Album Reviews

Bonnie Prince Billy – Pond Scum

(Drag City) UK release date: 21 January 2016

Bonnie Prince Billy - Pond Scum It can be quite a challenge to keep up with Will Oldham, better known as Bonnie Prince Billy. In 2016 alone, he has recorded an experimental collaboration with Bitchin Bajas, an entire album of Mekons covers under the name Chivalrous Amoekons, contributed to a Grateful Dead tribute album and a migrants benefit album, reissued a long out-of-print EP from 16 years ago, and released a live album collaboration with Trembling Bells. On top of that comes this compendium of long-lost sessions that Oldham recorded for the BBC’s legendary John Peel show between 1993 and 2001.

Typically, Peel had become a fan of Oldham from the earliest Palace Brothers releases in the early ’90s, and supported him throughout the litany of name changes that followed. And like so many others, the sessions that Oldham recorded for him presented his songs in a markedly different context to that found on the studio recordings.

Perhaps the most striking example comes with the performance of Death To Everyone from a session recorded just months after the release of I See A Darkness. In contrast to the stark, harrowing album recording, this session version is warmer and more vocally expressive, with Oldham’s voice seemingly on the edge of breaking throughout, and a strangulated, crying backing vocal shadowing him to further crank up the emotional drama. Even sticklers to his classic 1999 record will surely find fascinating nuances to explore here.

The other absolute stand-out on Pond Scum is the re-working of (I Was Drunk At The) Pulpit, originally from the 1993 Palace Brothers album There Is No One What Will Take Care Of You. Where the original is incredibly spare and minimal, this session version is recorded more like a lovelorn Americana classic, with twinkling guitar patterns and a husky, soulful vocal. That Oldham was toying with both of these styles during this periods is in itself interesting, and casts the choices made on those early releases in a new context. Included too is his esoteric cover of Prince’s The Cross, which actually makes more sense through his lens than it ever did on Sign O The Times.

The art of reinterpreting his own material is far from a new avenue for Oldham to explore. The 2014 release A Singer’s Grave A Sea Of Tongues, 2012’s Now Here’s My Plan and 2004’s Greatest Palace Music are just three examples of him taking his own previously recorded compositions and finding a second life for them. This, by definition, becomes largely an exercise for existing fans to revel in, and certainly in the case of this release, only those well versed in the further reaches of Oldham’s ’90s output will derive the full experience. Tracks such as The Houseboat (O How I Enjoy The Light and Stable Will were only ever included on limited edition singles, and two tracks come from an EP from 2000 that he recorded with Mick Turner from Dirty Three. Completists will be in their element. For everybody else, with a few exceptions, these tracks do not carry the same interest as a brand new set of songs would.

For those yet to fully acquaint themselves with Oldham’s body of work, this album might not be the ideal entry point, but it is a beacon to remind you that you must do it at some point. For those who have, this is yet another iteration of the shapeshifting Oldham character, once again reinterpreting and recontextualising his own creations.

buy Bonnie Prince Billy MP3s or CDs
Spotify Bonnie Prince Billy on Spotify

More on Bonnie Prince Billy
Bonnie Prince Billy – I Made A Place
Bonnie Prince Billy, Bryce Dessner & Eighth Blackbird – When We Are Inhuman
Bonnie Prince Billy – Pond Scum
Bonnie Prince Billy @ St John-at-Hackney, London
Bonnie Prince Billy – Singer’s Grave A Sea Of Tongues