Recent years have seen a trend of rediscovering obscure artists from the past, with albums being rediscovered dusted off and sold as classics. In some, but not all cases, the works genuinely stand up to reappraisal and although it’s not exactly the case here, Little Glass Box, is an album that very nearly slipped away, before the German label Membran stepped in and persuaded Fraser Anderson to sign the first record deal he’s had in 20 or so years of making music. And thank heavens they did, as it proves to be a bona fide classic.
It’s probably fair to describe Fraser Anderson as an enigma. The Edinburgh born singer and songwriter learnt his chops at the side of the legendary Dougie MacLean, before stepping out with his debut album, and the girl with the strawberry…, recorded in 2003. Critically well received at the time, Fraser landed some key support slots with the likes of Joan Armatrading, The Low Anthem, and somewhat bizarrely Chuck Berry, as he set out to promote the release, gigging around Europe.
Somewhere in the mix, he was much taken with the landscape and lifestyle of Ariège in southwestern France. Settling there, he began to raise a family, performing sporadic concerts to feed and clothe his young children, working very much at his own pace. His self released follow up album, Coming Up For Air, was recorded in Paris and released in 2007. yet despite the low key set up, the album quickly came to the attention of Bob Harris, who much impressed, invited Fraser in for a session.
Bob has continued to sing Frasers Praises and he’s won over another key ally in bassist Danny Thompson, who included Rags & Bones on the album celebrating his career. That track opens this third album and it’s here that the enigma really takes hold. Little Glass Box was originally recorded and released in 2010, but to all intents and purposes just slipped out and Fraser has mostly sold the record himself through gigging, without ant proper distribution. All that has just changed, however, as the German label, Membran, have just stepped into the picture, giving the record the support that it richly reserves.
Still, a recent post on Fraser’s Facebook page is somewhat telling as he admits, “After 20 years of writing, singing and performing and ironically after I stopped caring what anyone thought, it seems things have begun to unfold.” Perhaps there’s an element of surprise in that, but the evidence is Fraser is really energised, celebrating his first ever record deal and playing some sell out shows, that will hopefully see the momentum gather and push him closer to widespread, mainstream recognition.
It’s one of those records that has a classic sound and that in part is down to the instrumentation, production and also the players involved, but crucially, Fraser’s easy and soulful style as a singer and musician gives the hired help a great set of songs on which to display their craft.
Danny Thompson is the veteran of the sessions, once more proving that he picks his projects well, although producer Paul Lilly also fills in on bass. As detailed above, one of Frasers tracks made it onto Connected, the CD documenting Danny’s extraordinary career. There’s a also a video with Danny discussing the various tracks and it seems Fraser was quite emotionally overcome when the bassman started playing. Fraser had been so determined to involve him, he’d even set up studio dates in the UK with Mark Tucker, just to record Danny’s parts.
The rhythm section is completed by drummer Martin Ditcham, a name that has graced many a platinum selling record as a session man, but who also has an adventurous streak, with stints in Henry Cow, Nucleus and Man Jumping, fulfilling jazz and avant-garde leanings. Max Middleton is a keyboard player with a rich jazz-rock pedigree. Only four years and four months Thompsons junior, he’s another with a rich history of session work, making his name with Jeff Beck, before playing with John Martyn and Kate Bush amongst many others. There’s some terrific trumpet and flugelhorn too from Dick Pearce, another of the British jazzers, who became a stalwart of Ronnie Scott’s Quintet through the 80s.
There are also a couple of musicians who like Fraser have made their homes in France. Whilst neither is exactly famous, the Irish mandola player Paul Tiernan has enjoyed a solo career as well as contributing to many records as a session man. Ashley Dow is a highly regarded blues player and half of the duo Rag Mama Rag, with his wife Debbie.
