Tinsley Ellis, Tough Love (Heartfixer)

Despite a front cover that depicts a surly looking guitarist, this is actually a pretty jaunty release.

For an album by a veteran Atlanta blues player once known for his for guitar pyrotechnics, Tough Love very much has a distinct, creative stripe.

Self-produced, with all 10 songs written by Ellis, this impressive outing shows several influences.

The opener “Seven Years” moves in the creative direction with some unexpected chord changes and a style not dissimilar to the mid-tempo material Robert Cray was doing in the ’90s. “Midnight Ride,” which does feature some flashy guitar, rocks a while, but it also includes some unexpected turn-around—and guitar runs—à la (not Little) Freddie King.

On the slower side “Give It Away,” and “All In the Name of Love” are well-written, meaningful ballads, and while Ellis isn’t the best of vocalists, he sells them well. Ellis’ voice is suited to material like “Hard Work,” which flaunts an overwhelming Mac Davis/Tony Joe White Southern groove.

The lone number that actually follows the traditional 12-bar blues is “Everything,” with Ellis even providing some squeaky Lazy Lester inspired harp. The lugubrious “In From the Cold” is the final track, and while it doesn’t end with a bang, Tough Love is not a tough listen at all. Fine contemporary R&B here.

Highly recommended.