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Dehd - Water Music Album Reviews

The Chicago indie-rock trio scrape away 90 percent of what goes into a guitar album and come away with something effortless and uncomplicated.

Dehd are a dissent to excess. The Chicago indie-rock trio, who use a total of four instruments if a snare drum and a floor tom count as two, have grown into masters of maximizing mileage. They’re the plate of noodles that staves off hunger for hours longer than the $15 brunch. They’re the extra-puffy secondhand coat that retains more heat than the North Face winter catalog. They’re the basement unit with bumpy, self-applied caulking that stays watertight while the neighbors’ mansion floods.


On their third release, Water, Dehd scrape away 90 percent of what goes into your average good-sounding guitar album—studio enhancement, stacked parts, precision playing, any cymbal crashes whatsoever—and leave it almost entirely up to their countermelodies and some strong lyrical turns from bassist Emily Kempf and guitarist Jason Balla to carry the load. They pull it off so well that it’s almost possible to forget a crucial detail: Water is also a breakup album, written after the two singers’ long-term relationship ended—and the band went on tour anyway.

Despite the crisis that led up to it, Water feels more like a culmination than a demolition site. For Kempf and Balla, who have been tirelessly prolific in Chicago’s independent music scene for years—Balla with Accessory, Earring, and the late NE-HI and Kempf with a long list of projects that includes her current solo moniker Vail—it’s the best overall set of songs either has made. That’s partially because their music reaches a new level of meaning against the backdrop of their no-longer-romantic relationship, but Water’s lyrics don’t sound like coded words or things left unsaid. These are love songs, plain and simple, only written from the other side of the timeline, the one normally less conducive to love songs. Kempf first flips the script on “Lucky”: “Lucky to have/People in my life with the power to break my heart,” she sings, Balla’s guitar jumping in right on the word “heart,” the downbeat.

The melodic chemistry between Kempf and Balla is natural stuff, the kind that makes it easy to understand why they’d put their band ahead of their personal comfort. Kempf’s prior work often leaned towards booming synth-pop, which explains her intuition for great basslines, while Balla’s was often built around his signature elastic guitar sound—it’s flexy, but can also snap hard enough to sting. Kempf’s singing voice has more muscle; as album centerpiece “On My Side” proves, she can both yelp on-pitch and belt from the gut. Balla’s voice is a little thinner and harsher, which, on songs like the galloping “Wait,” just means it sounds really cool. Together, their parts twist up like bicolor plastic-lace lanyards. It’s effortless, uncomplicated, and never more emotionally saturated than on the sighing, reconciled “Baby.”

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There’s one more important dimension to this picture, and it’s drummer Eric McGrady. Onstage, McGrady stands between his bandmates, hitting the tom with his left hand and the snare with his right, as if physically holding his two friends together—the symbolism is almost too obvious to be real. When Dehd were recently asked on local radio if writing songs together is something they’d recommend to other bandmate-exes in the same situation, McGrady chimed in with his only words in the whole interview: “No, not at all.” His presence here makes the case that there aren’t two, but three sides to every split: Don’t forget those caught in the middle. The rhythms are simple but a drum machine couldn’t replace them; the real human being standing there is the whole point. Though he doesn’t sing, he might be the easiest person to empathize with.

Water is also what you might call a good bad-speakers album: You could hear it over speakerphone and still probably get the full effect. There’s no treasure trove of subtleties to discover, no demand for good headphones—though it works just fine on those, too. Dehd would probably take this as a compliment. As fellow Chicago musician CupcakKe once said, “Cheap shit with a rich spirit goes a long way.”


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