Review of Pond Scum Album by Bonnie 'Prince' Billy

Like his musical output, Will Oldham is a difficult man to pin down. While he is constantly re-recording and reworking old tracks for new projects and collaborations, he himself has morphed through the monikers of Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Music and Bonnie "Prince" Billy. Pond Scum is a collection of songs spanning eight years' worth of John Peel sessions, touching on material from his Palace Music years as well as some of the earlier Bonnie "Prince" Billy tracks.

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy Pond Scum Album

Taken from the Palace Brothers LP There Is No-One What Will Take Care Of You, the opening track '(I Was Drunk At The) Pulpit' has a much less frantic tone than the original recording. The accompanying guitar line follows Oldham's stumbling vocal as religious confessions are interspersed with hedonistic pursuits. Similarly, the following track 'Death to Everyone' touches on the themes of religion and faith which feature prevalently throughout Oldham's work. The fatalistic opening line 'I am here, right here, where God puts none asunder' progresses into haunting reflections on the inevitability of death, before Oldham concludes that 'Death to everyone is going to come, and it makes everything much more fun.'

While Oldham's rambling poetry can usually be trusted to draw on interesting themes and address subjects others might shy away from, the real joy of Pond Scum is hearing Oldham take the opportunity to deviate, often significantly, from the original versions of the songs. Save for the first four tracks, on which David Heumann plays lead guitar and contributes backing vocals, the album is delivered solo. This lack of accompaniment not only gives Oldham a license to take the tracks in any direction that takes his fancy, but it also results in a pared-back sound which lends itself to many of the songs. 'Jolly One (2-15)', for example, which originally appeared on the collaborative EP with Marquis de Tren (aka Mick Turner of Dirty Three), is transformed from a fragmented, experimental number into a gentle, drifting ballad. Oldham's solo rendition also pushes the track's self-reflective lyrics to the foreground. The discussions of singing and the act of songwriting in lines such as 'I know you take pleasure in my singing' and 'my life is just to sit here and sing these songs that have no purpose' become particularly pertinent when performed with just vocals and a guitar.

While familiar tracks are reworked and reframed, the record also offers snippets of unheard Will Oldham material. The previously unreleased 'Beezle' features discordant, minor chord strumming that wouldn't sound out of place on Bonnie "Prince" Billy's I See A Darkness, while a cover of Prince's 'The Cross' is delivered in Oldham's distinctive, wavering vocal, adding a playfulness to the ominous lyrics.

Although a pleasurable listen in its own right, the value of Pond Scum is found in relation to the album material it touches on. The tracks are intriguing because of the ways in which they differ from the original album recordings and the ways in which they are tailored to suit the studio sessions and the lack of accompanying musicians. The album also furthers the ever-evolving nature of Oldham's music. A Will Oldham track is never finished, each one is always up for re-evaluation and reconsideration.

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