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Arts in Review

Fred Penner’s new album is here

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Terry Fox, Nellie McClung, David Suzuki, and Margaret Atwood are all great Canadian heroes every child in Canada learns about at some point in their formal education. But for ‘90s kids, Fred Penner was the one they knew best of before they even embarked on their education journey.

Penner’s first album The Cat Came Back, a true classic, came out in 1979 but it was Fred Penner’s Place (out in 1990) that changed the course of a generation. Whether it was hot or cool, most ‘90s kids fell prey to developing their whistling muscles to the album like fools once the sweet sounds of “Gooey Duck” first graced their ears. It’s likely been years since the thought of Fred Penner crossed the minds of anyone from that generation, but his track after track of encouragingly catchy material is still buried somewhere deep down in all those folk’s skulls.

This was the case for me: I had slipped into a dull state of Penner-less life until I stumbled upon a targeted ad for his latest album, Hear the Music. Fred’s voice has the same old sultry tones that lulled my earlier, child self into peaceful playtime or sleep, whatever the setting. My first listen fired up the nostalgia guns for me but the repetitive lyrics of the songs dampened the initial buzz.

I had never realized how Penner’s music drills positive social values into kids in an almost propaganda-ish way. Feel like your kids don’t understand how much you do for them? Throw on “Working Together,” which features lyrics like: “Making the dinner, setting the table, shows that you care.”

I have no issue with raising kids to be responsible, caring citizens — but when it’s done through music like some sort of hymn from the Church of Penner it indoctrinates kids in a weird indirect way that isn’t as effective as other methods. Sit your kid down and talk to them about responsibility or demonstrate it for them; don’t pop on a Penner track and leave it to good ol’ Fred to teach them for you! He may be a trustworthy guy, but he can only go so far.

Despite my complaints, if I could publish only quotes from this album, I would. Each track has a feel-good philosophy bleeding out of it: “Working, helping sharing, working helping sharing, working giving lending, helping each other grow,” Fred sings like he’s throwing down bars from Daft Punk’s “Harder Better Faster.”

Whatever issues I might have with what the method of the album is, I can get behind the message Mr. Penner puts out: “Whoever you are is best of all, don’t try to be someone that you’re not. Be proud of what you got.” This is the kind of thing that would have been great to hear on repeat every time I got strapped in the van to go anywhere when I was a kid.

Another real selling feature of this album for me is that it’s packed with as many featured Canadian artists as Penner could find. Basia Bulat, Ron Sexsmith, Afie Jurvanen (who most know by his stage name, Bahamas), Jackie Richardson, and Terra Lightfoot (daughter of Gordon Lightfoot) are all collaborators on the record. Hear the Music is about as Canadian as it gets, short of K.D. Lang showing up.

I remember finding out what a gooey duck actually was and being soundly disappointed that it wasn’t as cool as what I had imagined it to be — that was kind of how I felt about this album. For kids, I’m sure Hear the Music is still as good to them as his albums were to me when they came out in my day. Kids need the repetitive refrains and simple positive messages that Penner has to share, but for adults this album borders on weird art music. I acknowledge that as an adult this album inherently won’t have the same kind of appeal to me as it might have if I were younger, but Penner’s earlier albums were truly some excellent work. At times Hear the Music borders on “Polly Wolly Doodle” territory — damn, almost 20 years later and I can still tap into the seething hatred I had for that song. Anyways, this shit is like a self-help book for kids and might work a little for adults, too. Dig a duck, dig a duck, dig a gooey duck a day, I always say.

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