Dehd 'Water' Album Review
Dehd are a band on the rise, emerging from Chicago's fruitful DIY punk scene and making waves on the national stage. Here's a review of The indie trio's magical third release.
When I was a twenty-something disaster of cruelty and affectation, I hung out at a theme bar and didn’t even know it. Motor City, on Ludlow Street, was obviously, from both its name and decor of chrome and steering wheels on the bathroom doors, a Detroit themed bar. But I had never been to Detroit. In the early years of the bar’s existence it was even frequented by bikers. Hell’s Angels, or at least their provisional members (which we called “Hell’s Cherubs” from a very, very, very safe distance), parked their bikes outside so I just figured Motor City was a bar for men, and the women who tolerated them. I aspired to that, and already loved Social Distortion, so I figured it was a place that I could, if not be accepted at, hover at the periphery of, catching testosterone and coke vibes in the secret pocket of my too-tight black pants. It never occurred to me that Motor City was an engine oil tiki hut until I was deejaying there one night and the dude from Brian Jonestown Massacre yelled at me for not playing some Detroit band I didn’t give a shit about. Or maybe it was a band I liked and I just didn’t care for his tone. Not caring for the dude from Brian Jonestown Massacre’s tone was a popular pastime in the Lower East Side at that time.
Anyway, before that (not really relevant… just wanted to fit in a BJM jab) discovery, I went to Motor City to hear music I thought I should know, and to hang out with older people. I loved older people. People in their late twenties, in their thirties, men and women with glossy hairdos and weird histories with everyone else in the room. Unlike most of the twenty-two year olds I knew, no one at Motor City seemed to care about Built To Spill or, god save me, Tortoise. They wore cowboy hats in decidedly un-Beck-ian fashion and knew the sorcery behind the miniature explosions that made a car move forward. I knew I would never learn to fight or drive, but I’ve always been comfortable in a sidekick capacity so I’d sit at the bar and recite Scrappy-Doo’s speeches from memory. I was happy to be the youngster.
Except when it was brought to my attention. Three paragraphs in and we approach a point. I don’t remember most of my times, good or bad, in my early years of Motor City. I was, after all, practicing my Jameson intake for a theoretical marathon that had already started, and would continue till my guts just hurt too much in my late thirties and I had to switch to beer. But one thing I do remember is what some biker/bartender/member of Helldorado or the Mobile Homos probably told me, as what he undoubtedly thought to be a compliment; he said, seemingly out of nowhere, “Zack… you are going to be pretty cool when you’re thirty.”
Man, shit. While I was not delusional about my actual age, nor did I presume to be social equals with all these dudes and dudettes that were in bands that, twenty years later, only I and jukebox repairman at 7A would remember. But there is nothing worse than being told you will be cool when you’re older. That’s an offense to the teen lizard brain in us all. It makes the world an older, more popular sibling and it wounds. Just ask the kid from West Side Story. I swore, on all the saints of rockabilly, that, should I live past twenty-nine, I would never say that to a young person.
I have been thinking about that man and his grievous slander as I listen to Dehd, a band that no one my age listens to and, if they did, they’d either embrace or denounce purely in terms of the older bands Dehd sounds like. It’s the curse of age; all we can do is tell young people what band they’ve never cared about they most resemble. I did this on twitter dot com myself, saying Dehd were like Rock*a*teens and Violent Femmes. I regret this. Either it or the Adderall has been keeping me up at night.
Dehd, made up of bassist Emily Kempf, guitarist Jason Balla, and drummer Eric McGrady, are from Chicago, a city I like very much because, driving to it from the flat wasteland around it, it looks just like Oz and also it gave the world Pegboy and Los Crudos. Major credentials imo.
I’m also very fond of Dehd and I’m going to try to talk about their new record, Water (out now on Brooklyn’s Fire Talk Records), without comparing it to any of the bands in my ‘85-’98 reference files. This may prove impossible but Dehd made a fine record that deserves better than I received from that guy, whose name was probably Bill or something, all those years ago. Dehd deserves better than to be called a shadow of its elders, so let my minor humiliation, my attachment to perceived grievance, have some sort of happy result.
