CALICO the band is a California band in the deepest, most natural sense of the term. Specifically, the moniker (all caps, please) is shorthand for California country—as if that weren’t vividly apparent from the first moments of Under Blue Skies, the group’s resonant, accomplished sophomore album, with its musical intricacy, lyrical eloquence and timeless immediacy. The thought-provoking, tightly harmonized songs of founder/leaders Manda Mosher and Kirsten Proffit exist in a continuum with the seminal form Gram Parsons famously dubbed Cosmic American Music.
The sound of Under Blue Skies is informed by the duo’s shared love of Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Eagles, the Everly Brothers, Fleetwood Mac and, of course, the Beatles. Their songwriting touchstones include Joni Mitchell (whose “Ladies of the Canyon” they cover on the album), Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, The Band and Tom Petty. Mosher and Proffit feel so connected to this classic music that they’re able to bring it into the present tense and make it their own.
The partners are California natives with back stories so perfectly complementary they could’ve been scripted, the screenwriter inevitably rendering their predestined intersection as “second-generation hippie meets showbiz kid.” Proffit’s parents were nomadic hippies who roamed from Santa Cruz to Majorca, Spain, and back again with their little girl in tow. Mosher’s family on her mother’s side has been in California since the wagon-train era, while her grandfather was writer and creator of classic sitcoms including Leave It to Beaver and The Munsters. One key ingredient the two sets of parents had in common was their record collections, which shaped the two youngsters’ sensibilities in a profound and lasting way.
“We dug in deeper on this record from a songwriting standpoint,” Manda continues. “Because we’ve spent so much time together, we feel more comfortable expressing vulnerability in the lyrics; there are definitely more love songs. There’s certainly meaning to Rancho California, but it’s more broad strokes; on Under Blue Skies, we were able to dig in and get more personal.”
Case in point: “405,” Proffit’s lone solely penned song on the new album, on which romance blossoms against a backdrop acutely familiar to L.A. residents. The chorus goes, ‘We’ve got life behind us, open skies above and the walls of the canyon on either side/In front of us now is a great divide, and there’s nothing between us but the 405.’”
In other songs, the luminous textures of blended voices over stringed instruments counterbalance heavy themes. “Fine Line” considers the delusional state that befall so many aspirants who come to L.A. in hopes of realizing their dreams. “Roll Away The Stone” considers the struggle of overcoming addiction from the point of view of someone who cares enough to share the burden with the strung-out individual. And “Cold Cold Love” is a murder ballad in modern dress about the dark consequences of obsessive love. The linchpin songs also include a pair that ponder separation: “Free Man,” a tonal change of pace on which co-writer Jason Charles Miller trades vocal lines with Kirsten and “The Leaving Kind,” on which Kirsten sounds uncannily like Linda Ronstadt fronting the Stone Poneys.
The new album is further enriched by the mix, conducted with signature artistry and insightfulness by the renowned Jim Scott (Petty, Wilco) through his vintage Neve console.
Mosher and Proffit are the indigenous inheritors—and perpetuators—of a rich legacy, and their vision of California unfolds with widescreen Technicolor splendor on Under Blue Skies.
With Under Blue Skies, CALICO has made an album that slides seamlessly into my alphabetized record collection just after Jackson Browne, Tim Buckley, the Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds. Right where it belongs.