Ohtis singer-songwriter Sam Swinson recently told NME that “there’s a lot of stigma and shame associated with being an addict”, and this is partly what Curve Of Earth, the band’s brief, beautiful debut album, is about. These eight country songs course with pain and regret, although there’s a strong seam of hope and optimism too. And even a few laughs along the way.
The group, from the made-up-sounding Normal, Illinois, comprised of co-founder Adam Pressley and multi-instrumentalist Nate Hahn, formed as school kids, when Pressley’s mum paid for them to press some songs to CD, but it’s taken 15 years for Ohtis to release this, their debut album proper. That’s because Swinson was derailed by a heroin addiction that took him to a religious rehab in Georgia, and led him to live beneath a bridge for a time.
‘Curve of Earth’ addresses this on standout single ‘Rehab’, a joyous pop song, all tinkling piano and country flavoured slide guitar, on which Swinson faces his transgressions but refuses to bow to them. Even his time under the bridge is treated with a lightness of touch, as he beams: “I slept under a bridge / But that makes it sound a lot worse / Than it was.” There’s a redemptive quality to the song, though this is undercut when Swinson satirises the notion of finding salvation in music: “If I sing you this song / will you right my wrongs?”
Elsewhere, his sense of humour is shrouded in so much darkness that it appears to strike from nowhere. The album’s opening lyrics: “Grandpa threw a bag of coon hunt puppies in the burning can / I might have let them starve / Luckily choices like that are luckily left to another kind of man.” Swinson’s lyrics may be Ohtis’ greatest strength, his inky poetry spooling out across the album, spiralling out in unexpected directions. “It was easy becoming a junkie”, he admits on ‘Junkie Heaven’, “wasting all my mother’s prayers and money”.
Besides ‘Rehab’, the most striking track here is ‘Black Blood’, a percussion-led alt-country number that plays out like a short story. “Two days later,” Swinson opens, “he woke up strapped in a hospital bed / Next to another man who wanted to be dead”, offering up a tale of betrayal and addiction that’s all the more powerful when you know he writes from experience. The musical arrangements are gentle but full-bodied, lived-in, full of warmth and pathos.
Mournful acoustic strumming, slide guitar, hushed percussion, strung-out woozy piano – there’s consistency and clarity to ‘Curve Of Earth’; perhaps more than you’d expect of a record 15 years in the making. What this album does, though, is contain the chaos of addiction, crystallising mistakes into something much more beautiful. The result is extraordinary and life-affirming.