First of all, what’s appealing about Water is its jagged minimalism. Virtually absent of feedback or fuzz, with drummer McGrady using not a single cymbal as far as I can tell, and with reverb tastefully applied to the vocals (again, as far as I can tell… I’m not a reverb scientist), the songs are naked as hell. As someone who always tells the sound guy, “reverb on vocals just short of Perry Farrell thanks,” I find the instinct towards exposure admirable. With nothing to hide behind, all Dehd can present is the songs they wrote, performed as the inevitable corpses they are. Luckily, the songs are pretty good; chime heavy blasts of doo wop garage Americana. Like if John Cale shared Lou Reed’s love of street corner boy bands.
Yeah I know I said no comparisons, but I figure at this juncture VU comparisons are like talking about the sun and sky, and who would begrudge me my naturist fervor?
The interplay between Kempf and Balla, both in guitar/bass and their voices, is the wire that holds Water together. I guess they’re exes or some shit, but I don’t know how apparent that would be without the presskit handy. They play like intuitive partners, with Kempf’s slightly “better” voice being a counterpoint to Balla’s occasional adenoidal tendencies (I call them “tendencies” because live his voice is lower and a bit more rock ‘n’ roll coooool. Being a poseur, I prefer that style but I understand that the kids like Mountain Goats more than X these days so I respect Dehd’s recording choices). But all the vocals on the record are lovely within their own context and, again, the absence of obfuscation is appreciated. To belabor the blade imagery, Balla serrates and needles as Kempf’s whisper and soaring twists the knife.
Shit, now I feel bad about implying the dude’s vocals are irritating. They maybe are at first, but on repeated listens the swagger in them becomes more apparent, and what I initially thought was nasal is arguably actually twang. And anyway it’s not like Kampf, especially on the title track, declines to yelp when the conditions call for it.
All this vocal and clean note back and forth is held down by McGrady. The drummer uses only snare and floor tom. Minimalist drummers are easy to underrate (see: Meg White, a fantastic drummer who gets little credit despite the wild coincidence that her former partner has never once come close to matching the quality of his earlier work with her) but McGrady makes use of the self-imposed limitations of his palette to make an alternate history where all the best girl groups were on K Records. Building a house with only a handful of nails shouldn’t work but McGrady makes a danceable architecture all the same.
And, look, despite my own self imposed limitations, of course sounds like other bands. They work within my favorite tradition: boho alts discovering Sun Studios. Whether it’s The Mekons or Gun Club or any New York punk band as soon as they got old enough to buy their own coke, I love when a dog starts to wear a bandana. And I’m sure there’s more recent bands that Dehd sound like, but I, despite my oath, generally hate the tattooless youth, so I maybe haven’t paid as much attention as I should. It’s fine. Like Pop Will Eat Itself famously said, “We dig the Leader Of The Pack and the do-run-run.” I have come to terms with the fact that I like oldies by and for babies.
Water is an out-of-time type hoot. Actual choruses and emotional resonance that doesn’t feel cheap. My attention span being what it is, I don’t know that I’ll listen to the whole album all the way through every time, but I never make it past song four on Turn On The Bright Lights and that shit’s a classic, so what. There’s no weak joints on Water and more high points than I deserve. This is oddball rockabilly. It feels sweetly sincere and effortlessly hep at the same time. I bet if I was in a band like Dehd in my twenties, instead of the glammed out slab of Richard Hellscape misogyny that I’ll never tell you about, maybe the rockers at Motor City would have told me I was cool enough already. Or, preferably, if I’d been in a band as good as Dehd, I wouldn’t have cared.
(Sorry. I refuse to end a fucking album review with inspirational faux profundity. No matter how good my band might have been, I totally would have still cared what older rock dudes thought of me. I am as God made me. Dehd’s album, Water, is very good though, so buy it.)