Hot Tuna – America’s Choice

It’s been entirely too long since I’ve written about Hot Tuna, 3 whole months! I seriously love this band way more than that, then again their first trilogy of albums are some of the best stuff I’ve ever heard in my life, and all their later efforts I have just recently been endowed with, so I guess I can forgive myself this once. Today, to rectify 3 months’ of mistakes, here is their fifth album, America’s Choice:

Read on the side of the album: Pure, unadulterated sounds with amplified additives and the necessary polytonal ingredients to handle heavy loads.Behind this bright, eye-catching cover lies a very mysterious album indeed. Gone (temporarily) are the days of good ol’ fashioned hippy covers of pre-war blues, they have been replaced with the cold, unfeeling machine of cranked up guitar solos and heavy rock beats, which let me tell you, can crumble the fragile psychic defense of the average hippy and rend it asunder!

Ok, not really. Fact is, this is a “rock” album, and despite the further fact that it doesn’t actually rock all that hard, it is a departure from the mellow, bearded tones of the band’s first 3 1/2 albums (The Phosphorescent Rat, which we’ll get to ok, is about half hippy half rock). Listeners should not mourn, nor should the gnashing of teeth be called to order, however, because this is an extremely good album! In fact, if I didn’t know that the band had put out some of the finest acoustic blues albums in existence, I would have still been made a fan of this group by the merits of this, the beginning of their “Rampage” trilogy of albums (again, the most mellow, tripped-out and flaccid “Rampage” possible, but a rampage nonetheless).

The album starts off, innocently enough, with “Sleep Song”, which is a nice major key arpeggio thing with plenty o’ phase shifters and noisy lead melody. It’s quite a sweet song for what you might have been expecting, but you might not have expected that, despite all the unadulterated rockin’ going on here, Jorma Kaukonen (in his typical fashion) sings like he’s trying not to wake someone in the next room, and about some innocuous stuff, too. Still, if you know Jorma, you will know that he does his talking with the guitar, and he’s got about 3 of them talking at the same time all through this song, and it’s pretty excellent stuff.

The second song, “Funky #7” (hurray for numerical songs!) begins much like a predecessor to Primus or something, as it is indeed funky, with the slightly distorted bass doing a slappy run that nearly sounds diminished, until the guitars all join in for the fun. The vocals, of course, are typical Hot Tuna, so there’s no confusion here. I understand that this song has been known to quadruple in length (or more) in concert, and that doesn’t surprise me. As one of the earliest “Jam” bands, before it became a “thing”, Hot Tuna were known to rock out for 6 straight hours in a given show. No wonder the audience were all on drugs! By the way, the crazy panning-left-to-right that the guitar does in the rather lengthy solo portion of the song compared to, oh, say, Jimi Hendrix, is remarkably well-done, since the guitars all have the actual feeling of moving since the drums and bass stay right in the center where they belong. It’s psychedelic enough without frustrating us sober musicians.

The next song is the one and only cover on the whole album, and it also happens to be an amazing little blues number. It’s Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues”, and you know you’re listening to the blues when the first line is “Got up this morning…” The song is mainly driven by an excellent beat, provided by brand new drummer Bob Steeler, who does an impressive job, pretty much the best so far, when it comes to providing Hot Tuna with those pounding yet delicate beats. The bass is nothing to sneeze at, being at its tonal best, growling and dirty yet clean and consistent, again showing Jack Casady as the bass hero that he is. The guitar portions of this song are not to be denied either, as they cover all the bases that the horns and organ would normally cover in a staccato backup rhythm and slide guitar, respectively. Brilliant!

“Invitation” is the first song that seems more like a typical feel-good rock song rather than blues (the first track is closer but this is far closer). There is distortion all over the place, however, with the guitars and bass being as fuzzed-out as they can be without sounding bad. This song is also pretty fast for a Hot Tuna album, though still nowhere near the kind of “rampage” one would get from more modern “artists”. Still, this kind of music doesn’t make me vomit, so many more points are awarded here.

The next song, which starts off sounding like a ZZ Top-style blues/rock number, is cheekily called “Hit Single #1”. This song actually does sound like one of the hit singles of the time, with its rigid structure and “spaced out” instrumentation to make plenty of unnecessary room for solos (including a very good minor-key change after the first minute). Still, the joke’s on the Tuna, because this song’s much better than pop songs of that day. Seriously, the 2-minute mark solo is incredibly life-like in its simulation of a “hit” rock solo du jour.

“Serpent Of Dreams” feels like the kind of song this whole album has been leading up to. It’s minor keyed, dangerous, and full of great effects, and even contains that classic finger-picking acoustic by Jorma playing a very “backup” role. This is also the song that I feel really solidifies Bob Steeler as a perfect fit for the Tuna sound, not to knock their previous drummer, though I always felt that Sammy Piazza had approximately 2 beats he would ever use. Not to knock the gentleman, of course, those 2 beats were incredible. Still, Steeler adds a much-needed element of funk that really floors me in places, such as during the just-after-4-minute instrumental portion, such great stops and so expertly placed, I love it.

“I Don’t Wanna Go” is about the time I think one would be properly settled in to the “weirdness” of this album. Sure enough, the funkometer on the drums is turned up several notches even from the last song, as the wah-laden guitar shares the spotlight with a sustaining guitar, to a very funky effect, especially during the diminished intervals in the chorus. It’s the kind of song that makes perfect sense if you’re into weird music, but otherwise you may be a little turned off at this point. It should maybe go without saying that this is my favorite part of the album. Seriously, halfway through this song the drums just become this trippy love letter addressed to my brain.

Finally, drawing this mother to a close is “Great Divide: Revisited”, which is a song that changes chords so many times that you may think it confused at first (“what song are we playing, again?”) This song is reminiscent of something like “Sea Child” from Burgers and about half of First Pull Up, Then Pull Down, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just a kind of jammy jam song thrown in to dispel the hypnotizing levels of “funk” that might keep you playing this album and only this album for all time, and we can’t have that, there are so many other albums that demand attention!

In fact, barring any unfortunate accidents, we will be talking about another one of those albums tomorrow here at… well you know. Ta!

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