Tinsley Ellis' second outing for the TelArc label builds heartily on the fiery blues-rock of 2002's Hell or High Water by adding a mere soupçon of spooky rhythm and blues to his stealthy mix. Self-produced with engineering by the one and only Jim "Z" Zumpano, Ellis uses his core band of rhythm guitarist Oliver Wood, organist Kevin McKendree, bassist the Evil One, and drummer Richard Hayward from Little Feat. Ellis' moody scorch-and-torch blues, like labelmate Ronnie Earl's spiritual blues wail, are two distinguishing voices on a scene that is rife with cookie-cutter clichés and unimaginative song styles. The Hard Way is drenched in Southern soul and spooky, minor key blues; they blend perfectly adding depth, dynamic, and tension to a slate of songs that offers a rounded view of Ellis at this point in his career. What sets Hard Way and its 2002 predecessor apart from other blues records on the market is Ellis' restless approach to his craft. He is not content to rest on his laurels, or to merely stick knee-deep in the glorious mud of a blues style he created. He relentlessly tries to extend its scope and range. On Hard Way, he succeeds in spades and raises his own high-water mark. For starters, he has never sounded better as a singer -- check "Me Without You," where his soul roots are blacker than blue, and his sweet, rough-edged croon drips with emotion and heartache. His guitar fills may vibe on a Steve Cropper groove, but they reflect no playing method but his own. The opener, "Still in the Game," sounds like Eric Clapton's Cream if they had come from the red Georgia clay. The addition of a female backing chorus on the refrains is a great touch, adding smolder to the fat, heavy six string and bass blaze. The rollicking cut time New Orleans rhythm (complete with hand drums) on "Let Him Down Easy" juxtaposes well with the minor-key, stretched out blues with its subdued verse and raucous choruses. The funky trio stroll on "And It Hurts" is a beautiful touch as it adds a bit of the "What'd I Say"-era Ray Charles to the acoustic country-blues. There is a mirror image of that trio on the very next track, "La La Land." Here Ellis plays a vulnerable yet piercing wah wah-electric and sings sweetly to a shuffling beat from a two-piece rhythm section. The bone-crunching overdrive guitar on "12 Pack Poet" kicks the rocking blues ZZ Top created harder than they have in 15 years. The closer, "The Last Song," offers Ellis at his baddest; slow-blues playing best. There is nothing but steel in his phrasing and deep growling, and moaning emotion in his singing. Hard Way is an album of great emotion, sparking heat, intensity and great tenderness. It is an essential purchase for Ellis' many fans, but is even more so for those seeking the very best in modern blues.