Olive – Extra Virgin

History – and probably a lot of the people reading this now – will remember Olive as a one-hit wonder. They brought us the fantastic You’re Not Alone in 1997, got to number one, and then faded away into obscurity.

Unfortunately, none of that is entirely true, and history has definitely dealt them a raw deal. The trio finally managed that number one on the song’s second release, and follow-up Miracle never even managed the upper reaches of the charts, despite coming out on three separate occasions and being, frankly, brilliant.

It’s Miracle that opens the album, in a slightly more subdued, seven-minute form, and it really is the massive hit that never was. Maybe the timing was wrong, or perhaps everybody had already had enough of Olive by the time this came out for the last time in late 1997, but it does feel like a great shame that this wasn’t more of a success than it was.

This Time comes next, a softer, more laid back piece. If you haven’t already, it will be around this time that you reach the inevitable realisation that singer Ruth-Ann Boyle is a truly excellent vocalist, and a couple of years later would lend a hand on Enigma‘s fourth and fifth albums before working on him with her solo album What About Us in 2003.

Chilled is definitely the mood here, but with some pleasant dub and slightly trippy influences from time to time as well, and so Safer Hands was hardly likely to break any particular boundaries, but it’s good nonetheless. Then Killing is strange in a way, both excellent and also very repetitive – there’s only one vocal line the whole way through, but accompanied by a whole lot of dub reverb and effects, it’s rather brilliant too.

After which it’s finally time for You’re Not Alone. Make no mistake, the singles are the best things on this album, but there is more than just one. Of course, if you bought this album wanting just thirteen renditions of that one song, you would inevitably be disappointed – you might even be disappointed that this one isn’t quite as lively as the single was, as the drums, much of the energy in this track, don’t actually turn up until nearly two minutes in.

But it’s still a fantastic song, and the album version is every bit as good as the single you remember, just in a slightly different way. This more spacious version allows you to appreciate Ruth-Ann’s vocals a lot more, and to really get to the bottom of just how great this song actually is. Twenty years old, and it really doesn’t sound it.

Falling is one of the stronger album tracks, a sweet and understated love song, which carries us through to the third single Outlaw. This one was only released once, as the follow-up to You’re Not Alone when that had finally reached the top of the charts, and apart from that, this is probably the most contemporary track on here, with its trippy drum and bass rhythm and catchy vocals.

There is also, despite the descriptions here, plenty of variety. Not in an in-your-face way, but the gentle trip-pop of Blood Red Tears is followed by the harder (but still soft) drum and bass of Curious. Then You Are Nothing is pure pop – and probably would have been the fourth single, if they hadn’t been concentrating so hard on trying to turn the same couple of tracks into hits again and again.

That just leaves two tracks – Muted, a trippy instrumental, and I Don’t Think So, a great little song driven by acoustic guitar. The lyrics are brilliant – love the life you lead, just lead the life you love? I don’t think so. It’s an excellent way to close the album.

Well, not quite – if you leave it playing for a few minutes, you get the accompanying version of You’re Not Alone to the single – this time, all the drums have been removed to create something rather ethereal and wonderful.

Twenty years on, Extra Virgin still sounds fantastic, and it’s a shame that history only leaves us with this, and its song-laden follow-up Trickle (which never even saw a proper release in the UK). But if you can find it, Extra Virgin is still worth a listen. Even if the title is a little on the silly side.

There are a number of versions of Extra Virgin available – the original release, which features a different version of Outlaw, a double CD release, and the Extra Virgin+ reissue which came out later. That’s probably the one to go for, although it omits the bonus track.

Olive – Trickle

The first thing that might come as a surprise here is that Olive actually recorded a second album. True, they shed a member after the enormous success of Extra Virgin (1996), or specifically the mega-hit You’re Not Alone, which peaked at number 1 the following year. But in 2000, they did return, with the much more pop-sounding Trickle. It was never released in the UK, and it wasn’t exactly successful, but surprisingly it is actually rather good.

