Opening Credits

The Old Me vs. The New You

Trust Me

Written, produced, and almost completely played and sung by Jesse Hartman, Laptop sounds pretty much like what it is: A guy alone (mostly) in a studio with a keyboard and different instruments, playing songs that remind him of the songs on the radio when he was first getting into pop music.

On Opening Credits, Hartman seems to be as obsessed by the “new wave” sound as I am, and his songs written with a vision of 1986. But this is not a look back through rose-colored glasses; Hartman sometimes sounds as jaundiced as The Jesus and Mary Chain. Lyrically, he goes to the tried-and-true quarry of pop songs: relationships, relationships, relationships. But his best song’s conceits sprout gold often enough to make it all worth mining again. This album has two nominees for Songs That Would Be Hits, You Know, Were I God. The first is “Greatest Hits,” in which the singer attempts to compliment his current girlfriend by telling her she’s like a compilation of the best of his former lovers. The other is “Nothing To Declare,” which is about returning from a trip abroad without managing to connect with any beautiful strangers. “I looked for love, and all I got…was this lousy T-shirt.” Other interesting pieces include “Another Song,” “Wedding Band,” a deadpan cover of Billy Joel’s (!) “It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll to Me,” and the wistful, album-ending “Fountain Of Youth,” which has got to be about reaching the end of your 20’s. Or maybe it’s just me.

The Laptop represented on the first album is bracing and witty, in the way of much great pop. So you gotta ask yourself, what the hell happened? According to an interview Hartman gave to The New York Press in October, the songs for Opening Credits and The Old Me vs. The New You were recorded at the same time and divided up into two albums. So, supposedly, there shouldn’t be much of a chance for progression. The two discs should essentially sound as though they were parts of a double album. But if what Hartman says is true, why does Opening Credits sound like the synth-pop revival of my dreams and The Old Me vs. The New You like a mistake? Fully half the songs stood out instantly on first listen to Credits, but having listened to New You twice now as I write this, nothing’s as likely to stick around in my head. The music sounds rustier and the lyrics like rehashes, Hartman offering not one but two more songs deriving from phone conversations or messages, for example. The world needs only the best of these at this point; “End Credits” on the first album, was this. “Back Together” and “Social Life,” from the second, are not.

Man, talk about your supersonic world: Joe Jackson took 12 years to make me doubt him, Hartman did it in less than a month. The disappointment of Laptop’s second album after the greatness of his first, and hearing them both so close together, leaves me in a strange place. I don’t know now if I’m looking forward to his next or not… You know what? I do. Hartman’s skills as a songwriter can’t have completely disappeared that easily. The substantial reason for his appeal lies not in his skills as a musician, though they’re fine, or as a singer (he’s got a Phil Oakey thing going on), but as a songwriter. He can write good songs, and I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: That’s what separates the adults from the kiddies in pop.

Its supposed origins aside, I’ll put the second album down to the notorious “sophomore slump” that haunts musicians. On the other hand, a lot of bands from the mid-’80s (still Laptop’s point of reference) only lasted a season, so maybe he’s just recording it as it happened. I hope that Opening Credits represents the A and New You the B-Sides of Hartman’s sound. Here’s also hoping that his next album is another greatest hits, because I’d hate to think I came looking for an artist I could love, and all I got was a lousy one-hit wonder.

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