On a Mission rightfully deserved its Mercury nomination, but a few tweaks might have netted a win.
“Big up Rinse FM” Katy B cheers at the very end of On a Mission, her debut album out through the same radio station. Big up Rinse FM, indeed: the pirate radio station continued its upward climb from the underground to mainstream charts by investing in a young raver with a syrupy sweet voice. Kathleen Brien and her thoughtful, intimate songwriting lay at the forefront of a wave that brought us acts such as Disclosure, Jessie Ware, Rudimental and Sinead Harnett.
A graduate of the BRIT School (see also: Amy Winehouse, Adele and Leona Lewis), Katy B cut her teeth on garage and grime rather than the retro soul of her many peers. The atmosphere of her scene, raves and clubs, pervades her music, albeit not always the best characteristics. Brien often sings of the moments that lie at the end of a roll or the torment of running afoul of a former relationship. The silver linings of her music lay more so in mutual sympathy than the stories themselves. “Movement” hides disappointment beneath a sunny exterior, a refusal to leave before getting fully satisfied. No matter how many times it repeats its chorus, “Lights On” knows the night’s at its conclusion. Every night out comes with risks and victories, and Brien cares more about relaying the whole night instead of just highlighting the parts worthy of your Insta-story.
On a Mission rightfully deserved its Mercury nomination, but a few tweaks might have netted a win. The heterogeneity of its contents offers a wide variety of songs for all your night-out needs. Removing the awkward wishy washy tracks and shaving a few seconds off of some lengthier ones would improve the album. Replacing lesser tracks with a few notable omissions from Brien’s earlier catalog gives the album a bit more push, something better suited for the dancefloor.
- Power on Me
- Witches Brew
- Katy on a Mission
- Why You Always Here
- Easy Please Me
- As I
- Lights On
- Broken Record
- Hard to Get
New additions: “Louder,” “As I,” “Crossover”
Songs omitted: “Perfect Stranger,” “Go Away,” “Disappear”
“Power on Me”
This and the final track both deserve their initial locations. In order to embark on a mission, a conundrum must be established. At On a Mission’s onset, Brien introduces her elusive target, a hot-and-cold figure that appears across her music (“Why You Always Here,” Little Red’s “Stay Down”). “Power on Me” revels in the chase as much as the object of affection, establishing Brien’s ability to remain relatable and on beat at the same time. As an added bonus, the transition from the first verse into the chorus jolts any cautious listener to stay tuned in and alert.
A major omission from the original track list. Infamous musician and maybe imperialist Grimes once listed this as one of the best songs of all time, and she had a point. On an album about the youthful exhilaration about the club, “Louder” seems like the perfect choice. It simmers with anticipation and exhaustion by determining the most easily-justified medium between them both. Brien understands the risks of raving, but “Louder” also understands the risks of FOMO.
The driving beat of “Louder” carries on over into this shimmering, electro dance track where Brien finally flexes her charms. If the beat never fell out at the chorus, this song would be far too powerful.
“Katy On a Mission”
The most bombastic track of the lot, “Katy On a Mission” arrives a bit too early in the regular album order. By coming after, instead of before, “Witches Brew,” this track builds upon the powers conjured and channels through a tidal wave of a chorus. No one’s quite rode a dubstep drop the way Brien does on this standout song.
“Why You Always Here”
Not all nights out end in success – the unpredictability of nightlife means negative turns can be just as likely as positives. As the dust clears following “Katy On a Mission,” “Why You Always Here” sashays in slowly. The slightly atonal UK funky beat emphasizes the change in the air as an obstacle appears in Brien’s path. Undeterred and unamused, Brien holds her own, circling a pest while ensnaring them with their words. Everyone has wanted to sing this to someone, minus one of the last few choruses.
“Easy Please Me”
The annoyance of the preceding track sets up the outright disdain of “Easy Please Me.” The pounding, metallic intro takes “Katy On a Mission” to a more menacing place, one where “no boy is on the level.” The poise and candor exuded on earlier tracks allows Brien the ethos to pull this off without sounding snobbish.
But now, a redemption shot! Where “Easy Please Me” begins with an industrial clang, “Movement” opens with gears churning into fervent motion. It unfolds into a shimmering track that pines for “some kind of improvement” by driving everything forward. Far too short, “Movement” deserves one of the choruses from “Lights On,” and Brien deserves every upbeat moment considering how On a Mission concludes.
As said above, shave off a chorus or two from “Lights On” and give that time to “Movement.” Bam, both songs improved exponentially. That’s not to say “Lights On” makes for a bad track. To the contrary, Ms. Dynamite’s rapid delivery juxtaposes nicely with Brien’s laidback, elongated riffs. Naturally, a song about the club coming to a close deserves a later spot on the record, but certainly not the last one. As a woman of the rave, Brien knows the night lies far from over.
Another gem created by Geeneus and Brien, “As I” fits well within On a Mission’s mentality. The momentum of “Movement” and “Lights On” carries over to this song and its eager undertones – Brien’s target now matches her pace, but do their feelings match as well?
Regardless of their feelings, Brien still lets hers be known with this four-on-the-floor gem. “You’re holding every breath I take” is not just damn good songwriting, but it relates to much of On a Mission’s fixation on a particular objective. Unlike the resentful admissions from “Power On Me,” “Broken Record” lets itself be engulfed by its crush. Despite facing many disappointments over the course of the album, Brien still gives time to her fantasies.
With its feelings now out in the open, On a Mission now enjoins its crush to make their move. “Crossover,” like those before it, prefers frankness to diffidence. Unlike her other Magnetic Man collaboration, “Perfect Stranger,” this comes across as more exciting and clever. The metaphor of crossing over applies as much to Brien as it does her crush. In 2011, she lay at the forefront of electronic music’s surge into popular awareness and seemed close to crossing over too.
“Hard to Get”
The final gambit, one which plays out so beautifully there is never a worry that Brien might fail. The bird song behind the opening keyboard suggests the night’s turn to morning, and Brien remains in hot pursuit. She cuts through the trumpets, guitar and percussion with a sensual confidence – who even notices that verse one or two doesn’t rhyme at all. After passing the halfway mark, she crescendos to some magnificent riffs, flaunting her desire as opposed to masking it with coyness.
The outro, a spoken set of thank yous to her family, team and those of you “joining me on my mission,” hammers home this communal sense of adventure. This is the true fun of a night out – the anticipation that sweetens the victory, or at least dulls the failure. Even if you believe it ends in rejection, “Hard to Get” makes an amazing case for why it’s all worth it in the first place.
The sentiment is strong here, but it fails to make much of a lasting impression. “If you would please just go away” never comes close to a demand; if anything, Brien is just mulling things over. The lumbering tempo further pushes this indecisiveness, a quality already established as unattractive early on in the album. The chump in “Why You Always Here” might show back up after a mixed signal like this.
As said above, Brien works best with a little fuel in her tank. Slower beats dull her edge and, in this case, make her feel a bit awkward. Furthermore, this is just a profoundly unmemorable track.
For some reason, this song clunks, even though others hear it groove. Brien does her share of heavy lifting when it comes to heavy beats, but some are just too heavy for true, uninhibited flight. Really, what this most sounds like is cut-scene music from a dated first-person shooter.
Listen to Mick’s version of On a Mission here: