Bigger But Not Better
Greil Marcus once wrote that, at their best, the Clash sounded like their name. You could easily say the same thing about Mountain.
No, really. Everything about the band was huge: their name, their sound, their ambitions, even their guitarist (to be fair, these days Leslie West is half the man he used to be). Mountain’s lasting contribution to the hard rock/heavy metal pantheon of testosterone-fueled greatness was “Mississippi Queen”. Now, 33 years later, the song retains all of its roaring, lumpen charm. From Corky Laing’s introductory cowbell call-to-arms (no rock drummer before or since has made the cowbell such a centerpiece of his technique), to West’s muscular, percussive guitar playing, it’s a masterpiece of sorts in perfect company with “Iron Man”, “The Ocean”, and a dozen other riff-based behemoths. Now remastered for digital consumption, “Mississippi Queen” retains its heft. It’s a touchstone for the “heavy” rock song—something that has to do with the band’s thickly layered unison playing, and the cavernous spaces between the riffs, which intensify the song’s power and velocity.
But that’s one song. And now, revisiting these two “classic rock” reissues—records that I enjoyed as a teen—I am forced to confront the reality that aside from one great song and a handful of really good ones, Mountain was a pretty mediocre band.
Driven by the twin engines of West and bassist/producer Felix Pappalardi, Mountain, in a manner not unlike that of Cream (whom Pappalardi produced), was a product of a late-‘60s rock mindset that placed equal value on blues-soaked riffing and grandiose quasi-literary narratives, a middlebrow approach to rock that would be definitively rendered by Led Zeppelin. Mountain’s overreaching artistic aspirations are heard best on Nantucket Sleighride‘s title track, a slice of pomp and circumstance that remains rock’s greatest whaling song. Pappalardi’s earnestly “soulful” singing (which in reality is nasally and almost totally incapable of expressing real emotion) tries hard to sell lyrical hogwash about searching for the mighty sperm whale, but can’t. West, who kicks the song in the ass about halfway through, arrives too late to save us from drowning in the histrionics, but adds enough juice to make the slog more tolerable. At least the studio version is brief. Live, they used to stretch this monstrosity out for a half-hour.
Truth be told, it’s Leslie West’s formidable presence that makes these reissues worth a damn. An underrated guitarist with a melodic, economic, tough-as-nails approach to soloing, West supplies all the grit the kinetic energy. You’d certainly never call him one of the greatest rock vocalists, but after a few Pappalardi leads, it’s hard to resist the charms of his fleshy, open-throated bellowing: equal parts faux-southern drawl and native Noo Yawkese. Listen to the way he pronounces “Vicksboig” on “Mississippi Queen”: it’s poifect.
To say there isn’t anything pleasurable on these discs is to indulge in the worst kind of curmudgeonly elitism; “Never in My Life”, “Tired Angels” (despite Pappalardi’s vocal), “You Can’t Get Away”, and “Don’t Look Around” are heaps of loud fun, and nicely offset crap like “The Laird”, (even Ronnie Dio couldn’t sing this song with a straight face), “Silver Paper”, or the overrated Jack Bruce/Peter Brown-penned “Theme for an Imaginary Western”. Is one record better than the other? Well, Climbing‘s got the edge (thanks to “Mississippi Queen”), but both records are pretty much Mountain at their most mountainous. As for the “bonus tracks”, they’re nothing more than a couple of perfunctory and ultimately worthless live versions of “For Yasgur’s Farm” and “Traveling in the Dark”.
Currently, West and Laing (Pappalardi died in 1983, gunned down by wife Gail Collins during a domestic dispute) drag around a new version of Mountain to casinos across America, make new records, and have recently released a live DVD. I wouldn’t bother with any of it; Climbing and Nantucket Sleighride, warts and all, are the only fix you’ll ever need.