Since 1971, when his signature bent-string lick on the Crusaders' hit "Put It Where You Want It" first imbedded itself on our collective consciousness, Larry Carlton has possessed the most delicious and instantly identifiable finger vibrato in the business. As a leader in his own right since the late '70s, the guitarist has placed his mellow, singing tone in a variety of contexts, from funk-fusion to straightahead to smooth jazz to horn-driven roadhouse blues. On Fire Wire, rock producer Csaba Petocz (a veteran of sessions by the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ted Nugent and Metallica) surrounds that same sonorous quality with grunge-soaked aesthetics and slamming backbeats. But even when Carlton's guitar is dripping with nasty distortion, as on the crunching "Big Trouble" and the raucous closer "Mean Street," it still cuts through with emotional directness.
A departure from this heavy-duty program is "Sunrise," a melancholy acoustic ballad in the tradition of his Grammy-winning album from 20 years ago, Alone/But Never Alone. Other highlights include Carlton's stinging, Albert King-flavored licks and wah-wah wailing over the top of the funky "Dirty Donna's House Party" (reminiscent of Billy Cobham's "Stratus") and his liquid harmonic sensibility on the lyrical ballad "Naked Truth" (inspired by Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing").