Album Reviews

Bonnie “Prince” Billy: Pond Scum (Drag City)

bonnie prince

In the 1990s, well before the advent of file-sharing, the Internet was inundated with email discussion groups dedicated to tape swapping. Yours truly was and still is a big enthusiast of Will Oldham, who was then trading under variations and iterations of the word “Palace.” Much more of a big deal in Europe than in the US, one of his more popular tapes included a collection of BBC and VPRO radio broadcasts. It was always hoped that these sessions would see official release, yet there was something quite special about the traded tape feel of it all.  Pond Scum, under the regular moniker of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, isn’t exactly the complete Palace Peel Sessions. It’s not even close. Moreover, only one of the three sessions compiled here is from the Palace days. Don’t worry about the name; most of these songs are Palace numbers, and Will Oldham is Will Oldham no matter what the name on the tin happens to say. Hearing “(I Was Drunk At The) Pulpit” and “Arise Therefore” sung nearly a decade after they first appeared and years after the retirement of Palace is revelatory, as Oldham had by then become a masterful performer. Compare them to the last five songs offered here. Recorded in the early 1990s, it’s his second Peel session, and the vulnerability in his voice—not exactly weak, but nowhere near the angelic world-weary voice of the first selections here—adds a powerful dimension to then-new compositions “Trudy Dies” and “Stable Will,” while a cover of Prince’s “The Cross” is downright beautiful. Pond Scum might not be the complete document of his Peel sessions, but it’s far from being a completist’s-only set, too; this is Will Oldham at his finest, and serves as a fine, fine entrance to the Palace Oldham.

Pond Scum is out now on Drag City.

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