Tinsley Ellis
Fire It Up
Alligator 4852
Tinsley Ellis' guitar always has carried some formidable fangs, but it's never threatened to tear at your flesh -- until now. On his fifth Alligator disc Ellis has removed the insulation from the six-string that made previous albums merely sizzle. At its fiercest, Fire It Up is like a fist in the face, and there's a warm, churning glow at the root of even the slowest tunes.

For this follow-up to 1994's tumultuous Storm Warning, Ellis vigorously recruited legendary producer Tom Dowd to add some punch, and his influence pushed the guitarist to stretch his playing far beyond basic song structures. But while the guitar calisthenics on rants like "Diggin' My Own Grave" first singe the ear, even the sharpest attacks are smoothed out by the funky rhythms and bits of soul that Ellis stirs into his rocking delivery. Added textures are supplied by Ellis' gruff, compelling vocal work and the rambling organ and piano leads on "Change Your Mind" and "Are You Sorry?"

Ellis slips in some diverse covers, including Los Lobos' "I Walk Alone" and the blues-charged Fleetwood Mac gem, "One Sunny Day." Fire It Up closes with the loose, full-band jam "Everyday," a rootsy cool-out that is Ellis at his infectious best. Sure he's an ax-wielding hero, but it's the ability to craft urban grooves that makes Ellis so much more than just another Southern-fried guitar muscle man.

-- Matt Pensinger

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Boulder, CO, USA.