The first track is one of the more subdued, the sweet Love Affair. Full of enormous pads and what might in another world be slide guitars, it’s also punctuated by some very lively drumming, coming together as a great mix.

The title track Trickle follows. If you’d only ever dipped into Olive, you might be forgiven for not having realised what an exceptionally good singer Ruth-Ann Boyle actually is. It’s songs like this one – which might have given another vocalist an excuse for a fairly mundane recording – on which she really comes to the fore.

Then comes the one and only single, which is something of a sad fact, although it was pumped full of largely dull remixes. The cover of I’m Not in Love is great though – Boyle’s vocal gives it a haunting quality which wasn’t entirely there in the original, while the slightly trippy pop backing endows it with energy too.

Songs like Smile might on any other album be rather dull, but on this one, it comes together beautifully, again allowing Boyle’s vocals to bring it to life explosively. All You Ever Needed, which follows, has less charm, but still has plenty to enjoy. Ultimately, it’s the slower pieces that grab you the most, as the lovely Indulge Me demonstrates, with its wavering Hammond organ and gentle beats, but ultimately songs like this were never going to be enormous hits.

This is perhaps where Trickle comes unstuck – it’s beautiful, and it is commercial, but it doesn’t quite fit with what the music industry wants us to be listening to – it’s that odd niche genre of relaxed pop music which radio DJs all insist is boring.

But it really isn’t boring, as the wonderful Speak to Me reminds you, and Liberty must be one of the best songs on here, despite the fact that practically nobody has ever heard it. It’s enough to make you very cross indeed.

The faux-orchestral introduction to Push is one of the odder moments now, fifteen years after this album originally saw the light of the day. If you picked up on the lack of Tim Kellett‘s legs on the front cover, you might be reading yourself for something more disturbing, but this is really as close as it comes, and only then because the synth string sounds have suffered the ravages of time somewhat. It’s still a great song.

No such fears for Thank You, with its enormous bass part, or the lovely Creature of Comfort, and then we’re nearly at the end already. The closing track Beyond the Fray, the closest to actual drum and bass that this album really gets, is brilliant, a perfect way to end an hour of music. If you don’t count the quieter and less exciting hidden track Take My Hand, that is.

So Trickle turns out to be a great second album, and a sadly overlooked gem. And sadder still, it would be the last we would see of Olive, save for a few side projects from each of the members. That’s definitely our loss.

Import and download copies of Trickle are still widely available and well worth owning.

Beginner’s guide to Olive

In 1997, the three-piece jumped straight to the top of the charts with the fantastic You’re Not Alone. In 2000, Madonna decided she rather liked them and signed them to her record label, despite the fact that by this time they were just a two-piece. Finally, the one-piece Ruth-Ann Boyle released her solo album in 2007. But for a little while, Olive were one of the finest acts of the 1990s.

Key moments

Getting to number 1 with You’re Not Alone, and sneaking onto the charts with follow-up singles Miracle and Outlaw, and having minor US success with the only single from the second album, their cover of I’m Not in Love.

Where to start

There are just two albums to pick from, and it would be tempting to suggest starting with the other one, but it’s Extra Virgin (1996) that includes all the hits you’re looking for. Try to find the later Extra Virgin+, as the additional remixes are rather good.

What to buy

Follow it up with the follow-up, 2000’s beautiful Trickle, before tracking down singer Ruth Ann‘s solo Enigma-produced album What About Us (2007) to hear her voice at its best. You could track down the singles for You’re Not Alone and Miracle if you fancy them, but make sure you get the third release of each.

Don’t bother with

Most of the early singles, or I’m Not in Love – some of the remixes are interesting, but they’re largely uninteresting.

Hidden treasure

The single version of Miracle, which is considerably better than the original, and some massive names turn up among the remixes of Outlaw.

