clapton, The Hard Way would be a significant hit. Ellis doles out premium guitar licks with Claptonesque casualness on "Let Him Down Easy," then slides the song seamlessly into a closing peppered with blistering pyrotechnics that somehow maintains an air of effortlessness.

The Hard Way also serves as an impressive showcase for Ellis's songwriting skills which range from the rock-a-billy tinged "And It Hurts" to the wa-wa infused psychedelia of "La La Land" and the straight-ahead blues-rock of "Still in the Game."

Where the album falls a bit flat, however, is in the vocal department. Ellis has a limited vocal range that seems all the more restricted when juxtaposed with his guitar proficiency. When he strains to put some needed punch into the chorus of "My Love's the Medicine" and comes up short, it makes me wish that Ellis could take Carlos Santana's approach to his music and focus on his guitar while the vocal duties are handled by a potpourri of hand-picked singers. Would that "And It Hurts" was dished up by Brian Setzer, that Robert Cray lent his soulful delivery to "Let Him Down Easy" or that B.B. King's throaty, raw blues vocals graced "Her Other Man."

The Hard Way contains some solid material and any student of blues/rock guitar would be wise to give the album a listen. Ellis has an enviable command of a wide range of guitar styles. But this fretwork strength, this breadth, is also a trap as the album fails to project a distinct personality. That personality ought to have been wrought from the vocals. But Ellis can't conjure up anything like the power and passion needed to hold its own against the emotion he finds in his fingers. And so The Hard Way won't be the hit that it might have been.

Despite The Hard Way's shortcomings, one hopes that Ellis's considerable guitar talents won't go unheard. His instrumental dexterity ought to be employed by more gifted singers -- his songs deserve to be covered. By choosing to present himself as a solo artist, though, Tinsley Ellis has chosen The Hard Way.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 24 October 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.