In the curious world the digital technology of today has fostered (or perhaps more accurately, fomented), the contemporary solo artist has been afforded the deliciously alchemic ability to thrive in a vacuum. It is a dangerous power to wield. Absolute power is purported to corrupt absolutely, and recklessly creating a singular world where the opinions of others matter little can produce horrific results. A few taps into your favorite search engine will yield ample evidence of ear-violating corroboration of that fact, but those that are able to rise through the murk and take advantage of the platform can do big things outside out the aegis of the dying hulk of today’s music industry.
Christopher Browder definitely has made the best of those possibilities. Performing under the nom du project Mansions, the Louisville, Kentucky, native Browder has released a raft of material over the last five years. Initially gaining notice via the Interweb and self-released tour CDs, he eventually released his debut, New Best Friends, through Doghouse Records in 2009. New Best Friends garnered Browder a host of said same, setting the web aflame and garnering Mansions a bumper crop of blog love and mainstream press. A spate of remixes and EPs followed in its wake, as did last year’s well-received b-sides comp Best of the Bees, fueling anticipation for a follow-up.
Well, the wait is over. Full-length number two from Mansions is called Dig Up the Dead, and from the opening title track, it is obvious that stately Browder Manor is haunted by the ghosts of its owner’s past relationships. The figurative exhumation has spawned a musical Pandora’s box of regret and self-flagellation. Bon mots like “I have never been free but I have always been cheap” underscore the melancholia with a filigree of humor, but Dig Up the Dead is rife with images of yelling, leaving, and starting again. The ambient washes of electric angst that open the record set an angst-ridden tone with an acoustic bed before “Blackest Sky” ups the rock factor with big rock guitars and a raging coda. “Not My Blood” piggybacks off the track previous, churning up a big Billy Corgan meets the first Sunny Day Real Estate record guitar hook. They are the only two tracks on the record to feature outside bass and drums and, as such, rock the hardest and most convincingly.
While much of the backing on the other tracks may have been layered piecemeal, the conspicuous keyboard loops of New Best Friends are absent for the most part, reflecting the Mansions live incarnation that purports to sport a more conventional band backing Browder. A recent live show that found a guitar-wielding Browder backed by keyboard/laptop jockey and bass playing girlfriend seems an ill-advised way to promote material as solid as the songs here, but Dig Up the Dead translates, whether it be in fleshed-out form or through the acoustic version of this record available from the Browder web presence.
The average artist has nowhere to go to but down with their second release, and most do just that, but Dig Up the Dead avoids any question of Mansions feeling the sophomore slump quite nicely. In addition to writing all the material, Browder recorded and mixed all of the songs on Dig Up the Dead, with only a scant few guest appearances and production assists. The record sports a big sound, one polished enough to calls into question the promo materials that claim that most of the songs here were recorded solo in various houses and apartments in the Louisville and Winston-Salem areas. Given the volume of home and small indie studios in both of those areas, I guess it’s not all that improbable, but that niggle aside, all of the songs here are rock solid, establishing Christopher Browder as a top-notch songsmith and Dig Up the Dead as one of the most solid pop records you’ll hear this year.