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Ladylike Approaches '70s Pop With Sharpened Tools

Free online music service Spotify has plenty of fans (and nearly as many vocal detractors) but let's stick to the facts. According to the music library, Ladylike is a "rock-oriented version of The Pussycat Dolls," a "contemporary girl group comprised of four striking vocalists."

Below the description, you can listen to two very different bands. One is, indeed, a glossy pop group, but the "top hits," songs like "Leave the Boy Alone," "Do It to Death," and "Cinema Kiss," belong to a very different Ladylike — the one from Tempe that features five dudes: Rob Kroehler, Ryan Casey, Ethan Hillis, Alex Tighe, and Austin Owen. (Disclosure: Kroehler is a regular contributor to New Times' Night and Day section.)

And rather than taking cues from the pop princesses of The Pussycat Dolls, this Ladylike draws from pop of a different stripe: the harmonized guitars of '70s arena rock, vocal whoops and hollers like those of Harry Nilsson and The Beach Boys, strutting Mott the Hoople grooves, shiny ELO arrangements, and piano-led rock that recalls early Elton John, prime Billy Joel, and shades of bombast, à la Queen.

"You know, we never thought Queen — and I didn't make that connection until I watched a Queen documentary on Netflix," Tighe says. "They had the same mentality of 'we're in the studio, and we're going to make the best possible songs we can, and we all have different influences in music.' That was something — the five us all have a lot in common, but there's some stuff on the edges [that we don't share]."

"And Rob has got terrible teeth and is indiscriminate when it comes to sexual partners," Casey deadpans.

Reducing the band's self-titled debut (which follows a string of well-received digital singles) to retro-fetishism isn't quite fair — though tracks like "Bad in Bed" and "The Auctioneer" have a certain '70s sitcom theme feel, and that's a total compliment — as the bouncing pop has plenty of modern analogs, too. Acts like Spoon, for instance, who had a stash of gear at The Black Lodge in Kansas, the studio where Ladylike recorded the basic tracks for the album. "We were in the back, looking at keyboards and they all said 'Spoon' on them," Kroehler says laughing. "We were like, that's awesome."

"Some equipment ended up on the record not because it was the best stuff, but because it said 'Spoon' on it," Casey jokes, passing out cans of Miller High Life in the band's practice space (a room in a Tempe house belonging to Jack Maverick, who runs Long Wong's at the Firehouse). Between bits about Chandler's famed Ostrich Festival (Casey: "I've eaten an ostrich burger") and discussion of Joss Whedon's musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, talk has centered on the influence of Spoon.

The band is just as likely to cite Guns 'N Roses, Dawes, or Rush as influences or favorites, but like the best Spoon records, Ladylike's oeuvre walks a fine line between arrangement and looseness, between composition and strut. It's meticulously adorned but doesn't sacrifice spontaneity for polish. The band has the kind of songs that wind up in movies, on mixtapes, and on the radio. They're big but still intimate, perhaps a trick that Kroehler learned from his friends in fun., whom he toured with as a guitarist in 2010.

"There wasn't a genre when we were recording," Tighe affirms, noting that the band brought songs to the table but strayed from initial blueprints and explored new ideas. The idea that they "couldn't pull something off live" wasn't a factor. In fact, that statement irks Kroehler especially.

"That very notion just grinds my gears," he says. "There's studio art and there's performance art. They're two different things. To try and make them the same thing is to inhibit both things. Because you [wind up] confining yourself to a certain situation in the studio setting. If you confine yourself to a live setting, you're missing out on a plethora of opportunities in the studio setting."

Casey describes a live show as a Polaroid, and the album as a "panorama, a long shot," which isn't to say that the band puts any less emphasis on making the live show something more than just "a band up on stage." After all, it takes a lot of work to sound this relaxed.

"There's some value in showmanship," Casey says. "I'm not saying we're out there or have a weird stage setup. But you get out there, and you've paid to see a band perform. So why be boring fucking dudes who could be anywhere? That's not exciting."

Kroehler confirms: "It's like, what are you saying to the audience — and what are you saying to yourself — when you present your music that way?"

"I won't wear cut-off shorts on stage," Tighe says blankly. "It may sound funny, but I'll never do it."

Hillis tosses it off as "professionalism" with a humble shrug, but listening to the band's record, it's clear there's more to it than just that. Kroehler writes pop songs, the kind of air-tight compositions that populate Los Angeles-singer/songwriter efforts from the late '60s and '70s, like the classic power pop from bands such as Big Star and The Raspberries ("Bombproof" even recalls the Mill Avenue jangle-pop scene), with theatrical, windmill guitar-stance classicism from the odd combo of Casey's arena-metal affectations. It's not a radical departure from the band's collective past — time done with buzz band The Loveblisters and pop combo Dorsey — but Ladylike sharpens the pop edges, laser-guiding the pop melodies and charmingly roughing things up where other bands would be content to endlessly polish.

"I think we've, over time, learned to do a fairly decent job of taking a song and learning how to let it become what it needs to become," Kroehler says. "I think we're probably more painstakingly aware of the details than a lot of bands are. But I think we've done a good job of learning how to just get the idea, and then see where the song really wants to go. We'll spend an hour or two hours on a bar of music — it's not really so much about who we're trying to emulate, but where the song wants to go and how we can get there."

It sounds mundane, Casey says, but the fact is simple: Ladylike is a job. And though Hillis is more than open to the idea of cosmic inspiration for songs — channeling some sort of great pop-rock ghost — the band's approach is ultimately a blue-collar one, a no-bullshit one. "We take all these ideas, and we get intentional about them," he says.

Kroehler rolls out a list of songwriters he admires — Springsteen, Petty, Dylan — and states that their success lies in the ability to blend and match the band's lyrical content to the music.

"I've been in bands — I think we all have — where we've finished songs with a full arrangement in one hour," says Tighe. "We could do that, but it doesn't happen here because we take the time to try and find that lyrical content."

As for that other Ladylike? Well, I'm sure the folks getting paid to write their songs approach things the same way.

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.