Wikipedia tells me that the Donner Party was a group of nineteenth century American pioneers who set out for California in a wagon train. They spent the winter of 1846–47 snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and as supplies ran out, some resorted to cannibalism, eating those who had succumbed to starvation and sickness.
Why did Donner Social name themselves after this bleak story? Maybe it just suits their mood. They make eighties-flavored synth-pop with a mostly despairing vibe, like a more depressive Depeche Mode. Donner Social inhabits the same chilly, posthuman musical environments as the Postal Service, MGMT and Crystal Castles. At times, they evoke a more low-key LCD Soundsystem. All of these groups share a commitment to meticulous synth programming and futuristic soundscapes, as well as an allergy to funk.
Donner Social’s major strong suit is their vocal production. Their voices are distorted, Auto-tuned and vocoded until they sound like another keyboard. At times, the thick processing obscures the lyrics, but that’s okay, the ambiance is the important thing. The best vocal production moment happens at the end of “Dear _____,” a digital stutter that gives the song a sudden rhythmic kick. I wouldn’t hearing some more chopped up vocal samples, I think these guys could borrow a page from Prefuse 73.
While the songs are all rhythmic and beat-driven, they aren’t beats suited for the club. This is solitary headphone music, not party music. The angular, off-kilter beats on “There Will Come Soft Rains” reference the more experimental reaches of electronica inhabited by Aphex Twin and Autechre. The lyrics match the bleakness of the settings, dealing with loneliness and alienation. Weirdly, the most uplifting song is the one with the darkest title, “Hospital Beds To Funeral Homes.” With its bright, major-key synths, it works as a high-tech medical love song. The Donner Social’s future might be dark, but it isn’t entirely without warmth.