A bout of Millennial Pride here: the 90s was a great decade for growing up. I’m sure everyone can say the same for their own respective decade; whether you were listening to Simon & Garfunkel on vinyl before we made it cool, or you were going out to a stadium packed by fellow Zeppelin fans, we all had a reason to enjoy the music of our adolescence.
The kings and queens of 90s music were the boy bands and girl groups, though I could never really get into either. While they catered to the Nick Kid in each of us, the emotive flows of the early Trip Hop movement, navigated by Michael Cretu of Enigma and helmed by groups like Massive Attack, brought with it minefields of nuance and suggestion. Trip Hop was rife with adult puns, even down to album titles (Extra Virgin? Really? It’s no wonder Madonna’s label Maverick was involved in the production of Trickle). We didn’t have the raging testosterone of the mid-80s hard rock to usher us into adulthood; the sexual awakening of the 90s was accompanied by us quietly leaving behind our Nickelodeon-print sleepwear and discovering our sexuality not with lion roars, but rather a more curious, “Oh? …Oh.” (as in, “Now I get it,” you prude). It was the rediscovery of the double-entendre, starting with the very word “adult,” and how that meant “sexual” as much as—if not more so—than anything to do with age.
In brief: Olive and Enigma were to this young writer what “50 Shades” was to the early twenty-teens.
I remember hearing my first bit of Trip Hop in the back of my sister’s Sundance on the way home from school; it was an Enigma song on a Pure Moods album (you remember those?). Michael Cretu had a new follower in the first electro-breeze chorus of “Return to Innocence,” but it was more than a year later, by way of Enigma’s compilation album Love, Sensuality, Devotion, that I was introduced to the voice of Ruth-Ann from Olive.
Olive’s music isn’t really what I would call classic. It’s more, in a word, awkward, because it came—like many things on the cusp of the millennium—during a straddle phase in development. Like early cell phones and MP3 players, Olive ran with Enigma and Massive Attack in that early stage of Trip Hop where the sound didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be yet, and the elements matured in different veins over the next decade.
There are a few tracks on Trickle (2000) that have hints of the kind of minimalistic sound that The Xx would end up using in their own ventures into the musical domain, and on more than a few, there’s a warbling synth that wanders in and out like that artsy friend at a party: too loud to ignore, but not imposing enough to demand an introduction. You can hear this from the very first sound in “You’re Not Alone,” though in that song’s case, the syncopated synth became the iconic hallmark of the song—it’s included in virtually every remix. In a few more years, that idea of the warbling synth would perhaps gain enough confidence to become the womp womp of the dubstep movement, reducing the contribution of talented muses like Ruth-Ann to catchy phrases sampled in the sections between the electronic vomit (yes, I went there). Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
I feel that if someone was to go back and re-edit Olive’s tracks, either removing some of the supporting electro-bass to bring the vocal tracks to a more Xx-type sound, or—alternately—to take the synth into overdrive and just remix the tracks, Ruth-Ann’s voice itself is powerful and yet clear enough to fit into either genre.
Sadly, we haven’t heard much of Ruth-Ann lately; Cretu produced an iTunes digital album (What About Us?) which is worth checking out if you’re as much a fan of that late 90s emotive synth-pop as much as I am. But even if you’re not, no matter what genre she lands in, one must respect the allure of her voice, and the command Ruth-Ann has over her instrument. I still love listening to Olive (and Enigma and Massive Attack and all the rest), and I always look forward to seeing what this artist has to offer.