by S. Victor Aaron, Something Else Reviews
Back in high school while my buddies were air guitaring to Led Zeppelin, Boston and Lynard Skynard, ol’ Ish here played out fantasies of ripping up the fret board like Larry Carlton. I got hooked on his super tasty, blues-based guitar work from his time with Steely Dan and the Crusaders (it was only later that I discovered that he played on a jillion other records of every musical style around that time). When Carlton left the Crusaders by the end of ’76, he embarked on a solo career that he pursued earnestly up to this day, racking up four Grammies and 19 Grammy nominations along the way. I followed his solo career closely from the late 70s through the mid 90s and on and off after that, depending on whether his project was more or less commercially inclined.
Four Hands & A Heart Volume One, currently his most recent project, most definitely falls on the non-commercial side of the Larry ledger. These are tracks performed entirely by Mr. 335 himself, each with a rhythm guitar, a lead guitar and sometimes a rhythm track that I could have sworn came from a Casio keyboard. Moreover, every song came from Carlton’s first three Warner Bros. releases that were also his first three albums of his post-Crusaders solo career: Larry Carlton (1978), Strikes Twice (1980) and Sleepwalk (1982).
Carlton is a seriously polished producer and songwriter in addition to being a phenomenal guitarist, so it might be tempting to slam Four Hands & A Heart as the half assed work of someone taking the easy way out by recycling old tunes and making what are essentially demos out of them. That’s one way to look at it, but looking at it in such a way overlooks the real, substantial merits of this album. Carlton takes these songs and — unless they’re ballads like “It Was Only Yesterday” — slows them down from their original renderings. By doing so, he makes it easier for guitar enthusiasts dissect his lead parts on songs that were originally played with impossibly complex chord clusters played in tightly compacted spaces. And Carlton’s leads sound great slow as much as they sound great fast, because of the nuance and feel he invests into every note; “Room 335″ and “Strikes Twice” are such guitar burners heard in an entirely different light as they’re stripped and decelerated.
Secondly, removing all that production leaves these songs bare, and that makes it easier to appreciate what memorable, nicely constructed melodies Carlton was crafting at a time when he was known only as the pre-eminent studio guitarist in L.A. Carlton’s minor charting hit, “Sleepwalk” is featured, too, although that’s the lone song that’s not his own, and offers perhaps the least revelations with this rendition. The old school fans like me will notice that the songs are all sequenced in the same way as they were on the original albums, when allowing for the songs he skipped. Curiously though, the Sleepwalk songs come before the earlier songs from Strikes Twice.
So although Four Hands & A Heart Volume One might be narrowly focused in its mission, there’s something in it for Larry Carlton fans of every stripe. Guitar fans will find plenty of the accomplished six-string performances Carlton never fails at delivering, even at the leisurely pace found here. Original fans will get to walk down memory lane with Carlton as he takes on strains of solid songs guys like me hadn’t heard in years. And later fans get a fine introduction to his pre-”Smiles And Smiles To Go” fare.
One final thing about this record that’s pretty damned neat: here is a musician who, with all his accomplishments spanning four decades, makes a demo-like record that could have been by some talented but unknown musician to shop around to record labels in hopes of catching his first big break. And yet, this record earned Carlton that 19th Grammy nomination. So, I guess he passed the audition.
I don’t usually review CDs that are more than a few weeks old. Often they are in my hand as an advance copy, well before release date. But I am making a rare exception with this one. Larry Carlton’s interpretation of some classic Philly soul tunes.
It is one that forsome unknown reason passed me by when it came out last year, and until the PR man for the record label told me about it and sent it with Larry’s (great) new album, (also reviewed here) I knew not of its existence. I am so glad I do now. It is gorgeous.
It helps that I love most of the Philadelphia International catalogue. Part of the soundtrack to my younger years. What better way to mark their 40th anniversary than put this CD on loud in the car, with top down in the spring or summer sunshine and head to the coast, or the nearest pub garden! But I make the exception to review an album that has been out a good while, for two reasons: Larry and Carlton. OK, that’s one reason!
Larry has had 19 Grammy nominations and four wins. He has 30 albums of his own and features on over 100 Gold and Platinum records by such megastars as Steely Dan, Michael Jackson, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Quincy Jones, The Crusaders and Fourplay. He can do little wrong in the eyes of most guitarists around the globe, and music fans of jazz, blues and many other genres.
If it has his name on it, then it is rather like a company’s products being granted the right to say “By appointment to the Queen.” A guarantee of top quality. This album is pure quality. He does not mess with the original arrangements and melody too much, which is the right decision on such iconic songs, and agrees with the adage: Why fix what ain’t bust? He allows the songs to be the Guvnor, and adds magic and huge value, with his magnificent guitar licks on all 11 tracks.
Larry tackles The Spinners’ “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love” as the opener, and their hits “I’ll Be Around” and “Mighty Love.” He gives us some classics, such as The O’Jays’ “Backstabbers”, a joy here. We get Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”, Jerry Butler’s “Bad Luck,” “Only The Strong Survive” and “Never Give You Up.” The Stylistics’ “You Make Me Feel Brand New.” Perhaps a surprise choice is, “Mama Can’t Buy You Love,” which was a US top ten hit in 1979 for Elton John from the Thom Bell Sessions EP, which featured backing vocals by The Spinners.
