Nuala Honan – ‘The Tortoise’ Album Review

Tortoises are fascinating creatures. They have shells to shield them from predators, hardened mottled husks protecting something fragile inside. On this basis, The Tortoise is a perfect metaphor and title for Australian country artist Nuala Honan’s debut album.

Over the course of 11 rootsy country-folk songs, Nuala reveals both a vulnerable interior and a toughened exterior. The Tortoise is a battle between sadness and defiance as she explores the ways in which relationships form, deepen and break apart. Although Nuala’s lyrics occasionally land upon clichéd reference points of rivers, suns and sailing ships, flowers that wilt and die, it is her  voice that renews their relevance, gives them authenticity. When she sings it communicates the complexities of a whole range of emotions and makes you believe that these sad vignettes contain truth. On ‘Wake and Howl’ for example, she sings: “We’ll watch the fires rage, and I will burn by your side” and you don’t doubt that she means every word.

Like Kit Hawes’ evocative outback desert-blues guitar on ‘Wake and Howl’, the instrumentation on The Tortoise is always sympathetic to the themes. The music either holds you close as the words seep in through a slow osmosis or opens up lonely desolate plains for you to lose yourself in. Most notable is Aaron Catlow’s intuitive fiddle playing which is superb, in particular on epic closer ‘Please Don’t Raise Your Voice’ and the upbeat ‘Needle and Thread’.

The Tortoise is at heart a Country record: acoustic guitar, viola and fiddle usher in big swelling choruses with all the hallmarks of Nashville. But within this there are important revisions like the soulful ‘Miss You Always’ and the minimalist Bill Callahan-esque ‘All Is Not Lost’. Sometimes the tracks are warm and bluesy, imbued with an old-timey shuffle, other times a campfire intimacy is evoked as a confessional cathartic hush settles.

Across all its moods and evocations, The Tortoise is a focussed and highly accomplished debut record. Although it is an album by an Australian living in England, written and recorded in a close-knit Bristol community, it deserves American success. Nuala’s voice possesses a quality unique to the most successful Stateside Country music stars, capable as it is of being both big and bright but also achingly tender. If The Tortoise can make it across the pond, who knows what might happen.

The Tortoise is available on CD & MP3 via nuala.bandcamp.com

Words: Tom Spooner