“Isn’t she lovely? Isn’t she damned?” ask Oliver Elf Army in the lead single, “Olive Wallace,” from their new EP, Goalless at Halftime. While they’re asking the question about the titular character, you could ask the same question of the band themselves. OEA are experts in making music that exists somewhere between being lovely and being damned, and their new EP is no exception.
As readers of Seattle Music Insider are likely aware, Oliver Elf Army are a three-piece band from Everett, WA, made up of husband and wife duo, Martin and Mary Adams, on guitar and drums respectively, rounded out by bass player Henry Yarsinske Jr. Goalless at Halftime finds the band exploring pop culture through their signature brand of satirical dream-pop-meets-garage-rock, but the EP also finds the band asking bigger questions about ambition and purpose.
Oliver Elf Army songs are often the equivalent of a musical oxymoron – and I mean this in the best way. They have an unmatched ability at writing songs that are as equally sardonic and satirical as they are sincere and well-meaning. Opening track “True Norwegian Black Metal” is a great example of this. “I invented/True church burning Black Metal” sings drummer Mary Adams, playing a steady kick drum over driving bass and guitar. “I will eat your brains/Just you wait and see,” she sings in the chorus. As Mary reminisces sarcastically about the exploits of bands like Mayhem, the music holds the tension, never letting on how serious the band is – they fill us in during the outro section: “Do you weep for mayhem?” sings Martin. “No, I laugh at them,” Mary sings in response.
The next track “SuperHenry64” is a short, nostalgia-inducing, electronic interlude that leads into the aforementioned “Olive Wallace.” The track tells the surreal, fictionalized, back-story of Olive Wallace, a neighbor of a friend of the band. The song is a catchy pop-rock tune, and one that you could easily get caught up nodding your head and singing along to before realizing you’re listening to a story about deadly revenge at the dance hall.
“Eno” is a new-wave inspired love letter to none other than Brian Eno, the famous music producer and father of ambient music. The song is driven by a fuzzy disco-esque bassline played by Yarsinske, backed up by sparse drums, delayed guitar, and heady vocals sung by Martin Adams. “You’ve got a mind like a synthesizer” sings Martin about Eno, referencing beloved synths like the Prophet 5 and the VCS3. Oliver Elf Army has never shied away from indulging in more ethereal moments in their music, a musical language undoubtedly influenced by Brian Eno.
Oliver Elf Army likes a good conspiracy. Not the dangerous, new-world-order type, but the fun, “mysterious death of rock stars” type. “Mysterious Death At Pooh Corner” is a song about the death of the late Brian Jones, founding member and original rhythm guitar player of the Rolling Stones. Jones drowned at his home in East Sussex that was at one time the home of “Winne the Pooh” author, A.A. Milne, hence the title. The track finds Martin Adams indulging in the conspiracy that Jones’ death was not “death by misadventure” as per the coroner’s report, but that he was in fact murdered. The track features a hypnotic chord progression played by Martin, while Yarsinke plays a melodic bass line. Underneath, Mary plays a steady and subdued drum beat. It almost feels like a more aggressive Cocteau Twins. The track ends with a guitar lead by Martin. The EP as a whole sees Martin playing more guitar leads, a welcome addition to the usual stripped-down arrangements from the band.
Never afraid of being musical chameleons, “Rotten Juniper” is a… metal song? The track opens with a chorused bass line, kick drum, and a prickly guitar part. For the first 2 minutes or so, the band lets you believe that this is a typical song you might get from them. But then the song splits wide open, breaking into a fuzzed-out guitar riff. The rhythm section meets the heaviness with aplomb – Yarsinske’s bass is thick and heavy, and Adams plays a cymbal and snare pattern that breaks away from her usual role as the steady heat beat of the band. The band has flirted with metal pastiches before (see “Corvette Summer” from 2020’s …Are Sending Thoughts and Prayers), but never to this degree. It feels like an homage to, and an indictment of metal at the same time, again highlighting the band’s ability to expertly sit in this middle area. There aren’t many bands that could pull something like this off, but for Oliver Elf Army, it fits perfectly into their catalog.
Oliver Elf Army know how to write a “last song” for an album. The last song on OEA albums tend to be their most gorgeous and their most sincere. The last song on Goalless At Halftime, “Nil-Nil,” is a beautiful song that is an ode to making the most of the time we have. The guitars are dreamy, the vocals gentle. As the song loops, Martin sings about the inherent worth of trying your best. “Did you play the best game you could? Be proud of that/Because you might not get to say goodbye,” he sings. It’s not sanctimonious, it’s a genuine appeal to remember what we lose when we get caught up in the end-goal. Music often feels like a game you can’t win. It is a world filled with constant talk of “networking” which is a nice way of saying “schmoozing taste-makers.” It can be incredibly demoralizing and can detract from the joy that should be making music. Using sports as a metaphor, Oliver Elf Army remind us that instead of agonizing over the commercialization of art, we should be focusing on doing our best, and having fun. The track ends with a gentle viola part played by 14 year old Amsalu Mitchell – a fitting end to the EP.
Oliver Elf Army don’t make music for tastemakers and they don’t make music so they can play festivals and get riders where they can dictate their favorite M&M colors (though, if the tastemakers and festival bookers knew anything, they’d be blowing up OEA’s email inbox). Oliver Elf Army makes music for playing in basements. They make music for spending time with your family and friends, and the communities that are here to raise up artists. Being “goalless at halftime” doesn’t mean not having ambition, or not wanting, it means focusing on more than the goals. For Oliver Elf Army, it’s better to be goalless at halftime than soulless at the end of the game.
You can purchase “Goalless At Halftime” on the band’s Bandcamp.
See Oliver Elf Army live at Black Lab Gallery, Saturday, February 11th at 8pm with Jackie and Tennis Pro.