Dehd Explore the Colors of Love and Poetry

The Chicago trio’s fifth and latest album doesn’t find them breaking new ground; rather, it’s an enchanting, familiar exercise in perfecting the formula that’s made them so beloved in the first place.

Music Reviews Dehd
Dehd Explore the Colors of Love and Poetry

You can assign any sort of “indie rock” classification to Dehd and you’d probably be right. Jason Balla’s guitar rides the reverberated wave of surf rock; bassist and vocalist Emily Kempf applies both a rockabilly and post-punk affectation; drummer Eric McGrady, using just a floor tom, snare, drum machine and tambourine, harnesses the raw zest of early garage rock. They’re shoegaze! But less obstructed. They’re Jesus and the Mary Chain! Minus all the gain and distortion. Yes, yes, yes and, also, yes.

Born out of the Chicago DIY scene, Dehd’s sophomore LP, Water, had the lo-fi, fuzzed coyness of Beat Happenings, while 2019’s mainstream breakout Flower of Devotion found the trio a bit more polished but still clinging to the same controlled variables. 2022’s Blue Skies, their first with Fat Possum, applied an almost identical treatment, highlighted by more MIDI drums and synth.

Poetry is scarcely different, save for some new (but seamlessly embedded) synthetic favors and lyrical risks, both good and bad. It’s easy to avoid the overwrought with such a small operation, especially when you’ve figured out how to make genuine hooky, pop music that doesn’t make you roll your eyes. Plus—it’s hard to change your signature. You can maybe curl the l’s a little and exaggerate your g’s, but your handwriting is still a product of your palm’s grip—consistent, distinct.

And what makes Dehd truly distinct are their vocals. Kempf and Balla belt at different rates, as if operating a vocal tandem bike. Kempf’s warble is full and guttural; she growls a battle cry but can still shoot straight with an (elegant) rasp. Balla is more lackadaisical; he sings matter-of-fact, pulling when Kempf is pushing, or yodeling, or howling. Denying their signature and trying for something, say, “fancier” would just result in scribbled nonsense. So, they just give you what you want: more Dehd songs. Of which, there are two types: one that stampedes, another that treds. Born from a Kerouacian full-band crusade, Poetry is fittingly 50/50. You get the on the road giddiness as they speed cross country and the pensive nighttime reflections when they’re on cruise control.

Their expedition kicks off in high spirits as they charge onto the road with a full tank of gas. “Everyone I know is breaking hearts tonight / Everyone I know is bleeding, but I know we’ll be alright,” sing Balla and Kempf on opener “Dog Days.” Per tradition, Balla’s guitar is soaked in reverb as he slams down on his strings while McGrady taps his snare. They list what the titular days entail: a bad boy in a fast car, a glass half full that you knocked over, Gucci sunglasses. Eventually they just start howling—but it works, and I’m sure it feels good. Here, and everywhere, really, Dehd carefully intermix their earnesty with their oddity. It’s always done with a fine precision: They don’t pull things out of a hat; they’re careful and deliberate, especially on Poetry, perhaps thanks to unprecedented production aid from fellow Chicagoan, Ziyad Asrar (Whitney).

“Mood Ring,” for example, opens with heavy distortion and rumbled drums but quickly quiets as Kempf joins in: “Angel,” she says, signaling the band to return to its regular scheduled program of serpentined riffs and punchy drums. In the press kit Kempf writes: “I wrote this about a hot boy that I was super excited about who had a motorcycle. vroom vroom!” He’s her “sexy little angel,” she sings jovially, unabashed with infatuation and reverting to adolescent coping mechanisms like checking her mood ring. She can’t help it; she’s unable to contain her joy: “I got these feelings; I wanna shout out loud, loud, loud,” she sings in her piercing staccato. It’s silly, endearing and catchy. It’s the epitome of Dehd.

Like “Mood Ring” there are quite a few songs on Poetry about big-time crushes. “Pure Gold” finds Kempf having feelings for a girl friend for the first time over country-western guitar like that of Beck’s “Loser” era, minus the trip-hop. The chorus—“Easy, breezy, ooo ya we laugh so freely”—while catchy and certainly evocative of new romantic intrigue, is not the most elevated writing they’ve ever done. “So Good” similarly finds Kempf on the precipice of falling in love without using any over effusive language: “Watching you through dark shades, you’re the one I think I want ya / Oh I’ve been so good.” Basically she’s saying “Gimme!” As previously mentioned, it’s not that Dehd has ever claimed or tried to be explicitly lavish: They make feel good music. But even when they get monosyllabic, like on Blue Skies’ “Bop” it works when it appears self-aware—when it’s so on the nose your face is burning with delight.

On the other hand, there is some really good writing elsewhere on Poetry. “Knife” gets quasi-political, aiming its blade at the patriarchy: “I’m so sick of men telling me how to be,” bemoans Kempf over a MIDI beat. “It’s a matter of time and I’ll be free. You’re outdated. You mean nothing.” She also takes the spotlight on “Hard to Love,” ruminating about loving the wrong man—the ones that are “hard to love”—specifically an addict. “A pair of calloused hands rest upon my hips,” she sings in a controlled drawl over gated drums and twangy licks. “Can’t seem to get enough / Can’t seem to give you up.” Balla, too, has his starlit moments on tracks “Necklace” and “Light On.” “Do you think of me when you’re running errands?” he asks his long-distance lover in the former. McGrady’s drums effortlessly stress the backbeat, like a “necklace banging on [a] chest.” “Light On” seems to follow this story line, as well, with a similar drum sound and Balla’s keeping the porch lamp aglow, just in case the lover wants to come home.

Side one is undoubtedly the album’s best, causing it to feel just a little top heavy. Even when the back-half does shine, it doesn’t stick out in the same way. I’d wager it’s because most of the early tracks utilize Dehd’s signature: the Balla and Kempf call and response, vocals that are as easy to enjoy as riding a bicycle. “Alien,” for example, restrains its bubbling bass, quiets the drums and harmonized riffs and delivers zig-zagging vocals as the main entree: “Hope this love can take me higher, I’ve been watching, catching fire,” sing the duo. It harkens back to Water’s “Lucky,” where the instrumentation was skilled in its own right—albeit the production significantly less diligent than Poetry—but the glaring anomaly, the thing that makes you go, What did I just hear?, was the melding of these two contradictory voices.

After nine years together, Dehd seem to be more sure than ever as to who they are—both individually and as a band. They’ve refined their sound, cleaned the lines and (purposeful) smudges underneath their eyes. But, they have still remained true to their calling card and brave—and talented—enough to try new things. So while Poetry might not be an avid Dehd-head’s favorite album, I have a feeling it will attract a wider audience. It’s a relatable album, too, one that, for better or for worse, is easily digestible. In its simplest form, Poetry aims to figure out the healthiest way to love, in all its conditions: platonic, romantic, self. I mean really, what song isn’t about love? Hopefully Poetry’s accessibility means more people going to their shows, i.e. giving them money. Because a Dehd live show—woo boy, that’s a whole ‘nother article. Let’s just say, like Poetry, you won’t want to miss it.

Sam Small is a freelance writer of sorts & shorts based in Brooklyn, NY. She has written for NME, Consequence of Sound, Clash Magazine and Under The Radar.

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