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.
Four Hands & A Heart Volume One was released last September 11 on Carlton’s own fledgling 335 Records.
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