Saturday, January 8, 2022

Tinsley Ellis - Devil May Care

Devil May Care seems like a fitting title for this latest album by Tinsley Ellis, because one of its strengths is its carefree vibe.  Ellis and his band sound at home and at ease, with no sense of strain – which is a good fit for much of the material on offer.
Opening track ‘One Less Reason’ finds Ellis picking out a most ‘Green Onions’ inspired guitar riff, over a similarly inclined bass line from Steve Mackey, before all concerned settle into a relaxed groove, swinging along with Lynn Williams’ drums.  Ellis’s John Mayall-like voice may
"Careful everyone - I've dropped my Juju!"
Pic by Elaine Thomas Campbell
 have some limitations, but that doesn’t distract when they’re in the zone like this – and his handy way with overdubs and harmonised guitar effects adds some extra piquancy.
Our Tinsley is at his best operating in a zone that suggests Clapton on a good day, covering something by JJ Cale maybe.  ‘Right Down The Drain’ has echoes of ‘Cocaine’, with a loping rhythm and an undulating guitar line, underlaid with slide guitar to add more texture, and with a growling vocal that adds emphasis.  But what really sets it off is Ellis combining slide and straight-up guitar, ultimately having an impressive six-string “conversation” with himself in the closing passage.  And if there’s a hint of Skynyrd in there, it’s also apparent in the easy-going shuffle of ‘Juju’, its laid back feel ear-catchingly punctuated by a woodpecker-ish one-note phrase from - I’m guessing here - the bottom end of an electric piano.  Whatever, it jogs along on a revolving motif between bursts of a jabbing turnaround, and Kevin McKendree comes to the fore with a rinky-dink piano solo, before entering into an entertaining dialogue with Ellis’s again-impressive slide playing.
They can deliver this kind of groove in slower form too, to best effect on the excellent ‘Just Like Rain’, a patient affair that doesn’t follow a typical slow blues template as it rolls along over acoustic guitar strumming, while McKendree’s organ and piano playing dovetail perfectly with Ellis’s electric guitar, and the main man delivers his most impressive, “felt” vocal – and a closing guitar solo that captures the mood perfectly.
Of the other tracks in a slower tempo, the more orthodox blues of ‘Don’t Bury Our Love’ is the most satisfying.  A minimalist affair, it combines extended organ chords, clicking rim shots from Williams, and sparing bass notes from Mackey, with Ellis showing similar restraint when his guitar eventually comes in.  It’s all about atmosphere, pressure gradually building from halfway, before receding again for Ellis’s solo.  It may sound familiar, but it doesn’t sound derivative.  By contrast ‘One Last Ride’ is less impactful, even if well assembled around a twitching rhythm, and with more chorus-like guitar from Ellis, while the closing ‘Slow Train To Hell’ is similarly well executed, but also somewhat predictable.
Ellis shows a liking for Hendrix on the funky excursions of ‘Step Up’ and ’28 Days’, but while they may provide some variety neither really sets the heather on fire.  The chopping rhythm guitar, snapping drums and burbling organ of the former are appealing enough, melding into some soulful horn textures, but Ellis doesn’t really have the vocal punch to drive it home.  He sounds more at ease on 'Beat The Devil', bringing feeling to his vocals alongside economical guitar and warm swells of organ and horns.
Devil May Care is a likeable album, and not one-dimensional, even if it doesn’t convince right across the piece.  When Ellis and co hit their sweet spot though, they create a blues sound that manages to feel both familiar but distinctive – and more than satisfying.

Devil May Care is released by Alligator Records on 21 January.

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