First the music: Gunning is very much a songwriter of the Canadian Maritimes, and in this release he revisits so many of the themes we commonly see from that part of the world. In "Living in Alberta" we hear about the displacement of the young people to travel west to look for work. "A Game Goin' On" is another anthem to the joys of hockey. Hard work, hard times and coal are the themes of "Coal from the Train." Gunning also covers homesteading ("The Family Name"), rootlessness ("All Along the Way" and "Too Soon to Turn Back") and the lone musician ("The Weight of my Guitar").
The production is fine, the instrumentation is lovely, and there are some very nice moments here. But "nice" is a word that cuts both ways, and it's hard to get how to write a essay past the studied earnestness of it all. "These Hands" includes a chorus of fifth graders, a bold decision given that it can backfire quite spectacularly. Gunning is hoping for moving, but the result falls closer to Hallmark.
The challenge that Gunning doesn't quite meet is that it's not only that we've heard these themes and concepts before; it's also that we've heard them done more ably.
Allister MacGillivray's "Song from the Mira" does what "Living in Alberta" does, but the former lets us see the tragedy, even if we've never been to the Maritimes, and imagine it for ourselves. Hockey is a common theme in the Canadian songbook, and it's hard to add anything to what has gone before, including Jane Siberry's "Hockey," which in many ways provides both the first and last word as far as pond hockey goes.
And now the packaging: As CDs are poised to go the way of gramophones and 8-track tapes (CDs are oft rumoured to be on the way out, possibly sooner rather than later), one thing we're going to miss is the kind of jacket design that "No More Pennies" has. It was created by Michael Wrycraft, a brilliant designer based in Toronto. He has had a long, celebrated career as an album designer, in part because his work is so varied, so beautifully adapted to the projects that he works on (for fans of cover art, you can waste quite a bit of time looking through Wrycraft's archive).
He brings all of his wit and skill to Gunning's project, creating a beautiful homage to the Canadian penny, which was discontinued this year and will be gradually removed from circulation. The title references that, as does the art throughout this booklet. The cover shows a man at a diner trying to make change for a cup of coffee; the interior takes the idea to all kinds of other places. The CD itself is printed to look like a giant penny, which is nice in the good way.
Wrycraft and Gunning famously got in a bit of hot water just prior to the release of this album because they hadn't sought permission for the use of the penny image, which isn't public domain in Canada the way that it is in the US. The licensing fees were ultimately waved, but not before the album had gotten press throughout Canada, and sparked countless water-cooler discussions.
In all of that -- both in its intrinsic quality as well as the wealth of press that it generated -- it's hard not to feel that the packaging has, pretty much on all levels, upstaged Gunning's content on this outing.