Thursday, July 21, 2011

July 21: Mountain, "Mississippi Queen"

Artist: Mountain
Song: "Mississippi Queen"
Album: Climbing!
Year: 1970

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Perhaps due to the wider appeal than other genres, hard rock songs have a way of enduring the decades and musical changes in a far easier manner than other styles of songs.  Yet it is also clear that with this passage of time, while the song itself may remain relevant, in a number of cases, the band responsible for the song in question may be forgotten.  This is largely the case when one speaks of the band Mountain, who were without question one of the most powerful and important acts in the entire history of rock and roll.  Forming after the disbanding of "super group" Cream, producer Felix Pappalardi formed his own band, and it would be the efforts and sound of Mountain that would go on to define "arena rock" as it would be performed throughout the next decade.  With only a small sampling of the bands' music, it becomes quickly apparent that the sound and presence of their music easily lives up to their name, and it is their 1970 debut record, Climbing!, that stands as one of the most impressive, yet overlooked albums in music history.  Filled with soaring guitar riffs and some of the finest boogie-rock ever released, Mountain brings a groove and attitude that is wonderfully unique.  Every song on Climbing! is fantastic, but it is their stellar 1970 single, "Mississippi Queen" that best defines Mountain, and remains a true rock classic to this day.

On many levels, "Mississippi Queen" is all about tension and release, and few songs have executed these musical ideas as flawlessly as one can experience on this track.  Even the opening cadence from drummer Corky Laing manages to grab the listener right away and as he settles into the bulk of the song, it is in his performance where much of the "boogie" resides.  The almost stutter-step rhythm he brings to the song enables "Mississippi Queen" to gain a swagger that was largely absent from other recordings at the time, and it is this attitude which in many ways defines the "rock star" persona.  The bass progression from Pappalardi compliments this tone perfectly, and he also gives the song a drive and grit that begins to set the song apart from "normal" rock songs of the era.  However, it is the absolutely amazing guitar performance from Leslie West that turns "Mississippi Queen" into a true rock classic, as he incorporates every element in terms of both style and attitude.  There is a slight distortion to his tone, and this combined with his style makes "Mississippi Queen" almost more akin to heavy metal that "normal" rock songs.  When he veers off during the bridge section of the song, there is an undeniable Southern twang to his playing, and in many ways, it is through his playing that "Mississippi Queen" gains its ability to appeal to almost every different rock music fan.

Along with the exceptionally mood and tone set by the band, Mountain has the benefit of the almost "larger than life" vocal performance from West.  One can argue that West is pushing himself throughout the track, letting his vocals feed off of the energy of his guitar playing and vice versa.  The confidence and exuberance that he brings to the vocals are truly the very definition of what a rock frontman should be, as he completely captivates the listener, even after repeated plays.  Bringing a massive strength to his vocals, whilst he is certainly yelling for a majority of the song, he rarely loses the musicality to this performance, and it is this aspect that makes his rather unsubtle lyrics become somehow endearing.  In many ways, the lyrics on "Mississippi Queen" reflect the shifting acceptability of certain themes within music, as West sings of a "backwoods" romance, yet lines like "...she taught me everything..." certainly makes one wonder exactly what the true nature of the "Queen" was in relation to the singer.  The perhaps questionable morals of the woman in question are put further into doubt when West proclaims, " know she was a dancer, she moved better on wine..." and yet even with these statements, there is no arguing the reverence with which he is speaking of this female.  The fact that what would have been deemed as illicit only a few years earlier was now "nothing outrageous" stands as a clear turning point in culture, and Leslie West takes full advantage, delivering one of the most impassioned vocal performances in history.

While the link between Felix Pappalardi and Cream were literally clear, one can also detect it within the music of the band, as there is a striking similarity between West's extended solo and that played by Eric Clapton on "Crossroads."  However, there is no question that Mountain can easily stand on their own, as they were far heavier and aggressive than any Cream song, but it is within "Mississippi Queen" where one can clearly see the connection between the blues and heavy metal.  Yet it was not only the blending of sounds that made Mountain so important, as one can hear their tone almost copied in many bands that followed, and one can make the case that groups like Foghat, and even Thin Lizzy to an extent owe much of their own success to the music of Mountain.  As the decades have passed, "Mississippi Queen" has managed to remain a radio staple, and the main guitar riff has become one of the most recognizable ever recorded.  The song in its entirety has been featured in countless films and television shows, and this is more proof to the argument that "Mississippi Queen" remains just as relevant and powerful today as it did more than forty years ago.  Even current rock bands can be easily linked to Mountain, as almost the entire "hard rock" stage presence is a product of this very song, and while many may have forgotten their name, there is no question that Mountain's 1970 single, "Mississippi Queen," remains one of the most energizing, watershed moments in music history.

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