Many of us have retreated into hobbies and pastimes to deal with the stress of nearly a year of self-isolation and pandemic-related restrictions.
Quinnipiac English professor and poet Ken Cormier has taken it a step further, using his spare time to single-handedly create an indie pop album full of catchy hooks, wistful lyrics and masterful production value.
It’s been more than a decade since Ken Cormier released his previous album “Nowhere is Nowhere.” Being a full-time professor and raising two boys tend to put the kibosh on a steady output of material. Still, Cormier said he managed to find snippets of time to work on his music.
“There’s a spot where I’ll say, ‘Oh look, people are out of the house for a half hour, maybe I can run down and record that part that I have in my mind,’ and I’ll come down here and just do two or three takes on the drums,” said Cormier. “Around the fringes of life I’ll be able to sit down now and then and add little parts, and eventually over the course of a few weeks maybe a song can be finished.”
This piecemeal approach yielded “Old King Cloud,” an album written and produced by Cormier. In fact, he played all of the instruments on the album as well. Former Hartford Courant rock critic Eric Danton writes about music for Rolling Stone, the Wall Street Journal and Pitchfork. He has high praise for Cormier’s new work.
“I’ve been writing about music for a long time now, and the number of albums I am truly excited to tell people about seems to have dwindled, and this is one that I just felt like I wanted to tell everyone about, said Danton. “It’s a record I’m excited about.”
In Danton’s blog “listen, dammit” he notes that “Old King Cloud” veers away from the experimental and “gloriously weird tone” of “Nowhere is Nowhere,” with songs that are more melodic with “an idiosyncratic bent.” Danton said Cormier balances the indie pop tightrope perfectly -- songs that are melodic with some edgy surprises, well-crafted without sounding over-rehearsed, solid instrumentation and in particular, catchy lyrics.
“The feel of them, the flow of them. The images that he creates with them really sticks with you,” said Danton. “Over here you have this really great melodicism, over here you have these really great lyrics, over here you have that combination where it all comes together in one package. These songs hold together as a cohesive whole that you don’t always find.”
There is an overarching sense of poignancy or wistfulness that seems to bind these songs together. Ken Cormier dedicated “Old King Cloud” to his older brother Bobby, who died suddenly in 2019. Cormier said Bobby’s memory looms large on this album.
“So, we were always creating music, writing together, but whether I was collaborating with him or not, he was the person I would bounce ideas off of, I would let him know what I was working on. He’s there all the time, especially when I’m working on music or any sort of creative project.”
Bobby Cormier’s influence comes through in the song “Look in the Mirror,” where Ken Cormier borrows a line from an old recording he found of his brother. Likewise, in the song “Nineteen Eighty-Five,” Cormier incorporates sounds from old recordings he and his brother made when they were roaming Bristol’s Birge Pond Woods as teenagers.
“In the middle of the woods there was this cement cylinder that sort of sticks up through the ground with a cap on it that you could take off,” said Cormier. “We went down there and sometimes we’d bring a boom box and record. And so, I decided to use that recording, instead of playing a guitar solo in the instrumental break in the middle of the song I decided to bring in a few recordings from the bomb shelter, so you get a little bit of the sense of the raucous noise and stuff we’d make down there in the bomb shelter."
The album culminates with the title track, “Old King Cloud.” Cormier said the song came to him in a dream.
“I was in a room, maybe somebody’s apartment, but all of the furniture had been cleared away except for a few upright pianos. My sense was everyone I had ever known, especially people I had played music with were all there. It felt like my brother was there, my friend John Burke who had also died the year before. It was this cathartic moment where we were all singing together, and we were all singing ‘old king cloud.’ And I woke up and ran downstairs and got my digital recorder and just set it up in the room.”
So, I asked Eric Danton -- how does “Old King Cloud” stack up against other recent indie pop albums put out by more well-known bands?
“That’s a good question, I mean if I were one of those bands, I’d probably be jealous that this guy that does it as a side project comes in with the first album he’s released since 2009 and it’s amazing,” said Danton. “First of all, for him to have played all of the stuff on his own, and to stick with the time signatures when they get weird, and to layer the instruments the way he does. If he wanted to, he could probably be an indie rock producer.”
“Old King Cloud” is available for digital download on Ken Cormier’s Bandcamp page.