Maura O'Connell

The tag line on Grammy-winning chanteuse Maura O'Connell's Web site reads: "Just a singer." Talk about understatement. Her loamy Irish alto voice is the sort of magical instrument that can take possession of a song and then convey its full meaning in a fashion that's profoundly moving.

O'Connell is the kind of singer who is the songwriter's best friend, and she's got an ear for the best writers and their finest work. On her latest, Walls & Windows, she does three numbers by songstress du jour Patty Griffin. Previous discs have found her putting her indelible brand on material by better-known writers such as the Beatles, John Hiatt, Janis Ian, Tom Waits, Shawn Colvin and Mary-Chapin Carpenter as well as lesser-known monster talents such as Paul Brady and Tom Kimmell.

A veteran of the noted Irish band De Danann, O'Connell is a longtime resident of Nashville who has effectively tapped into the city's amazing reservoir of players and writers that's lurking beneath the crap country surface. Her style isn't folk or country, yet somehow it's both in a way that embodies and melds the best of those genres and pulls in everything else from touches of soul to snippets of Irish.

At a time when great singing is thought to be the vocal gymnastics and fireworks of, say, Whitney Houston (who has spawned a movement of irritating, melismatic oversinging), O'Connell reminds us that the best singers address a song in all its fullness and depth. She zeroes in on the heart of the matter while bringing the composition to its fullest fruition. And she does so with the same understatement that is found in her insistence that she's "just" a singer.

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Rob Patterson