Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Hot Tuna—
America's Choice


Released 1975 on Grunt/RCA
The Seth Man, March 2003ce
Reflecting a severe reappraisal in direction, Hot Tuna’s third studio album “America’s Choice” was the first in what would be the heaviest phase of their career. Tuna’s previous ratio of old tymey, acoustic folk-blues to heavy electric blues now dipped wildly in favour of the latter with a vengeance on “America’s Choice” as they pushed themselves, their stamina and their mental skills to such extremes it threatened to burst at the seams. It was beyond just ‘blues.’ It may have been the bouts of Scandinavian speed skating since their departure from Jefferson Airplane that instilled in Hot Tuna’s founding members Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady a more defined sense of discipline because their music reflected long-distance endurance itself: the typical song on “America’s Choice” had an average running time of five minutes, instilled with a quantity of potential permutations built directly into all tracks for further expansion when performed live. This shift in sound also featured more stripped down playing and arrangements, re-directed by the prominence of Jorma Kaukonen’s raw, stereo signal-equipped hollow-bodied Gibson guitar. It was as though he corralled all his tensed nerves into riffs within tracks of freaky blues howls of discontent that reared its ugly head and banged it repeatedly up against a motherfucking sonic wall. Kaukonen punished, throttled and coaxed a continent of riffs through distortion, wah-wah, fuzz, phase shifters and other effects as though designed to mess his guitar playing up into a frothing flurry of noise leaking feedback and spilling mojo all over the place. Kaukonen’s songwriting had also been coming into its own since splitting from The Airplane in 1972, and except for a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues” all the compositions on “America’s Choice” were his own: effortlessly straddling joyous celebration and the darkest of drug binge trudges that rolled insensibly in mental muddy ditches in wah-wah heavy blitzes that twitched on electric barbed wire fences while flushing out caverns of bad vibes in the Crystal City. Kaukonen’s guitar tones are sharp and massively staccato’ed though ever-flowing as they burn throughout the surrounding jungle of bass thrills and percussive fills provided respectively by Jack Casady and Bob Steeler.

Kaukonen’s inseparable musical partner Jack Casady provides bass playing more akin to a deep, penetrating fog gently handled though muscular as hell and barely resembling ‘bass playing’ at all: More like patterns of controlled harmonic distortion always in complete accord with the overall rhythmic trestlework while simultaneously acting as an igniter of furious counterpoint and interplay as it committed elegant frottage upon the rhythm itself. And Bob Steeler plays a myriad of rapidly hit snare’n’hi-hat/long row of tom-tom fills, laying them down with equal parts flash, nuance and operating as a deft welter of rhythmic directives to keep the flow malleable as he laid down a grid for both Jack and Jorma to begin yet another phrase (or return to a previous one) while keeping the ease of their surging, sinewy power-jamming to reassemble and gain in strength at will. And Steeler had a burning need to let loose with hundreds of drums fills per minutes. Over everything. Even ballads. He was quick, fleet of limbs and wrists and was quoted on an interview album that his primary attraction to Hot Tuna was their “high drugs content.” Needless to say, Hot Tuna had found their drummer, completing the lineup of one of the oddest power trios of all time.

As if a prologue of springtime and new beginnings, “Sleep Song” gently opens the album with Kaukonen singing of “branches lined against the winter snow,” and the sky is a clear, cloudless blue as three separate guitar lines comprised of two rhythm guitars (one electric, the other acoustic) and a lead electric shimmy and sustain their tones all around. Steeler’s drumming nails down the perimeter tightly like earnest windscreen wipers on amphetamines as Jack’s bass swells and hovers in the background, rippling throughout it all. It’s an easy portal into the album, because now the heat and the drugs kick in on “Funky #7.” Opening with a sharp and propulsive drum pattern and knifing hi-hat swishes, providing all the room in the world for Kaukonen’s many splintered leads and the nastiest call and response wah-wah guitar soloing you’ve ever heard. Casady’s bass clustering in the background just keep getting stronger and stronger as the song pulls onward through the densest instrumental improvisation of the album. The track ends with a break down as two Kaukonen blurred guitar slurs streak against it, as though everyone has just blacked out. “Walkin’ Blues” is a blooz trudge cover of the Robert Johnson original with furiously distorto rhythm guitar and both balls dragging heavily on the pavement. The solo by Kaukonen is pumped through a mysterious pedal effect (or effects) that cause the tone to blend and maintain a signal far higher in octave, and I’ve never heard another guitar churn out anything approaching that sweetly strung-out tone, ever.

At nearly seven minutes in length, “Invitation” is the longest and most buoyantly steaming track on the album. Clear Pacific air breezing down the highway without a care in the world as Kaukonen romantically extends his hand to his lady. The last half of the song is an instrumental jam that goes for broke as it whips out the same repeated motifs over and over: at one point regrouping and coming back with twice the energy as many snare and hi-hat cross-cuttings from Steeler that never fail in strength but only spurs everything on to greater heights. Kaukonen switches phasing on for the vocal refrain only until by the end he’s left it on to fizzle and sizzle his lead/rhythm/whatever electric guitar spiraling tail out.

Side two begins with “Hit Single #1”, about as hilarious a misnomer as the album title itself as it features prominent use of wah-wah and jagged distortion riffing that just keep pouring out all over the place (In fact, “Hit Single #1” could only be a number one single in some parallel universe where its denizens spend all their money on drugs, their time on getting loaded, getting back to the good times and staying wasted all the time as they ride the expressway to their skulls every waking hour of day and night.) Midpoint in the song a crossfire of several screeching, bleeding overdubbed guitars collide over a simple snare-hit beat only to fall back into the main theme at twice the power. Kaukonen’s solos on this track becomes more relentlessly psychedelic with each passing moment, until the final instrumental pile up abruptly ends on a dime...but could easily have continued onward for the rest of the album side. The brutal, epic drug dream “Serpent Of Dreams” follows, uncoiling and unfurling waves upon waves of electronically messed guitar lines. It could possibly be one of Kaukonen’s highest all time achievements, ever. There are so many solos on this expressionist, drugged-out ballad that Steeler is resigned to calm down with the drum fills and just play a relatively standard timekeeping role. The qualities of Kaukonen’s reoccurring, high-pitched soloing sears everything when it continually re-erupts back to life with startling ferocity. Like I said, it’s brutal. “I Don’t Wanna Go” is a slow, trudge led by a gaping maw of a wah-wah rhythm riff, and once again Steeler is cooling his heels with the fills, allowing a greater space for Casady to keep pumping out bass frequencies. “Great Divide (Revisited)” ends the album as though in hopeful epilogue that mirrors the opening “Sleep Song” with its seasonal changing line of “melting snow of winter/as it joins the earth again.” Kaukonen continues to wah-wah his guitar out to excruciating degrees with a salad of innumerable riffs and phased, slurred lead guitar lines that soar and wail as his solo and overdubbed rhythm lines swamp everything in the electric guitar equivalent of splitting itself in half or shedding its own skin...like they’ve all been doing for the duration of this fantastically charged album.