Fanning The Flames
Alligator Records, 1989
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/21/1998
Is Tinsley Ellis's heart more of a bluesman or a guitarist?
When I first heard his 1989 album Fanning The Flames in college, I thought that he was successfully straddling both lines. And when I found this one on the shelves of the Pierce Archives (sorry, Mr. Crosby, the buffet is closed), I started waxing nostalgic about this album. So, off the shelves and into the CD player it went...
And, nothing... was this the same album I had praised to the highest levels not even 10 years ago? I listened to it again... and again... still nothing.
And after much soul-searching, I finally came to the realization that Ellis is more of a guitar player than a bluesman. Damn... had he been able to merge the two, Fanning The Flames would have stood the test of time better than it has.
Ellis's style isn't one of flash, but of substance. He could probably bend hundreds of notes out of the neck of his Stratocaster, but he's more interested in laying down a groove as well as lighting the fretboard on fire. On tracks like "Pawnbroker" this is most evident. Ellis's rhythm guitar line kind of reminds me of Stevie Ray Vaughan. Likewise, the instrumental "Fender Blender" demonstrates his talents well.
But many other songs just don't catch fire like they probably could have been. Example: "Mr. Night Time", the album's closer, just lacks something. Same thing goes for "Must Be The Devil," a song which I always remembered having more of a sinister vocal than it actually does.
And the problem is pretty easy to pinpoint: Ellis really doesn't sound like his heart is in what he's playing. It's almost as if Ellis isn't comfortable with the music he's presenting to the listener. His cover of the Motown classic "Leavin' Here" is a prime example - if it was any more sterile, it would belong in a hospital. Even when Ellis tries to get funky, like on "Put Me Where You Want Me," the damage has already been done.
Ellis's backing band doesn't help matters out much. Bassist Wayne Burdette could use a lesson in funk, as could drummers Yonrico Scott and Guy Locke.
The sound on Fanning The Flames matches the music - it's a tad flat. This is a surprise, seeing that Brendan O'Brien was one of the engineers on this project. But one wonders if the overall groove of the album would have been better had it been just a little sharper. As it is, Fanning The Flames is a passable listen, but you constantly wonder about what might have been.
And it's not that Fanning The Flames is a bad album. Had a few factors fallen in different directions - hell, even if one negative aspect had been changed - there would have been more to cheer about.