For the past week or so, I’d been wondering which album I should talk about today, this kind of being the “end” of Summer (in Texas, however, that end is not so ceremonious, we probably have about 1 1/2 months left of at least 90 degree temperature). Unfortunately, I kind of exhausted that which I would normally consider “Summer” albums, and I was in no position to listen to anything new to try and get some ideas.
Then I remembered that August 31st was my dad’s birthday, so that made things easy. I’m going to write about Hot Tuna in his memory.
Unfortunately, I kind of already wrote about all of Dad’s favorite albums, so what we’re left with is:
Ha ha wow that cover.
Really though, The Phosphorescent Rat is nowhere near a bad album. It’s basically the transition album between Burgers and America’s Choice, recorded in 1973, just 3 months after Burgers was released.
For certain, this album was the first to make a temporary seperation from the acoustic blues sound that made Hot Tuna such a favorite among music-obsessed hippies like my dad. Not quite a “rampage” album, this album is kind of unique among its brethren as it features all the same musicians and a few of the same sounds as Burgers, with the notable exception of “Papa John” Creach (no, not the guy who owns the pizza chain). Interestingly, if not confusingly, he left Hot Tuna for its ex-band, Jefferson Airplane, which Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady (the two central members of Hot Tuna) had just left, at which time the Airplane became Jefferson Starship.
Whew, I hate to bring Jefferson Airplane’s lineup changes into this, but it may be of interest to historians that this album marks the first time our Hot Tuna boys have actually made Hot Tuna a full-time gig.
Something else that may be of interest is that this album sounds almost Airplane-ish in its production standards. There is a noticable gain in echo and a blend of folksy blues music and heavy rock that seems more strange and sometimes even incongruousat times. A good example of this is in the song “Day To Day Out The Window Blues”, which seems like it should be a folky song by its lyrics and tune and the acoustic guitar strumming throughout, but this badass electric guitar solo kind of takes over at some point and sort of swallows everything up.
Of course, I am not really complaining, because the electric guitar has always snuck into Hot Tuna songs in all but their first album. Still, the sense that the meandering electric leads are really taking a front seat in the Hot Tuna vehicle and can appear several times louder than the delicate and awesome acoustic finger-picking and even Jack Casady’s thunderous and yet also delicate bass kind of takes the songs in a direction away from snappy, punchy songs like “Keep On Truckin’ Mama”, and into songs like “In The Kingdom”, in which I swear you can only hear the acoustic guitar if you’re using reasonably nice headphones that can seperate the instruments a little better.
Still, one of the really good things that this album introduces us to is the oft-neglected lyrical prowess of one Jorma Kaukonen. While killing us kindly with guitar solos, he also puts out words like this:
I feel your shimmering eyes into my soul
And your life is all around my time, now don’t you know?
Every time your sunrise drives my night away
It makes my lifetime soar in circles
Like the swallows wheeling in the day
Now our time can start to run
The hourglass has just begun
Life was meant for having fun
As we were meant to be
Which is from the same “In The Kingdom” I was just talking about. That song is really good, by the way, just letting you know.
Really though, you can’t keep a good acoustic guitar down, and in fact the first track I can think of that features only Jorma playing guitar is on this album in a short number called “Seeweed Strut” (sic). The playing on that track is quite grand, and kind of throws me for a loop because it doesn’t even feature bass, oh well.
There are a few other songs that feature some unusual instrumentation, for one, the love song “Living Just For You” heavily features steel drums, which I must admit are not my favorite drums. The humorously named “Soliloquy For 2″, as well as a nice thick cut of distorted bass, features not one trick violinist, but an entire string section! Not to be deterred, of course, the electric guitar comes in for almost half the song for a searing lead part, constructed almost entirely out of high notes.
Now, what I said about the lack of “Keep On Truckin’ Mama”-style hits wasn’t entirely the case. In fact, Hot Tuna’s own godfather Reverend Gary Davis, who you may remember as the original author of “Let Us Get Together Right Down Here” from Burgers, makes another appearance to finish this album out. His song, “Sally, Where’d You Get Your Liquor From?”, a fine little strutty blues instrumental, is the final track on The Phosphorescent Rat, featuring Jorma and Jack with their old-fashioned acoustic guitar/bass arrangement, with Sammy Piazza on spoons. A lovely throwback to what Hot Tuna was originally all about, if not a little awkward at the end of an album that starts with such a hard-edged sound like on the opening tracks “I See The Light” and especially “Easy Now”.
So yes, this album is kind of the point where I imagine Tuna lost a few of their folkier hippy audience, but good riddance. I love this stuff, even if the word “rampage” doesn’t quite describe it, these guys can do little to no wrong in my mind, and the heavier tracks on The Phosphorescent Rat are actually the stronger ones too, so perhaps it’s best to not look for those glimpses of old Tuna in the mix (as one should never look for old tuna, yuck), and instead dig the fresh, hot sounds. At least, I would be saying that if this were 1973 and there was anyone out there who even knows who Hot Tuna is, much less cares that they once went electric. But you know, I have to fight against these ideas, even if they are much older than I am.
Now I just need to figure out what I’m going to write about for my birthday. Until then, happy albuming!