For stowaways

Enigma – The Screen Behind the Mirror

There’s a lot to like about Enigma‘s fourth album The Screen Behind the Mirror (2000), but the opening track The Gate is not among its finest moments. Four albums in, and Michael Cretu was still starting every album with exactly the same synth effects. This has a bit of added drama from Carmina Burana, but that’s not entirely original either.

Push the Limits, the first proper track on the album, is. This is what happens when Enigma does dance music. Admittedly the single version didn’t really cut the mustard, hence ATB‘s remixes, which did help on the commercial side of things.

After Le Roi est Mort, Vive Le Roi! (1997), undoubtedly the most defining album of Enigma‘s sound, it wasn’t really clear where Cretu would go next. He had said originally that the project would be a trilogy – the record company had even released a nicely packaged Trilogy set – and this would be the fourth album. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that The Screen Behind the Mirror follows very closely in the vein of its predecessor.

But with Gravity of Love, the first of several collaborations with Ruth-Ann Boyle (formerly of Olive), he really is at the peak of his game. Boyle is an exceptional vocalist, and this is really pop, in the purest sense, but full of weird offbeat ethnic samples and influences from classical music, built as it is around more samples from Carmina Burana. Most of all, though, it’s also an absolutely brilliant song. Also, the path of excess leads to the tower of wisdom, apparently.

Similarly Smell of Desire, which is a typically beautiful instrumental. This album is going very well indeed by this stage, although the lyrics bothered from 1990’s Mea Culpa could really be dispensed with on here.

It’s at this point that the album seems to lose some of its momentum. Cretu’s own vocals always jar slightly with his own music, which might be part of the problem with Modern Crusaders. The appearance again of Carmina Burana, and the guitar wankery probably don’t help enormously either. Ultimately, this track and Traces (Light & Weight) are both a bit of a mess. A pleasant mess, but a mess nonetheless.

A rather uncomfortable segue takes us into The Screen Behind the Mirror, a much more pleasant and straight-laced instrumental with weird processed vocal samples as the main melody and some more borrowed vocals, this time from Gravity of Love. Repetition is the key here, apparently.

Endless Quest, too, is pleasant, although it’s back to the echoey panpipes of old. It’s difficult to know what to say in retrospect really, because the follow-up Voyageur, which saw Cretu really trying to innovate and change his sound, was so fundamentally awful. But it’s also fair to say that ten years into the project, The Screen Behind the Mirror saw him largely retreading old ground.

Then come the awful Camera Obscura and the forgettable Between Mind and Heart (as in “lies the hand, which must mediate”), with more even more helpings of Carmina Burana and very little that we hadn’t heard before. It’s left to Silence Must Be Heard to save the day, and it really does that with aplomb – another collaboration with Ruth-Ann Boyle, it’s truly fantastic, and definitely one of the best tracks on the album. It’s a great closing track to an album which is something of a mixed bag.

The Screen Behind the Mirror has a lot going for it, and you do find yourself really wanting to like it – if only it had contained a little bit less repetition and a few more original ideas.

You can find The Screen Behind the Mirror at all major retailers.

Chart for stowaways – 2 August 2014

This is potentially the last of these somewhat delayed charts before we finally catch up to the present day, but here’s the album chart from a few weeks back…

  1. William Orbit – Strange Cargo 5

  2. Röyksopp & Robyn – Do it Again

  3. Bent – Ariels

  4. Client – City

  5. Massive Attack – Protection

  6. Kraftwerk – Minimum Maximum

  7. Kraftwerk – The Mix

  8. Kraftwerk – Computerwelt

  9. Front Line Assembly – Improvised Electronic Device

  10. Ruth Ann – What About Us

Retro chart for stowaways – 11 August 2007

Here are the top 10 albums from seven years ago this week:

  1. Chicane – Somersault
  2. Recoil – SubHuman
  3. Komputer – Synthetik
  4. Ruth Ann – What About Us
  5. The Chemical Brothers – We are the Night
  6. Enigma – A Posteriori
  7. Air – Pocket Symphony
  8. Marsheaux – Peeka Boo
  9. Groove Armada – Soundboy Rock
  10. Sarah Nixey – Sing, Memory

Enigma – Voyageur

This week sees the anniversary of the release of two Enigma albums – the first we looked at yesterday; the second was ten years ago. Voyageur was their (well, strictly speaking his, for Enigma is mainly Michael Cretu) fifth album, following the first “best of” compilation which had been released a couple of years earlier.

