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There are enough words on any given Bonnie 'Prince' Billy album to supplant a review of this nature. If there's conclusions to be made about life, death, love, religion, suffering, or alcohol, Will Oldham has already made them. If, like most, you've been struggling to pin down Oldham's myriad of credits over the last twenty-odd years, this is a perfect record to start. Pond Scum touches highlights of his career, as recorded over the course of several Peel Sessions that could have easily been lost in the echelon of his discography. This retrospective theme not only breathes life back into the songs with new arrangements, but it feels as if Oldham is setting them free; just in case we hadn't previously realized that they each stand well on their own.

As a result, Pond Scum's words are scattered seemingly at random. It's more difficult to trace its origins than even Yo La Tengo's retrospective collections. Oldham pulls from his Palace Music moniker, his real name, his pen name, and even a couple of tracks from 2000's Get on Jolly split EP with Mick Turner. One of these tracks, here called 'Jolly One (2/15)', stands as the albums woodsy centerpiece where Oldham gorgeously discusses the act of singing and songwriting itself: "And my love spreads wings/like a glad bird flying over the road." The track is cut a little shorter than this sweet rendition, but its short nature adds to its intimate message.

If you can drop the retro lens through which it's easiest to see Pond Scum, the pieces come prettily together. Take 'Trudy Dies' at face value, and it seems like another Drag City rambling. Looking closer, there's exceptional prose: "I haven't known sorrow for so many years/with no foe to fight/death's all I fear." Death is mentioned elsewhere, and Oldham flips its polarity on I See a Darkness rework 'Death to Everyone', smartly playing the minor keys and song titles against the content of the lyrics. "Since we know our end will come/it makes our living so much fun." On 'When Thy Song Flows Through Me', Oldham further softens the blow of human sadness, instead contending hopefully that "life is sweet, and death a dream." Without giving these songs requisite time, they could seem bleak. Thankfully, it doesn't take much listening to realize that the opposite is usually the case.

There are more immediate moments as well. '(I Was Drunk at the) Pulpit' is a funny tale about just that: stepping through a congregation of people, down from the pulpit and only slightly ashamed of inebriation. Even after several songs about death comes a cover of Prince's 'The Cross', which is filled with revelatory Christian imagery complete with vibraphone overtones that coat the song in sweet salvation: "We all have our problems... soon all of our problems will be taken by the cross." It takes Prince's sexual coo and turns it into an alternative folk warble a la Jeff Mangum and the scene he stood on Oldham's shoulders to bring into the light.

John Peel's production on these tracks is rightly pristine. Though Oldham is often married to the acoustic/vocal set up, Pond Scum bathes the otherwise barren tones in soft light. David Heumann's electric additions on the first four tracks don't increase the dynamic as much as nestle peacefully between the acoustic spaces. Following is the previously unreleased 'Beezle', which eschews the acoustic entirely: "Now I will say what I needed to say/destruction of hate begins today," sings Oldham over forlorn chording. Here and again on 'Jolly One (2/15)', the sound coming through is crystalline, and it's clear that the Peel/Oldham pairing was a no brainer throughout the six sessions that Pond Scum culls from.

Pond Scum works in the past as well as the present. Without remorse or the idealization of history, Oldham's past lives are tangible and ready to crack open like a book. Though it offers only one "new" song, Pond Scum freshly adds (even more) depth to the Bonnie 'Prince' Billy cannon as if it were another studio album. Looking at Oldham's enormous discography at a distance, it may as well be.

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