Bonnie “Prince” Billy (or Will Oldham) may still not be a person you can name-drop at parties to get the head nods and recognition of your peers, but he’s still a rare and important breed in the world of indie rock. You can bet most anyone who’s really gotten into Fleet Foxes or My Morning Jacket has at least heard of him and, for those who have really listened, he’s considered something of a treasure. After all, not many other indie folk artists have shown up on best-ever album lists or pulled the attention of famed British DJ John Peel before his passing.
Pond Scum isn’t a new record by Oldham. If you’re on the lookout for a crop of new songs and won’t be satisfied by anything else, this may not be your bag. Instead, it’s a compendium of some of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s Peel Sessions. As a brief primer, the aforementioned John Peel would regularly bring in bands to record versions of their songs as a part of his radio broadcast on the BBC. Think of those NPR Tiny Desk Concerts or KEXP in-studio performances you’ve seen, but with even more street cred. Peel Sessions have been recorded by everyone from Joy Division to Pulp to The White Stripes.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy isn’t really the sort of music you’d normally associate with Peel. He usually went in for post-punk, shoegaze and the weirder strains of Britpop. If anything, that should serve as a testament to the inherent power of Will Oldham’s songs. For the first few tracks on Pond Scum, he’s accompanied by David Heumann, but it’s the rest of the songs on this collection that really shine. From “Beezle” to “The Idol on the Bar,” it’s just a bearded guy and his guitar over the course of 10 years.
Oldham’s style really doesn’t change even though the collection spans a decade of musical development. His style of writing would feel a bit strange if it were constantly evolving though. Its sparseness is precisely its charm to begin with. It doesn’t matter what he plays on his guitar so much as what he sings. His poetry comes through as—if not more—beautifully and poignantly on these versions as it does on the originals. You’re basically getting treated to a live solo performance on record, and that seems like the ideal forum for his songs.
Pond Scum has enough variety to be pleasing to longtime fans and covers enough ground to be a great introduction to the man’s work for newcomers. This one may not end up on many best-of lists this year, but it certainly is a good way of showing why his other records have.