Rags & Bones starts the record and Danny Thompson immediately makes his presence felt. The classic sounds of acoustic bass and guitar, with the mandola adding tasty highlight and minimal brushed drums are given plenty of air. It’s beautifully played and a gorgeous start, as Fraser’s voice drifts up the octaves, hitting a soulful high as he wraps himself around the heartache of the song. It sounds like the dying embers of a relationship are burning in Fraser’s chest as the memories and little details of a break up are revealed with an exquisite tenderness. Lines like, “I’m holding up a photograph that’s holding you,” resonate with regret.
Never Know is an affectionate portrait of what I assume to be Fraser’s grandfather given some of the details of he song. The keyboards start to come into their own with the distinctive sounds of the Fender Rhodes piano adding a subtle solo, blending into the spaces as the acoustic guitar pushes the rhythm along. Vocally it reminds me a little of Blue Rose Code and there is perhaps a hint of latter day Traffic in the keyboard tones, but whatever reference points you find, this is a stunner.
It just keeps getting better as well, as Warhorse opens up with trumpet and again the electric piano, heavy with reverb and that familiar double bass sound seem to stretch the fabric of the song, as it takes a leisurely, laid back wander through the pleasure receptors. It’s beautifully dreamy and so when the whispering voice of Anne Franoise Lacroix comes in the reverie deepens and a weightlessness takes hold.
Grace is presumably also the subject of the album’s dedication and also the Grace Anderson credited with backing vocals, but here Fraser sings, “So hold me close and don’t let me fall from grace,” with a degree of desperation. Paul Tiernan’s banjo and a gentle injection of melodica change the instrumental palate once more as Fraser’s voice again pushes towards the top of his range, sweet and sublime.
There’s more heartache over the next three songs, as in New York as Fraser sings the opening line, “It wasn’t meant to be this way,” there’s an ominous feel. The song somehow perfectly reflects it’s title, as the keyboards and trumpet combine and congas add the beat, over which the bass growls and prowls. It’s brilliantly arranged, allowing Fraser to slip into soulful mode. Photograph keeps the mood, although the sound now starts to get more intense as the guitar spikes the lines with an almost percussive riff and the Rhodes takes on a grungy character. Open Sky slows the tempo again, but once more the opening lines are fraught as Fraser sings, “I was told once if you can’t say something good, don’t say anything, so I won’t write this song about you.”
The title track by contrast is odd, poetic and oblique, setting off as it does with just Frasers voice and a shuffling beat, with little percussive details, which linger on the fringes of the song as first guitar and then banjo and bass pick up the pace. There’s a lift from multi tracked horns, with Fraser’s voice also doubled with a curious spoken part woven into the mix. It makes Waterfall all the more striking as it drops down to just strummed acoustic guitar and Fraser and Grace singing in harmony. A couple of minutes in, the Rhodes adds another telling contribution as the song starts to unfold with a subtle layering of instrumental textures.
Only A Boy again features the classic sounds that have come before, although without the piano, as the combination of acoustic guitar, with the deep woody thrum of bass, and the mournful horn create the perfect backdrop as Fraser explores his weakness. It’s a surprise then when the acoustic piano opens up Your Love with an expansive intro that drifts towards the blues. The track picks up brightly with guitar and banjo and it’s here that the slide guitar also features as the sound fills out again. It’s the acoustic piano again that voices the last song with Fraser singing “I would bleed my soul dry to see you fly,” as the mandola adds little details and also provides an unexpected solo to bring the album to its conclusion.
This is a lovely, lovely record. Sure, it’s a little sad eyed and languishing in love’s fallout, but it’s beautifully put together. Fraser has one of those voices and the sounds are just superb, the mix of instruments and the skill of the players is a heavenly combination. It’s further proof, should it be needed that Danny Thompson has an uncanny knack of picking his projects with care and wisdom. I’m sure that as overwhelmed as Fraser was to have the legendary bass man on his record, Danny will be thrilled with his own involvement on this record. Little Glass Box really is that good.
Review by: Simon Holland
Little Glass Box is released via Membran on 10 November 2014