Album of the Week: The Range's 'Potential'

On March 21, 2016

by Gary Suarez

potential-packshot

Every week, we tell you about a new album we think you should spend time with. This week’s album is The Range's Potential. 

When The Range first began receiving critical acclaim a few years back, it hardly made much sense. Why was the uncategorizable album for an electronic indie like Donky Pitch garnering Best New Music from tastemaking powerhouse Pitchfork? Yet those of us who had discovered 2013’s Nonfiction and James Hinton’s work under that moniker knew its value. We just didn’t expect the rest of the world to ever catch up. While Hinton didn’t quite become an overnight celebrity, the then Providence, Rhode Island-based producer benefited from the favorable coverage. He subsequently changed labels and locations--to Domino and Brooklyn respectively--and worked on Nonfiction’s follow-up over the next couple of years.

Entitled Potential, Hinton’s sophomore album operates on a fairly simple premise, taking vocals from amateur rappers and singers found online and affixing them to original productions to yield all-new work. Electronic music artists have been doing some version or variant of this for some time now, yet what separates Hinton’s approach from those countless others is something more felt than heard. It comes through in the first ten seconds of “Regular,” an opening statement of more suggestion than salvo. It shines brightly on “Falling Out Of Phase,” a pop mantra of the sad realities of drifting love. With a single pitch-shifted word, it manifests amid the twinkling keys and scaled back snares of “So.” What Potential captures both in these moments, and really throughout the YouTube-sourced album’s entire duration, is humanity.

One can simulate euphoria with the right series of chords, manipulating emotion in the studio or on stage with the twist of a knob or the flick of a slider. But the way Hinton works with sampled vocals transfers more than just tone or catchy hook. Experimental producer Sasu Ripatti accomplished something similar with the tech-house project Luomo. Released in 2000, his Vocalcity album built delicate tapestries of feels by simultaneously honoring and subverting the history of house music. Ripatti isolated and repurposed the vocalists’ contributions, reassembling them into the fabric of profound new songs in a manner not unlike how novelist William S. Burroughs employed the cut-up method. Its breakout single, “Tessio” scarcely makes sense lyrically while still managing to yield a provocative listening experience.

The closest parallel between that and Hinton’s latest comes on “Florida,” a decisive track that radically reconfigures an acapella cover of an Ariana Grande song. Go back to the original video and you’ll meet Kai, a young woman full of nerves, heart, and talent. Her bedroom performance isn’t perfect and hasn’t been doctored in some studio, but her earnest rendition is unquestionably honest and real--no doubt what Hinton hoped to find while scouring YouTube on end. He utilizes but a fragment of Kai’s chorus for “Florida,” but what he does with it captures its essence, unlocking the meaning and poignancy too often hidden in pop music. Hinton believes in Kai, and they respectively know the power a pop song can have. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we do too.

Notably, many of the vocalists Hinton selected for this project are black voices and women’s voices, those of people far too frequently marginalized in the conversations and happenings of electronic music. At a time when grime is making an auspicious global comeback attempt, he taps virtual unknowns like OphQi and Superior Thought to deliver the news from London on cuts such as the trembling “Five Four.” He gives Jamaican reggae aspirant Naturaliss Potential’s final word on the digital dancehall closer “1804” and puts on teenaged Londoner Kruddy Zak to speak from a young G’s perspective.

Like Ripatti, Hinton only uses what he needs from his initially unwitting but ultimately consenting collaborators. Where the two master craftsmen diverge comes in the musical execution, with the former choosing restraint and minimalism over the latter’s more maximalist indulgences. Hinton’s affinity for piano stabs, scintillating arpeggios, and trippy beats more often than not leads to grand melodic consequences, like the exuberant “Superimpose.” Deeply informed by global bass music, there’s nothing muted about the line that carries “Skeptical.” He’s not afraid to search for genuine joy and hope via his music, nor to spread it by way of a carefully placed sample in a sonic sea of magic, as he does so beauteously on “Retune.”

At the same time, he’s not shy about approaching darker and more somber tones. Hinton conveys so much in his efforts to transmit the myriad emotions that go into trying to be heard in a roaring digital landscape of Internet noise. The very title Potential ought to be taken literally, because what he sees in his collaborators and, hopefully, in himself is that titular quality. Though not all of them seek fame or fortune in the same way--or in some cases even at all--they all wish someone would at least listen.

Potential is a repudiation of both anonymity and celebrity, that smug detached coolness shared by both faceless techno purists and overly branded EDM goons. It is opposite and in opposition to guest list culture and the peak hour exclusivity of clubland. Hinton and his music represent an inclusive, empathetic, and democratic counterpoint to all the vulgar elitism that runs counter to the original spirit. Potential serves as an essential and desperately needed album at a time of hyperactive selfishness and nihilistic hedonism. The Range is the truth, and I hope to God we’re ready for it.

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We love this album so much, we're selling the Range's Potential in our members store, if you're interested. 

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