SotD: Five Man Electrical Band, “Signs”

Yesterday I served as Worship Leader during our Sunday morning service at First Christian, Georgetown. Part of that job is to issue the invitation to offering, which I did thusly:

Those of you who are my Facebook friends are likely aware that I regularly post there about popular songs from the 70s and 80s. Well, today I have a confession to make, but before I do, it would help for me kinda do a Facebook-like thing about a 70s song.

“Signs” by the Five Man Electrical Band, a group from Canada, was a big hit in the summer of 1971. (Some of you a little younger than I might remember instead the cover by the hard rock band Tesla from 1990.) For those of you not familiar with it, the song has a distinctly hippie vibe. Its main conceit is that the narrator is frustrated by signs of exclusion that he sees all around him: they say things like “Long-haired freaky people need not apply,” “Anybody caught trespassin’ will be shot on sight,” and “You got to have a membership card to get inside.” But then, in the last verse, he spots a sign with a different kind of message: “Everybody welcome. Come in, kneel down, and pray.” When the time for the offering comes, he realizes he “didn’t have a penny to pay,” but he doesn’t let that hold him back, saying, “I got me a pen and a paper, and I made my own little sign. ‘Thank you, Lord, for thinkin’ ‘bout me, I’m alive and doin’ fine.’” (Show ‘my own little sign,’ fold it, walk over to a deacon, put it in collection plate, return to lectern.)

So, my confession: this isn’t the first time I’ve done what I just did. About 18 months ago, I heard this song on a Sunday morning as I was getting ready to come here. That inspired me: unbeknownst to my wife, right before the offering that day, I got me a pen and paper, made my own little sign, and put it in the plate. I’ve been wondering what the Trustees thought when they came across it counting the money!

And now, my point: as we come to this time in the service, even if we aren’t putting any pennies in the plate as it’s passed today, we can give thanks that God is indeed thinking about us and look inside to consider what kind of sign we might display to reflect those thoughts outward in the coming week. Let us give, and plan to give, with joy.

Here’s to displaying signs of goodwill to those we encounter in the coming days–the world could use much more of that.

SotD: Fastball, “The Way”

Last week I heard “The Way” for the first time in a while. I love the song, but it’s hard for me to listen to it without thinking about an NPR story I caught back in 98 about its origins. In a bit of a strange coincidence, today I came across this article in the Washington Post with some haunting similarities. While it’s touching to consider the love these couples shared, my heart aches over their final moments and the pain visited upon their children.

The video was one of those bright, overexposed mishmashes that somehow works put together by McG in the late 90s: see also Smash Mouth, Sugar Ray, or “One Week” by Barenaked Ladies.

SotD: Ben Folds Five, “Best Imitation of Myself”

In fall 95 I spent a weekend in Ft. Wayne, IN, playing at a regional bridge tournament with my friend Mark.  On the way home that Sunday night, I caught a show on the radio featuring Ben Folds Five, a mix of interview and in-studio playing.  I still remember three of the songs they played: “Underground,” “Philosophy,” and “Song for the Dumped.”  The first two of those were featured on their debut disk; the third was recorded later for the follow-up.  I was impressed enough to go out and get the disk, and it’s become one of my all-time favorites.

I remember back in college my friend Warren claiming that Making Movies by Dire Straits might be the greatest album of all-time by a trio; I’d think about making the case that Ben Folds Five (featuring only piano, bass, and drums) deserves to be in the conversation.  It’s got melody and hooks galore (“Philosophy” includes an homage to “Rhapsody in Blue”), interesting off-beat topics (an interview between Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali, the mosh pit scene at clubs), and maybe most of all, energy, confidence, and flair.

My top track on BFF is this one.  It’s a witty take on the question of “who’s really behind that mask?”

SotD: Lord Huron, “Dead Man’s Hand”

In poker, a “dead man’s hand” generally refers to a specific case of two pair–aces over eights–thought to be Wild Bill Hickok’s holding when he was killed. This song is…not about that.

Instead, it’s a sort of ghost story. I picture it taking place in the Four Corners region, maybe around Monument Valley.

I first encountered Lord Huron a couple of years ago. Strange Trails is their second full-length album; the haunting Western sound you encounter here permeates it (the final track, “The Night We Met,” was featured in the recent Netflix series 13 Reasons Why).

SotD: Sufjan Stevens, “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”

I wish this song were three-to-four times as long as it is.  The haunting piano line, the unusual time signatures, the understated vocals–it all adds up to one mesmerizing tune.  The images provided by the person who posted this to YouTube only enhance the experience.

There are several great tracks on Stevens’ Come on Feel the Illinoise–I’m suspecting others will appear in the space eventually.

SotD: Maria Taylor, “Song Beneath the Song”

Ms. Taylor is absolutely right that subtext is important and “true meaning” is often not as it might first appear.  I fully expect there’s a song beneath my song in some (much?) of what I think, feel, and write.

Sometimes, though, that top layer is awfully nice, as it is here.  It’s another one of my Pandora discoveries.

SotD: Vulgar Boatmen, “Katie”

In August 91, my last year of grad school, I moved into an apartment with my friend Greg.  It was a bit of an unconventional situation: Greg was married, and his wife Katie was moving to College Park, MD, to pursue a doctorate in applied math at the university there.  He was a couple of years out from finishing his own degree in EE, so they decided to live apart until he got done.  Greg and I had become close friends over the previous 18 months due largely to our mutual interests in bridge and music, and I was the obvious choice for a roommate, at least for that first year.

Early on, Greg suggested we share a “Song of the Day” with one another each evening.  While we certainly didn’t follow through on it every day, it was a great way to expand each other’s musical horizons.  I suspect this ritual had an influence on the direction my tastes evolved in subsequent years.

In that spirit, occasionally, maybe even somewhat regularly, I’ll post a Song of the Day here.  Since there’s usually a tune spinning around in my noggin, I likely won’t lack for material!

While I don’t remember if this was ever officially one of Greg’s choices, I know he introduced it to me.  I purchased Pop Beloved by the Reivers around this time and when Greg heard their version of “Katie,” he no doubt soon afterward popped the original, by the Vulgar Boatmen, into the CD player for me to hear.