Sitting back as the weather gets colder, the days grow shorter, and the inclination to stay inside grows stronger, you might be inclined to put on some relaxing music that will get you right in the mood for fire log season in no time. If you happen to be in a rural environment or at least have some podunk tendencies, you might enjoy some quiet country music- furthermore, if you’re between 18-34 and consider yourself overly hip, you’ll surely enjoy this new record by alt-country act Ohtis- at least that is what NME has indicated by placing it on their list of The best albums of 2019 (so far!) among other records that will likely be reviewed here soon.
Released on independent record label Full Time Hobby, Curve Of Earth reflects the experiences of a man, singer Sam Swinson, who had first started Ohtis many moons ago before entering into a deadly square dance with Mr. Brownstone and imploding his musical career- picking it back up again once he was finally able to put the needle down. This record we have before us is the end result of a long, hard journey back from the gutter, an act of therapy perhaps as effective as any rehabilitation program could offer (ok, that might be a stretch).
Curve abruptly starts with a slopping, sleepy number called “Pervert Blood”, with Swinson slurring like a backwoods Kurt Cobain with infinitely more lyrical depth: “Give me back the light, make it bright enough to give me a lobotomy/Lord’s grace sends repentance from crack smoke and bath salt and sodomy.” This plea for a purge of degenerate demons is accompanied by ukelele-esque acoustics, simplistic drums and soothing slide guitar, merged together to create exactly the kind of vaguely Hawaiian-sounding wheat field barn jam one would concoct to manifest the sound of being really strung the fuck out. “Runnin”, in the meanwhile picks up into a straight-ahead groove but keeps the mood of the album solidly at chill-but-still-kinda-uppy despite the tragedy described in the increasingly intriguing lyrics.
The vivid story in “Runnin’” details an On The Road-esque cross-country gonzo drug odyssey between Swinson and an unnamed friend, ending in a near-lethal overdose on the part of our dear smackhead hero. The lighthearted mood in which all of these goings-on are sung about is eerily disturbing in that it conjures the image of a man who has lost his care, his sanity or both in the situation- or it’s just his way of getting through it and spinning it positively. In that regard, it’s certainly more of an inspiration to an addict looking to recover than the dreary wallowing of Alice In Chains’ Tripod album. To each their own, I suppose.
By the time we get to “Little Sister”, the continuing on the same key and musical dynamic is starting to get tiresome, strings be damned. “Rehab”, despite still being in C major, offers a bit more of a reprieve from the same old with its upbeat, compelling groove; continuing on with themes of seeking the Lord’s assistance with escaping addiction: “Don’t lose faith in me Lord, Lord I’m not that bad, can’t you hear me repenting, sorry for making you sad”. Swinson also manages to nonchalantly throw in more uplifting factoids from his previous life, for instance: “I slept under a bridge, but that makes it sound a lot worse”, and “when I woke up, I was alive, but in the night someone we loved had gotten drunk and died.” Where regular country stops short at “Jack Daniels If You Please” and “Beer Never Broke My Heart”, alternative country goes the extra distance to say “Beer Might Not Break Your Heart, But It Might Just Stop It.” Responsible, truthful and informative. Give credit where credit is due.
The feedback for “Black Blood” would have been strapped onto the previous paragraph had it not been for the atonal cacophony of what-the -shit that opens it up, gives way to an ascending piano scale, and leads us to the song. It’s markedly different from anything else on the record; for starters it’s in E Major for a change, significantly more lively and musical, and even features a couple of swear words for those that appreciate that kind of stuff. Outside of all that, it’s a straight-forward autobiographical tune, jutting between third and first person and lyrically coming to terms with looming death and responsibility for the damage one has caused. Again, it’s impressive to watch how such immense emotional contrasts between music and words can be made- and effectively, convincingly balanced.
The record switches back to conventional fare- Despite “Diggin” turning back to soft, slow C Major strummery and and not really being about much more than- well, digging, this symbiotic dynamic continues, albeit maybe a bit more synced to the subject matter this time around. Lines like this one certainly stand out: “I don’t know if I love Jesus/I don’t know if he loves me/but I pray the further down I dig it’s Jesus I will see.” Pressing questions such as whether one would actually find Jesus in the dirt or somewhere like the heavens above aside, it’s certainly not a bad song by any means.
We near the end now: “Junkie Heaven” sounds pretty straightforward from the premise alone. Dry, background horns bring us into a nearly drumless sound galaxy for all to roam around in, layered in piano and slide guitar and reminiscent of Southern honky-tonk balladry. After the various trials and experiences detailed thus far, Swinson comes to terms with his negative impact on those who loved and had hopes for him: “It was easy becoming a junkie/Wasting all my mother’s prayers and money/I honestly dreamed once that I’d be the one/Aiming through iron sights and firing the gun.” Out of all the songs on the record, this one is the most hitting and emotionally involved. Family, death, drug use, reconciliation, coming to terms, the needle and the damage done- it all coalesces in this beautiful, wonderfully-textured moment. All that is left is to wrap up on a good note, with “Serenity Prayer” providing exactly that as Swinson finally becomes one with the almighty and kicks the habit: “No more I’m sorry for what I have done, I gave up my selfish self-indulgence and fun.”
Conclusively, the Fear And Loathing In Texarkana journey that is Ohtis’ Curve Of Earth rings out like an addict-in-withdrawal’s version of Bob Seger’s Brand New Morning with its slight, minimal approach to the tales it tells. Odes to new beginnings and bygone memories, along with the central themes of addiction and the holy hand offering a boost out of the ditch run abound on Curve, making for a luminous listening experience revolving around a very relatable topic for one too many unfortunate souls. Lyrically, it does drink from the same general wells a bit too much, and does not show a lot of dynamic diversity. Nevertheless, the push-pull contrasts and bare-bones feeling and honesty that Sam Swinson culled out of himself and poured into this record greatly outweigh the flaws that are present. It will be interesting to see what Ohtis comes up with next after this record, hoping of course that it’s positive this time around.