It seems like a lifetime ago that Christopher Coleman and The Great Escape released the magnificent ‘The Great Tasmanian Escape’ in February 2022 (reviewed here), which rose to the top of the pile in my favourite antipodean albums of 2022.
In the intervening time, Christopher Coleman retreated to a shed in nipaluna/Hobart and wrote and recorded a series of tracks with limited resources and engineering experience. It is almost as if the heat and light generated by the critical response to ‘The Great Tasmanian Escape’ led to a resistance by Coleman against replicating and carbon copying the process, tearing up the playbook and starting again.
In contrast to the previous album with its broad expansive story-telling, ‘Soft Knees Recordings’ is raw and deeply personal, internally focussed and autobiographical. And yet what remains is Coleman’s tangible connection to his environment – the wild and rugged, breathtakingly beautiful lutruwita/Tasmanian terrain. There is a detectable brush of americana and alt folk with the delicacy of the acoustic guitars and slide guitars, lush harmonies and a languid, louche pace.
This album is born from the freedom and naivety that comes from making something you don’t intend to
share. It’s both careless and considered; these were my mantras and meditations of 2023.
‘Soft Knee Recordings’ ultimately delivers something quite special – there is an ethereal element to it, evoking a sense that we are being invited into such a profound and deeply moving personal world that we almost feel like an intruder in Coleman’s mind.
Coleman has expressed a desire to shun the normal commercial and strictly mechanical timetable for this album, eschewing the normal drip feed of promotion with singles, reviews and launch dates. He refers to each track as a precious resource, reflecting their importance to him, their role as little morsels of his fertile mind:
I’m releasing them softly, too. Like you might offer flowers to the river. No singles, shows or interviews; no flower or weed more important than the other.
There is a deep melancholy that flows through every track, a heart breaking veracity that reflects the vicissitudes of life – the role of his family and friends, the deep recognition of the land and the First Nations peoples irrevocably connected to it. Coleman evocatively expresses these sentiments:
The majority of these recordings were made in a shed 200 metres above sea level from timtumili minanya, the big river running south through lutruwita; a proud island shaped like a crooked love heart where the next stop is Antarctica.
This land was stolen by my ancestors and continues to be occupied by us. I will always benefit from this theft as will the aboriginal people remain disadvantaged.
I dedicate this collection of songs to those who sang and loved on this island before we came, and to their sons and daughters who only get stronger.
The opening instrumental track is a sonic capture of this – entitled with modesty ‘An Attempted Acknowledgement of Country’. The term ‘Acknowledgment of Country’ is a ceremonial opening to all public meetings in Australia, of which Reconciliation Australia states:
Incorporating Acknowledgement of Country and Welcome to Country into meetings, gatherings, and events shows respect by upholding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural protocols.
Taking the time to Acknowledge Country, or including a Welcome to Country at an event, reminds us that every day we live, work, and dream on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lands.
It is a small but important element of recognising the First Nations people in Australia, and Coleman sensitivity reflects this in his opening track.
The title track has a jingle jangle bounce with sparkling guitars and glorious harmonised vocals imbued with an air of longing. The title ‘Soft Knees’ seems to reflect the level of humility that threads through the album: a rejection of arrogance. ‘Closer’ follows suite with a gentle reflective tone and a pitter patter background of gentle piano and shuffling drums. Coleman’s vocals are raw and unashamedly Australian. ‘So Long Baxie’ has an air of The Kinks with its bitter sweetness and backing vocals sweeping across the horizon, picking up pace to an almost jaunty trot with the slide guitars etching the edges.
‘For My Whole Life’ has an almost country and western twang – simply Coleman’s vocals and a strumming guitar and piano, whereas ‘Song For BD’ has a grandiose atmospheric feel inflected with a little self-deprecatory sense of humour about sleep and indolence. ‘Seaweed’ is a brief nursery rhyme interlude with some backing vocals from a child with an easy aquatic theme. ‘Song For Juno’ has a Jimmy Webb/Glen Campbell lilt with sweet melodies.
‘Referendum’ is a look outwards at external tragedy – referring to the recent referendum on the rights of First Nations peoples’ voice to be formally recognised in the Australian Constitution, which was cruelly rejected. There is appropriate melancholia and hurt in Coleman’s delivery as he ponders the way forward. It’s a beautiful track that hides a burning fuel of anger hidden deep down in the anthemic delivery and with the synth drone creating a haunting buzz.
‘Headwinds is an ethereal and epic track – beautiful and statuesque that stands the hairs on the back of your neck up. Haunting backing vocals, a deeply profound piano riff and Coleman’s soft yearning vocals layer up to create something quite stunning.
‘Shave My Hair’ lifts the pace to an almost jaunty pace as Coleman talks of changing surfaces – a palimpsest perhaps for starting over anew: a fitting theme, in away, to the album as a whole. This is another masterpiece.
‘Soft Knee Recordings’, out through Oscar Treehouse Records, is another magnificence release from a very important artist.
All songs written, performed, produced and mixed by Christopher Coleman between 2020-23 except for the following contributions from some of the finest luminaries of the music scene in lutruwita/Tasmania:
So Long Baxie
Features The Colemans (backing vocals, bass) Jethro Pickett (slide guitars) and Scott Targett (organ, tambourine)
Mixed by Jethro Pickett
Recorded at Rolling On the River, lutruwita
Song For BD
Written by by Ben Salter and CC
Features John Coleman (backing vocals)
Recorded by AZ
Song For Juno
Features Jethro Pickett (lead guitar)
Features The Colemans
Recorded and mixed by Jethro Pickett at Rolling On the River, lutruwita