James Apollo’s third studio album follows 2003′s Sweet Unknown and 2006′s Good Grief by starting off minimal and downbeat, like Nick Cave composing a funeral lament for a lost cowboy. Slow, delicate, with fragile acoustic twangs vying for centre stage with Apollo’s distinctive vocals, the song builds to a gentle crescendo before you’ve noticed, enticing you in and trapping you at the campfire.
Second track Better To Be Born Lucky shows a more gentle side than its predecessor or either of Apollo’s previous albums. Country music from the old tradition, before Americana dragged it down dusty roads towards the devil’s crossroads, it sets the scene for the rest of the album: Adam Lazslo from Low is on production duties again but his influence is less obvious this time round. Apollo’s confidence in his own sound has clearly grown.
The result is something that falls not quite awkwardly but not entirely successfully between two camps, a soft-rock/country crossover that was always at his music’s foundations and a more modern, rough-edged minimal Americana that brushes the 21st century with relevance. At times, Hide Your Heart… sounds more old-fashioned than its predecessors but also more accessible to a wider audience. The Latin influences are still there (I’ve Got It Easy, Bad Old Buzzard) as are the Blues (Golden When It’s Gone is a particular treat, mixing Blues miserabilism and Spanish guitars) but some of Apollo’s rough edges have been smoothed away.
The old James is still there – especially on the delicate Beauty Bird and its follow-on Don’t Hurt Yourself Baby – just him and an acoustic guitar, the hint of a band in the background daring you to raise your voice above a whisper that will wipe them out. Towards the end, Home In A Hive is as fragile as the gossamer harmonies of his previous efforts.
Overall though, there’s something missing. Perhaps it’s the semi-permanent move to New York that has smoothed his edges. Or maybe it’s the six months spent recovering from a motorcycle crash in which he broke both his legs – an experience he describes as the best thing that’s happened to him in the last five-ten years – that has made him appreciate life more. It can’t be said that this is a ‘New York’ album, or a more urban album than his previous ones, but something has definitely changed.
Perhaps it’s the loss of a rawness borne of desperation, or of the desolation drawn from Old West dustbowls, or simply that the more albums you make the harder it is for each one to sound new, but Hide Your Heart In A Hive doesn’t quite reach James Apollo’s previous heights. It’s more laid back, more normal, more comfortable – the sound of success and a career that’s now assured. It loses something for this but not enough to write him off. He’s still eminently listenable and worth keeping him in your sights for a good while yet.