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Calico serve up sunny songs, West Coast country on debut disc

Calico drops debut Rancho California this week.
Calico drops debut Rancho California this week.
Calico the band

Rancho California by Calico



Roots rock, sweet harmonies dominate Calico debut

You hear the word and envision a furry feline with a multi-colored coat.

Fitting name, then, for a band that fuses disparate stylistic influences into a single, unique sonic brew—and for a super-group whose sum is even greater than its already-talented constituent parts.

The color metaphor wasn’t lost on Calico the band when its three founding females joined forces, but they arrived at their name as a portmanteau of “California” and “country,” en homage to the region they call home—and to the genre which makes them feel most at home even when they aren’t. Each member is a formidable artist on her own. Together—guitars strumming and fiddle earnestly straining beneath seamless vocal harmonies and over strident beats—they’re irresistible. The San Fernando Valley three-piece lit up the Stagecoach Fest in April, and their songs have already appeared on ABC drama Nashville and NBC’s The Night Shift.

Consider Calico’s illustrious pedigree: Blonde guitarist Manda Mosher (City of Clowns, Everything You Need) won the 2005 Female Singer / Songwriter of the Year and 2010 National Touring Artist of the Year at the Los Angeles Music Awards. Brown-haired fiddler Aubrey Richmond has shared stages and studio space with such greats as Tim McGraw, Martina McBride, and Shooter Jennings (and had a stint with rockers Alice in Chains), and her bow skills graced several television and movie soundtracks—including Sons of Anarchy, True Blood, and 90210. Raven-headed songstress Kirsten Proffit (My Devotion, Lucky Girl) has likewise submitted tunes for use on such popular TV shows as Smallville, Dawson’s Creek, and Friday Night Lights.

Rather than pander to modern country’s pickup-driving, razor-stubbled red Solo cup demographic, this trio mines authentic country, roots-rock, and folk on their debut disc, Rancho California, juxtaposing lavish storytelling with (mostly) acoustic-powered strains that breathe easy and wash over you like sunbeams, or a passing afternoon drizzle. Sure, the ladies kick up their heels, too—but even Calico’s up-tempo numbers maintain the relaxed feel of their forbears in Buffalo Springfield, The Eagles, and Fleetwood Mac rather than risk whiplash by needlessly shifting into high gear or indulging low-brow bacchanalia, a la “Cruise” or “Shake It Off,” just for the sake of it.

Yeah, they’re lookers, alright. But it’d be too easy to dismiss Calico as the West Coast Dixie Chicks, or Taylor Swift for grownups. The material on Rancho California is more akin to the down-home, Americana celebrated by the likes of Eliza Gilkyson, Lucy Kaplansky, and Georgia Middleman: Sweet, sincere vocals gliding over shimmering guitars, mournful pedal steel, and melancholy strings to the backdrop of gentle piano, vintage organ, sinewy upright bass, and no-frills drumming. We also detect traces of Springsteen, CSN, and Neil Young.

The gals take turns fielding lead vocals on the disc’s ten cuts, sometimes democratically divvying the verses so each gets a couple lines in the course of a single tune. But the refrains, by and large, benefit from the intricate, lilting harmonies created when Proffit, Mosher, and Richmond sing together, their blended voices beguiling as a choir of cowgirl seraphim.

Less preachy than plain old optimistic, opening track “High Road” establishes the band camaraderie—in spirit as well as verse—as the ladies lambast “men with greed in heart” and stake a claim on upper moral ground. The mandolin-seasoned “Dead Reckoning” examines bumpy friendships (“I took a hit from you, you took a hit from me”) and dissects the dichotomy of head versus heart, and it’s here that Calico’s Hotel California / Rumours-inspired musical whimsy (and armchair psychology) comes into play: “Who am I to hold you down?” they ask, echoing Stevie Nicks’ line from “Dreams” as Richmond embarks on the first of several fiddle solos.

“San Andreas Shake” and “Fools Gold” showcase the ladies’ lighter side, the former being a goofy, giddy-up earthquake number wherein harmonicas wheeze and drums go clickety-clack in seismic a cadence befitting the fabled Big One (“you better run”), and the latter revealing itself a road song whose nomadic narrator bemoans a wake of ruined relationships and a penitent future “doing time with a guitar slung up around me.”

Watch Calico’s lyric video for “Never Really Gone” here:

Finger-snaps and hand-claps punctuate “Break Your Heart,” wherein the lasses vow to turn the tables on two-timers and cheaters: “It’s gonna burn like the devil…you can’t wash it off, it’s like a bad tattoo.” The opposite side of the coin is chronicled on “Runaway Cowgirl,” whose female protagonist reconciles daddy issues and dead-end jobs to find romance with a similarly-situated highwayman. Again, chickin’ pickin’ electric guitars and mandolin dance over the ladies’ bright acoustics as Richmond’s fiddle wails in the distance, heightening the sense of wanderlust.
Based on a traditional arrangement (but featuring new lyrics), the darker “Wayfaring Stranger” also depicts a pilgrimage—but the journey here is biblical / metaphorical in nature rather than literal, with allusions both to Jordan and the City of Angels (Heaven vs. Los Angeles) dotting Calico’s paean to gypsies, tramps, and vagabonds. Rendered in heavenly a cappella, the last verse really sparkles, lingering as the castanets recede and Richmond’s fiddle fades.

A general sense of empowerment / independence pervades Calico’s heroine hijinks, but “Lone Ranger” scrutinizes the downside of going rogue:

“Every path that I walk down eventually will end,” concedes the trio, harmonica sighing. “It’s true that I’m guilty of going it alone.”

Calico signs off with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Popularized in 1968 by The Byrds, the change-of-seasons selection becomes a tenacious foot-tapper with crackling electric guitars and another optimistic chorus-by-committee:

“Buy me a flute and a gun that shoots,” they harmonize. “We’re gonna fly down into the easy chair!”

Recorded at Fitting Room Studios in West Hills and Fotogenic Studios in Van Nuys, Rancho California features guests Justus Proffit and Tripp Beam on drums; Ted Russell Kamp and Stephen Andrews on bass; Mark Christian, and Samon Rajabnik on banjo and acoustic guitar; J.C. August on steel; Rami Jaffee on Hammond organ and piano; John Bird on keys; Brandon Scott on vibes; and Carl Byron on accordion. Producer Steve Berns lends his electric and 12-string guitar skills when not behind the mixing console.

For a limited time, signed copies of the CD are available via the band’s website:

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