For me, the best track on the CD; Joe Simon’s “Drownin’ In The Sea of Love”. A cracking song anyway, but here Larry is on fire. He bends those strings and gets the same tone the late great legendary Albert King did. A truly mighty performance.
Mainly an instrumental CD, but we do have background vocalists adding to some choruses and the smoky voice of hit songwriter Bill Labounty takes the lead on “Drowning in the Sea of Love” and “Only the Strong Survive.” Mega songwriter, but a hot voice too – perfect fit here. There’s a six strong horn section and a classy five-piece rhythm section that includes, Late Show with David Letterman MD, Paul Shaffer, on organ. The charts are spot on, it is all terrific material and so the concrete foundations are all there to allow Larry to shine. Shine brightly he does.
Around 40 minutes long; apart from wishing it was a double CD, there’s nothing I can say to fault this smashing little shiny piece of plastic. How could I when it has those two magic words of warranty on it? Larry Carlton. Let’s see him visit the Stax and Atlantic back catalogues next, pretty please…
Guitarists often bang on about tone. About the right amp and the right guitar. Some obsessed with tone and gear. Neither of which makes the slightest bit of difference, if you do not play with heart, with soul, with passion and with great skill. I firmly believe it’s not what you use, it is how you use it that counts. The way you spank that plank.
Well, there are guitarists and there are guitarists. In the dictionary under “unique,” it should read “See Larry Carlton.” Or maybe that should be, HEAR Larry Carlton. He really is a total one off. You don’t get 19 Grammy nominations and win four of them, for nothing.
Or get 30 albums with your name on them, and feature on over 100 Gold and Platinum records by such megastars as Steely Dan, Michael Jackson, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Quincy Jones, The Crusaders and Fourplay.
On his new CD, he is quite simply, ‘bloody marvellous.’ Some earth -shattering solos to register 10 on the Richter scale, and genius brush strokes throughout this stunning 11-track instrumental album.
Capturing his trio’s live concert in Paris at the famed New Morning, during April 2008. Crystal clear recording quality, so often not the case on live offerings. Blistering performances from Larry and his cohorts; son Travis Carlton on bass and Toss Panos on drums. Absolutely nowhere to hide for any of them as a trio. No overdubs and keyboards/strings puff and fluff required to hide mistakes or distract from when the set may go off the boil. No way.
The opener, “Friday Night Shuffle” is a blues tune, where LC is simply sensational on that big ole Gibson. But I doubt the man even broke into a sweat; treating it as a good warm up. Then we get the curiously titled “F””nnnnnnn (I had to count the seven n’s!) with a Wes Montgomery vibe on guitar, and a one and a half minute intro from just bass and guitar.
“Sunrise” is a beautifully gentle breeze of a song, a lovely melody and some sweet jazz licks. “Cold Gold” I have heard before, on his superb album with Robben Ford. A memorable riff and classic Carlton. Travis follows that riff admirably on bass, and we hear the trio at their best. The blues guitar solo is superbly restrained. A lesson in how not to overplay, and to allow the song to breath. He takes the volume down to practice amp level, and you could have heard a French pin drop in that hall. Cranking it up at 4.37 for some simply awesome blues.
I do love this album partly because he is far bluesier than on much of his stuff. I have not yet seen the man live but will do so ASAP. I was ill on his last trip over here. His manager and co-owner (with Larry) of the label this CD is on, is a good friend of mine in Nashville, and a much respected music business VIP there. A lovely guy too, and I hope to be tapping on his door in the near future to line up a chat with Mr C, for this very magazine.
One thought; if I do get to go to one of his UK concerts and meet him, I’d probably have a seizure hearing the first song even in his sound-check, if his abilities on this album are anything to go by.
It seems to me that Larry Carlton is unlikely to ever turn in a poor performance on stage or on record. I’d guess he is either damn good or %”*&*&$ brilliant. Never anything less. I hope to report back soon and confirm that.
Track six, “The Prince,” is groove-laden and uses tricky time signatures, twists and turns, and proves there was no nepotism when he chose his bass player. Travis Carlton and Toss Panos are jaw-droppingly talented, but never more so than on this one. In the pocket is not the half of it. I believe this track and a lot of this album, would have been spoiled and perhaps too busy, with more than the three of them playing on it. Toss’ fills, Travis’ funk and Larry making that geetar talk on this song – one of the best things I have heard in many moons. A seven and a half minute master class.
There’s a dirty groove on the penultimate track, “Burnable,” which I think I recall from that Carlton/Ford album I mentioned earlier. A great hook and a fine showcase for bass and drums again.
Next time I get asked to check out “the best guitarist I have ever heard,” I shall refer that person to this CD, and ask them to listen to it all the way through, THEN tell me if they still maintain they have found a great new guitarist! Somehow I doubt it.
There used to be a beer advert on TV in the UK a few years ago, with the tag line, “Reaches the parts, other beers cannot reach.” Change the word “beers” for “guitarist,” then have a good guess about whom I’d be talking about?