As a DJ, Cassy Britton has long been one of clubland’s best within a certain subset of house and techno—specifically, the sort that’s sensual, intimate and full of emotion. It’s a skill set that’s taken her far: over the years, she’s had residencies at the places including Panorama Bar, Rex Club, Trouw and Circo Loco—and on top of that, she’s on seemingly perpetual tour, playing clubs and festival across the globe. But her discography, comparatively speaking, is a bit bare. That’s certainly not to imply that her recorded work—otherworldly and warm, often graced with her own spectral vocals—isn’t top-notch; it’s just that there’s been just enough to whet our appetites, and just enough to leave fans of her sound craving more. Finally, after a period of personal upheaval—breakups, transoceanic relocations and more—she’s releasing her debut album on the Aus label. Sadly, though Donna is obviously a heartfelt project, it’s a bit of a letdown.
That disappointment is compounded by the fact that Donna was co-produced by the ever-reliable King Britt. In theory, the Philadelphia-based vet—whose discography stretches from Strictly Rhythm and Nervous through to Planet E and Hyperdub, would seem like a perfect match for Britton. Britt’s gifts, in part, stems from his affinity for forward-thinking soul, and Britton’s tracks have always had a simmering sea of emotion sitting just below their surface. Vibe-wise, the pairing definitely works: there’s an affecting aura of mood and melancholy—a poignant sense of loss runs throughout—that gives the project a cohesive feel. That consistency extends to the overall sound design, as well; there’s a warm, rounded feel to the album, one that tends to buff away any sharp surfaces. On an EP, that kind of tonal uniformity is welcome, but on a 12-track album, it can devolve into achromatic sameness.
But what of the songs themselves? One of the reasons that Britt was brought on, presumably, is that he’s something of a sonic polymath, equally adept at funky R&B and jazzy hip-hop as he is at house and techno. The good news is that, style-wise, there’s a healthy measure of variety on hand; the bad news is that the tracks that veer away from the four-to-the-floor paradigm are among Donna’s weakest.
Britton’s doesn’t have the world’s strongest voice, but there is an affecting, almost shy passion to it—and that quality serves her well on “Strange Relationship,” a wistful slow-jammer where she almost sounds like Pharrell in sensitive-falsetto mode. The problem is the instrumentation: the cut's cocktail-jazz electric piano and fluttering synth lead it into the realm of cliché. Lead cut “This is How We Know” has the bones of a low-key skeletal-funk number—but the song never quite reaches the kind of sensuality that it’s reaching for, and doesn’t quite hit. Similarly, the bossa-inspired rhythm of “Cuando” gives off little in the way of tropical heat, while “You Gotta Give” is a nice approximation of ’80s-inspired electronic R&B, but almost feels like a schematic diagram of the sound, rather than the sound itself. The components—warm pads, spiralling synths, luscious melody, syncopated kick—are all there, but they never seem to fully coalesce.
Props to Britton for trying out new templates—but she’s on firmer ground when she’s in her 4/4 comfort zone, and Donna’s at its best when it plays to her emo-house strengths. “Keep Trying,” layers Britton’s swirling voice over gentle keys to hypnotic effect; the propulsive “All I Do” strips things down to the core, focusing attention to the “all I do is think about you” vocal, which in the context of the track somehow comes off as a confident rather than disconsolate declaration; a rousing synth, entering midway through "Move," gives the tune a feel that hovers somewhere between majestic and wistful. Britton’s at her most commanding with songs like these—they’re sometimes delicate, they’re occasionally poignant, but they’re always brimming with vitality.
01. This Is How We Know
04. All I Do
05. Strange Relationship
07. Route To Thonon
08. Keep Trying
10. Without You
11. What If
12. You Gotta Give
Aus Music will release Donna on June 24, 2016.