Spiritual • Mental • Physical (Drag City)
In 2009, Drag City packaged the only seven official recordings from brothers Bobby, David, and Dannis Hackney, who played together in the long-defunct Detroit hard rockers Death, as ... For the Whole World to See. The brothers recorded the songs in 1974; two of them had been released as a limited-edition vanity-label single in 1976, but the rest remained locked away after the band broke up in 1977. So the reissue was effectively the band’s worldwide debut, 35 years after the fact. It’s one of those truly great forgotten rock albums: muscular, bruising, a little rough around the edges, and angry—and a mysterious precursor of punk. That the Hackney brothers are black made the story of their rediscovery even more compelling.
The success of ... For the Whole World to See has prompted Drag City to dig deeper into the Death vaults for this odds-and-ends anthology, which collects 10 more tracks recorded between 1974 and 1976. The handful of songs that kick off the new album are welcome additions to Death’s limited catalog, even if none are as good as “Politicians in My Eyes” or “Rock-N-Roll Victim” from ... For the Whole Word to See. But the rest of the new collection presents challenges. The recording quality on the 2009 reissue was rough; the sound quality on Spiritual • Mental • Physical is really primitive. And these are truly demos; some of the songs are only half-formed, or, in the case of the bass and drum solos tacked on at the end, not formed at all. That a couple of tossed-off solos and two barely-there song sketches take up a third of the album’s 28-minute running time suggests how inessential this new disc is.
The Hackney brothers reportedly started out playing R&B before they shifted to the proto-punk collected on the two Drag City records, and they performed gospel songs together after Death ended. (David died in 2000; Bobby and Dannis have played in a reggae/jam band, Lambsbread, since the late ’80s.) An anthology of unreleased material that showcased the brothers’ unlikely musical evolution might have been a worthy follow-up to ... For All the World to See. As it is, Spiritual • Mental • Physical sounds like bonus tracks.