Dennis Ellsworth’s song “Stoned” is a well-timed ode to the arrival of legal weed in Canada, but also a welcome throwback to ’90s power pop.
October 17 was an historic day in Canada as it became the first major nation in the world (apologies to Uruguay) to legalize cannabis for recreational use. While many radio stations marked the occasion with old standbys like Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It” or Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf,” others found the closing track on Dennis Ellsworth’s latest album, Things Change, to be entirely suitable for the occasion, and provide a little Canadian content to boot.
While some might argue that “Stoned” could be a blatant attempt to capitalize on the Canadian government’s new cash crop, the intent behind it — like the rest of the songs on Things Change — is actually to pay tribute to classic power pop, a style that always seems to define one’s status as a music fan. Sure, everyone loves Cheap Trick’s version of Big Star’s “In The Street,” but how many people get an added warm feeling knowing that each time an episode of That ’70s Show gets re-run, a little bit of money goes to the estates of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell?
The fact is, choosing the power pop path means accepting the fate of the perennial underdog. Granted, a “Go All The Way” or “My Sharona” or “Hey Jealously” may occasionally penetrate into mass consciousness, but with the four-piece, guitar-driven band model becoming increasingly rare, so too are the chances of power pop ever making a full-fledged comeback. Hell, the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame’s annual Big Star snub seems almost a badge of honour at this point. So, against such insurmountable odds, why not just ignore the latest algorithm bullshit and focus on what really matters: doing something really fuckin‘ cool.
Such an attitude exemplifies Ellsworth’s overall approach on Things Change, hammered home by his choice to enlist Joel Plaskett as his producer and chief collaborator. True power pop heads will recall a time in the early ’90s when Plaskett’s band Thrush Hermit was part of a scene centred in Halifax, Nova Scotia (led by Sloan) that gave Seattle a run for its money. Sub Pop even opened a Canadian office briefly to sign some of these bands. In recent years, Plaskett has matured into a more introspective troubadour, but hearing his unmistakably chunky and melodic guitar playing throughout Things Change shows he hasn’t lost any of his flair.
Yet for Ellsworth — a native of Canada’s smallest province Prince Edward Island — his body of work appears to be following an opposite trajectory from Plaskett’s, moving from brooding alt-country to cranking out one irresistibly clever three-minute gem after another. Sadly, many brooding alt-country folks have embraced technology as a way to seemingly make themselves sound more pretentious, which makes Ellsworth’s statement on Things Change stand out even further from the views of indie rock tastemakers. Ellsworth’s new music is meant to make him feel better about his life choices, and subsequently, make us feel better about ours.
One of the strange things that’s occurred in the immediate aftermath of cannabis legalization in Canada for longtime smokers has been the sudden absence of scrutiny and fear. There is no way to compare this feeling of freedom to recent historical events where oppression was toppled, but it’s the closest we’ve come so far in white, privileged Canada. Still, it’s a minor triumph that needs to be celebrated, which is why Dennis Ellsworth’s own minor triumph with Things Change is the ideal soundtrack for this moment. Let’s all take a little time to savour it before getting back to the real fight for freedom.
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