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Gifts or Creatures' Pilot House invites listeners to Sail Along

Jammie-nominated Gifts or Creatures' debut album puts Americana in uncharted waters
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Gifts or Creatures Jammie Nominations

Gifts or Creatures has been nominated for several WYCE Jammies nominations. Including, Best Album for a New Artist, Best Americana Album, Outstanding Female Artist, Outstanding Male Artist and Best Production/Engineering. The Jammies will take place on Wednesday, February 15 at the Intersection in Grand Rapids at 5:30 p.m. The event is free of charge.

/Sean Patrick Cook

The view from a pilothouse is dynamic for even the most weathered skipper. Changing currents, landscapes and climates extend seafarers an almost irresistible invitation to keep coming back. In their inaugural album of September 2010, titled Pilot House, Brandon and Bethany Foote of Gifts or Creatures find themselves at the helm of a coastal vessel that rocks and sways its way along a steady course.

Brandon and Bethany wed in fall of 2009. Each brought a background in music to the marriage. The child of a musically-oriented family, Bethany was raised playing piano and singing in front of her congregation; Brandon calls his approach more “grassroots”—he took to guitar in high school, landed a college—now full-time—job at Lansing’s Elderly Instruments and explored from there. Since then, he has experimented with American bluegrass, country, folk, even French gypsy jazz.

The Foote’s musical ventures began with their marriage. Before the wedding, Brandon hardly recalls a musical past with Bethany. Now, he says, the couple lends intention to creativity.

“Bethany and I have made it a point to live in a space that allows the creative process to flow. Reading, writing, and music take precedence and we intentionally give room for it in our life together,” said Brandon.

Brandon handles a majority of the band’s songwriting and plays guitar (a Gibson-made, Kalamazoo flat-top, 6-string), while Bethany accents Brandon’s vocals with a subtlety that refuses to be ignored. She played most of the album on a 1970’s Wurlitzer, a wedding gift from Brandon. Also contributing to the band is percussionist Ty Forquer, a doctoral student at Michigan State and Ian Gorman, known also for his work with Kalamazoo-based Red Sea Pedestrians. Pilot House also features a host of local artists, including Drew Howard, Sam Corbin, Trevor Hobbs, May Erlewine and Seth Bernard.

Their collaborations only intensify Gifts or Creatures’ severely local thrust. Brandon’s list of influences, in fact, begins and ends with in-state artists. Pilot House was released with Earthwork, a Michigan music collective intent on fostering local musical production within the state of Michigan.

Gifts or Creatures’ local emphasis is also reflected in its lyricism. Pilot House’s second track, “Mail from the Wescott,” which introduces the phrase “Pilot House” to the album, sings of the Detroit River and “what the Rust Belt gave to me.”

Brandon, who studied earth science and environmental education in college, says of his local influence, “The Great Lakes region is indeed a daily personal influence in my life… Bethany and I feel strongly that Michigan is sacred and worth fighting for.” It is for that reason that Gifts or Creatures sings so regularly of the geographic: waterways and landscapes play a starring role in the oeuvre of Pilot House.

The album is consistent in the sense that Gifts or Creatures’ maintains its characteristic sound throughout the 13-song album. The band’s website describes Gifts or Creatures’ sound as “a unique blend of Americana.” In manifesting that sound, the melodies vary significantly from one track to the next. Look no further than the instrumentals. The third piece, "Ravenous Fur," is a rambunctious, schizophrenic bit delightfully in the territory between polka and waltz. “Three Brothers Waltz,” by contrast, recalls a distinctly American ballad, suggestive of the Old West and, in doing so, challenges and ultimately overcomes its title.  The contrast in these two instrumentals represent the album’s fluctuation between upbeat, twangy pieces and tender lullabies.

One thing that remains constant is Gifts or Creatures ability to package intricate harmonies and lyrics in an appealing, simple-seeming package. Brandon, who says he prefers two-minute songs to lengthier five-minute pieces, is being modest when he says the band’s shorter pieces are due only to his “somewhat short attention span.” Gifts or Creatures’ short, simply-bundled tracks are another expression of the group’s local, intimate approach to music.

The lyrics, on the other hand, are reaching, ambitious and, occasionally, timeless. In his songwriting, Brandon often reckons with fables and historical accounts.

“Old world stories and varying historical narratives really move me,” he said. “Wolf of Gubbio,” for example, musical retells an ancient Christian narrative:  Saint Francis of Assisi’s taming of a predatory wolf outside the Italian city of Gubbio.

Gifts or Creatures’ lyrical characters are aptly developed and inspire repeated listenings. The opening track, “Weimaraner” is a multi-generational reflection from its opening line “Best get some of my recipes/ Before I’m gone,” to its repeated credo “My sons drink too much.” Taken together, these two lines evoke images of a nostalgic maternal figure reflecting on her own progression from child to mother. The image works in concert with album’s broader themes, which Brandon lists as “the post-industrial complex, cinematic soundscapes, the Great Lakes region, and simplistic, Mid-western living.”

All of that is captured in the album’s second track “Mail from the Wescott.” The song depicts the J.W. Wescott, a small United States Postal Service boat on the Detroit River. Together, Brandon and Bethany sing of “the view from a pilot house,” placing themselves on a musical sojourn that is locally-driven, varied in its sound, but all the while consistent. In their historically-based lyrics and uniquely Mid-western sound, Gifts or Creatures invite the listening ear to float along.

“The phrase ‘Pilot House’ evokes the image of us at the wheel, navigating on the open water,” said Brandon. Listeners won’t pass on the opportunity to ride along.

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