[24 July 2007]
My first thought? No, wait, not the very first. It came partway into song two, a track called “Egyser”.
“She sounds like Janis Joplin.”
Then I revised this thought a little, as a person does when they don’t want other people to think that they’re making judgments too hastily. There’s that fear of over-praising, of seeming to be wrong. She sounds like Joplin but. But, not anguished, not mad-passionate, not self-destructive; she screams, and there’s a raw edge to her voice, but it’s not the same. She lets the song rein her in, she doesn’t have the freeform Joplin waaaaaaow! Maybe Janis inspired her, perhaps, perhaps? The answer might be somewhere in the booklet.
It is. Right in a footnote at the back, Andy Votel of Finders Keepers has written: “An operation on her vocal chords [sic] in her late teens would alter the tonal qualities of her voice and she developed an extensive vocal range. After attending a rock festival featuring Janis Joplin and Tina Turner in the late ‘60s Zalatnay discovered new potential in her voice and began to embrace rock and pop music with ultimate gusto.”
Ultimate, absolute, utter gusto would need more waaaaaow!, but the gusto she’s got is great. Sarolta Zalatnay’s easy to love, and so are her songs and the bands that accompany her. (On this album she goes through four of them, all permutations of the same group of people.)
In her native Hungary they know her as Cini, a nickname she picked up when she was still a teenager. (Use it if you’re searching for fan sites.) She was born in 1947 and released her first LP, Ha Fiú Lehetnék, in 1970. (She must have seen Joplin in the April of 1969, during a European tour with the Kozmic Blues band.) On the cover of Lehetnék a doctored photograph shows teenage Sarolta meeting her imaginary alter ego, teenage Cini. Though each are played by Zalatnay, we can tell who is who because Cini has got her name printed in red across the front of her shirt. Embarrassed into disaffection by the sight of Sarolta’s fan-girly knee-pinching, Cini stares into the distance. Affected Hungarians bought Ha Fiú Lehetnék in droves.
“Zold Borostyán”, “Óh Ha Milliomos Lennék” and “Egy Szót Se Szólj”, all taken from that album, are characterized by low-slung guitars, a jazzy piano, and 1960s psyche-rock charm, or as Votel puts it, “the perverted flourishes of second-hand psych exploitation.” In other words, he’s telling us that this was the tail end of Western Europe’s hippie swing finally reaching over the border into Soviet Hungary. Looking at the perverted flourishes from our perspective, decades later, they don’t have the backwardness that “second-hand” implies. The few years separating Cini from her aural peers can be allowed to dwindle and lose their importance. They’re no longer the vital gulf dividing the cool and hip from the wannabe cool and try-hard that they must have seemed back then.
The two bands that appeared with her on Ha Fiú Lehetnék afterwards somewhat melded together (the singer and drummer from Metro joined the bass guitarist from Omega, along with another musician from a third band, Hungária) and formed Locomotiv GT. Cini sang with LGT, and then with an offshoot of theirs called Skorpio. In these post-Ha tracks her ‘60s driftiness has been influenced by something tougher, more 1970s, which becomes especially noticeable on “Sracok Oh Sracok”. She sounds almost metal. Not heavy metal or death metal, but metal in the way that early Rush was metal.
It was with Skorpio that she recorded the three English-language songs that come at the end of this album. According to the press kit, they’re only included on the US edition. Sorry about that, everyone else. Know ye that they are named “The Freak”, “It Would Be Nice” and “Move Over”. Console yourselves with the knowledge that none of them sound as fine as the Hungarian songs, thanks to the fact that they were recorded in Czechoslovakia instead of Hungary and it sounds as if the equipment or the method or the person making the recording wasn’t up to scratch. “It Would Be Nice” is “Egyser” with translated lyrics and between one song and the other the guitars lost more than half of their juice.
Her fortunes have surged and retreated since those days of 1970s Communist-rock stardom; in 2004 she was sentenced to gaol for fraud. In 2005 her attorney remarked that her “outstanding librarian work” was not going unappreciated by the prison management. Sarolta Zalatnay is proof that she deserved a Western retrospective. It’s as good as, but very different from, Selda, Finders Keepers’ last foreign-language femme rock retrospective. Comparing the two albums, it’s noticeable that Cini’s songs don’t have any traditional Hungarian touches to match Selda’s patriotic electro-saz and Turkish folk melodies. Cini had Ultimate Gusto but Selda was seditious, and, although I don’t understand Hungarian or Turkish, I’m betting she was more overtly Marxist in her lyrics. Cini wore a black leather jacket in a photo shoot and posed as everyman’s sexy bad girl; Selda wore plain jeans and a striped top and really was a threat. The music on Sarolta Zalatnay joyfully toes the Anglo-American rock party line. It seems that the Soviet Union wasn’t the only establishment that made people want to submerge themselves in group unity. And rock has lasted longer.