The opening track is From East to West, which opens softly enough, working its way into the traditional wah-ha sound which had, at this point, opened every Enigma album since time began. An extremely chaotic drum beat arrives, and then the main track begins. It’s pleasant enough, but the drums are totally distracting, and out of sync with anything else you hear, leaving the end result as a bit of a mess.

The title track Voyageur comes next, and although the album version isn’t as good as some of the alternative mixes on the single, it isn’t bad. There’s a good pumping bassline, a bit of wailing from Cretu, and a bit of French whispering. In fact, monks aside, it’s got most of the ingredients of classic Enigma, but even so it falls a bit flat.

A bit of scatting is always good. If you’re recording a jazz record, which Cretu wasn’t. He also never seems to have understood that his own vocals don’t really fit his music particularly well, and hiding them under a whole load of effects doesn’t make it any more ethereal or dreamy, it just renders them incomprehensible. So all told, to call the third track Incognito a bit of a mess would be doing it rather a large favour.

Cretu has said before that he doesn’t really listen to “modern” music, and so it’s difficult to judge quite what the purpose of Voyageur was. He obviously wanted to break away from all the mediaeval chanting and whatnot of the preceding four albums, but he also seems to have struggled with the right direction, fusing pop with… well, whatever you would call this.

Page of Cups is similar – it’s got some pleasant elements, but it’s also entirely pointless and doesn’t really go anywhere in particular. Not only that, but it fails to go anywhere over a duration of seven minutes. That’s a lot of filler, even for a chillout album!

Boum Boum, with vocals by Cretu’s long-term collaborator Ruth Ann Boyle (formerly off of Olive) is probably the closest this album gets to a pop song, and despite the rather vacuous lyrics it’s pretty good too. Of course, the Chicane remix on the single the following year was considerably better, but the original is certainly the best track on the first half of the album.

After that it’s back to being lousy. Total Eclipse of the Moon is a brilliant Enigma title, and also one of the worst tracks he’s ever recorded. Fortunately it’s pretty short, although the ending does make it sound as though he just got bored half way through writing it (I wouldn’t blame him). Then Look of Today, in which Cretu seems to narrowly avoid accidentally covering ABC‘s The Look of Love, is a little better, but not a lot. Its bass line does make up for some of its other failings, such as the vocal, the lyrics, the melody, the manic drumming, and… well… the entire rest of the song.

Another experiment Cretu tried with this album was with the packaging – the booklet is largely round, which is certainly distinctive. Unlike the semi-transparent Le Roi est Mort, Vive le Roi! sleeve (1997) I don’t think the intended effect is really achieved.

Let’s pause for a moment and contemplate In the Shadow, In the Light. Just because it’s the best track on the album, and is entirely deserving of a bit of extra contemplation. It may not be up to the standard of the first few albums, but that’s OK – he’d been churning out that monk-based stuff every year or so for a decade and a half. Ignore that, and this track is very good indeed. The vocal is from Andru Donalds, another of his regular collaborators.

Then you get the pointless and dreary sound of Weightless and The Piano, and finally you’ve made it to the last track, Following the Sun. For this one he brings back Ruth Ann for another outing. Again, the lyrics are largely drivel (“Following the sun, the golden one,” seems an unnecessary distinction given the number of suns that most people revolve around), but the melody is good, and it’s a nice enough song. And after that, the album is over already.

It’s difficult to say exactly what went wrong with Voyageur, but it certainly seems to have missed its mark in a very significant way. I suspect the fairest thing to say would be that this one is for completists only.

You’re probably best to go with the download version of Voyageur if you really want it, as the CD has become rather expensive. Start here.