Maura O'Connell,
Walls & Windows
(Sugar Hill, 2001)

What does it mean to be a female vocalist today? I remember a time when they were people along the lines of Billie Holiday and Judy Garland. After a while, however, it seemed that practically anyone could be a vocalist; the day of the chanteuse was gone. Who's the vocalist today? Is it the pop diva dressed in a skin-tight evening gown pouring out her emotions? The barely out-of-her-teens singer/dancer showing off her midriff? When categories such as singer-songwriter shut out the performers who don't write their own material, where is the niche for those singers who interpret other people's material in such a way you don't find yourself longing for the original?

Maura O'Connell hasn't fit neatly into musical categories for a while. Her singing career began when she took over the vocalist duties for De Danann in the early '80s. She's performed traditional Irish songs from her native land; she's worked with bluegrass and country artists such as Jerry Douglas, Dolly Parton and Rosanne Cash. She tends to reside in the generic folk-rock category, with little glimpses into bluegrass, pop and traditional music along the side.

For this album, she's chosen a diverse group of songwriters to interpret. Three Patty Griffin songs are joined by ones composed by such stalwarts as Eric Clapton, John Prine and Van Morrison, among others. Her cover of Morrison's "Crazy Love" is worth the price of admission in itself. It's a risk to cover such a well-known song that's apt to invite comparisons to the original. However, comparing and contrasting the two versions merely makes it clear that Morrison is an excellent songwriter, and O'Connell can execute his song to great effect. O'Connell states that she's performed this song live for years because "there's such pure joy in it." In her hands, it is a distinct celebration of love.

Prine's "Sleepy Eyed Boy" becomes a slow lullaby in her hands. O'Connell also revises Clapton's "I Get Lost." In her notes, she states that "Clapton did it with almost a bossa nova feel to it. But I heard it differently." Perhaps that's the difference between being a singer and an interpreter. While Clapton fans may prefer the original, no one can claim that O'Connell hasn't worked to make her version distinct and original in its own right.

Of the Griffin songs, "Poor Man's House" is the one that really stands out; it's one of the album's strongest tracks. O'Connell's soul is in this song about the cycle of poverty, and the mix of electric and acoustic guitars only adds to the intense emotions. The instruments never overwhelm her voice. Her own instrument is always right there; it's as if it's in front of the other instruments and is definitely the featured artist.

Another selection that joins "Poor Man's House" in terms of sheer strength is her cover of "Blessing" by John Hall, Jonell Mosser and Johanna Hall. The latter starts with lyrics taken from the traditional "Old Irish Blessing," fitting for O'Connell. "May the rain always fall soft upon your fields," she begins, singing a cappella. From there, a jazzy acoustic guitar gently accompanies her. There's a jazz feel blended with Celtic styles featuring a bodhran and uillean pipes. She claims to have sung it at both funerals and weddings. While that statement might seem paradoxical, "Blessing" does feel appropriate for both rituals.

O'Connell doesn't play any musical instruments on this album. She didn't write any of the songs. She's "simply" the vocalist. And what a vocalist she is. Her rich, earnest and seductive voice is an instrument unto itself, and her renditions of the songs she performs are both artistic and compelling.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 6 April 2002

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