In 1983, Jim Jarmusch released his second film, Stranger Than Paradise. The film would introduce Eszter Balint to the American public. Starring opposite the dryly funny John Lurie, the Hungarian-born actress proved to be the perfect foil to the street smart, know it all, Lurie. The film’s story found Balint playing Eva, visiting her cousin Willie (Lurie) in New York, and eventually involves a road trip to Cleveland and Florida. Over the course of the movie, Eva is introduced to the American cultural and physical landscape (shot in beautiful black and white) and as such the audience gets an outsiders look at the country.
Eszter Balint pretty well disappeared from the public eye after her Stranger Than Paradise, appearing in small roles in independent films and focusing on her music career. In 1999, she issued her debut album, Flicker, on the Scratchie label, which despite critical acclaim, went all but unnoticed. Her sophomore effort, Mud, is a melting pot of American music, mixing folk, punk and country and delivering it with a slightly more polished version of Tom Waits’ boozy swagger.
If anything, this album caught me off guard. The opening of “Pebbles & Stones” was not promising. With a delicately plucked banjo and Balint’s flat voice, I was ready to write her off until from left field, junkyard percussion and Lower East Side guitars confidently strutted into the song, breathing life into the otherwise stale number. Fortunately, the rest of the album doesn’t need to be rescued. “Good Luck” is a wonderfully jumpy number led by some snappy percussion and Balint’s night soured voice. Minimal staggered guitars and gentle keyboard work lead the beautifully hazy “This Lie”. Closing track “Who Are You Now” is the song that’s played as a bar closes up for the night, with a solitary lonely figure enjoying her last cigarette before deciding where to go next.
Lyrically, Balint lives and breathes New York City. There is murder, uncertainty, late nights and people looking for and getting out of trouble. Her only misstep is on the anti-religion tirade “Your God”. Lyrically, the song sounds like something a teenage punk band would write and is simply out of place on this record.
Stranger Than Paradise is a loving, if somewhat cynical portrait of American culture. Eszter Balint, however, seems to have simply fallen in love with America without reservation, particularly with New York City. As the city has become more gentrified and expensive, Balint’s music seems to bring back the romantic New York we remember from movies and books. It conjures memories of the city that didn’t feel bad about staying out late and held their eccentrics close to their heart.
With the more established indie label Bar/None behind Balint’s Mud, here’s hoping that those beyond New York’s city limits will welcome her smoke-filled, sassy, yet casually indifferent release. This is for New Yorkers and would-be New Yorkers everywhere.
// Notes from the Road
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