Mud’s consistency is difficult to define. It’s not really a liquid; that category is reserved for dirty water. But it isn’t completely solid; then it would just be dirt. Mud, Eszter Balint’s sophomore album, has an equally difficult identity crisis; she sounds like both an overproduced Ani Difranco and an underproduced Natalie Imbruglia. Her songs aren’t consistently folky enough to give her a Bonnarooian quality, but she doesn’t quite play friendly radio pop. Such is the crisis of a singer/violinist/guitarist born in Hungary and raised in New York City and Hollywood.
Balint’s talent lies primarily in her songwriting rather than in her apathetic-at-best vocals. She has a knack for riffing, and her violin lines fit seamlessly into the textures. But her lack of attitude and identity probably explains why her decades-old reputation stems from her indie-film acting career and from collaborations with other random musicians in New York and L.A. rather than from her solo recording career, which consists of Mud and 1999’s Flicker.
The songs on Mud are of a healthy variety: “Pebbles & Stones” is mellow country with the electric rock edge that Robinella and the CC String Band occasionally hinted at but never truly delivered. “Good Luck” is as funky as I’ve ever heard from a Hungarian singer. “No One” has a Latin feel that breaks from the straight-ahead blues flavored rock rhythms of the songs that surround it.
The only problem is that Balint’s voice staggers like a drunk leaving a bar at 2 a.m., ready at any point to trip over itself and land on the concrete. It’s a shame, too. Her songs are structured enough and her backing musicians solid enough that if she sang with some emotion, Mud might be a little less … well, muddy. Unfortunately, Balint’s voice has about as much conviction as that of a bored Stephen Malkmus. When she sings “Shut up, I’m talking now, you sit” in “Your God,” I think I might actually rather hear it from Linkin Park.
Fortunately, the album’s variety is at least moderately redeeming, and though Eszter’s voice wavers, she’s obviously sure of her songs. It’s a relief to know she’s not just treading water in a tepid pool of formula pop. But when it comes down to her folk and blues roots, she seems to be stuck in the mud.