Looks Like the future's bright

Looks Like the future's bright
LIKELY STORY: Tennessee Thomas, left, Laena Geronimo, Annie Monroe, and Elizabeth "Z" Berg of the Like. A new CD, "Release Me," came out Tuesday. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

The final performance of a two-day street festival is the one typically reserved for the headliner. Yet timing wasn't working in the Like's favor on this late May Sunday evening.

"There were a lot more people here last night," said bassist Laena Geronimo 30 minutes before the quartet was to close the inaugural Silver Lake Jubilee. Yet 24 hours earlier the Lakers weren't playing a pivotal playoff game, ABC wasn't airing the series finale of "Lost" and temperatures weren't dipping below 60 degrees.

By the time the Like took the stage after 9 p.m., performing one of its six local shows in May, the crowd was scattered. When Elizabeth "Z" Berg, an industry veteran at 23, sang that she thinks she's "lost the plot" on "Square One," she wasn't reflecting on her band's history, but she may as well have been.

Signed to Geffen in 2004, the Like looked to be a sure thing — cute, catchy and unfussy rock that offered a legit alternative to manufactured teen pop. The band played the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival before its members reached legal drinking age, toured with Muse and hailed from musical families with business résumés to envy.

The Like's backgrounds — a "superstar collection of industry parents," said Josh Deutsch at Downtown Music, the band's current label — no doubt were a foot in the door. Berg's father, Tony, is a respected A&R man-producer, and skeptics were quick to note that he had worked for Geffen in the '90s. Drummer Pete Thomas, longtime member of Elvis Costello's band, is the father of the Like's rhythmic anchor, Tennessee Thomas. Connections, however, don't move records, and they don't prevent a label from shelving an album, which happened to the Like's originally intended follow-up to 2005's slow-selling "Are You Thinking What I'm Thinking?"

Just two years ago the Like was on a path to breaking up, losing original bassist Charlotte Froom and sitting on an unreleased record. Yet a well-timed romance between Thomas and A-list producer Mark Ronson led to a second chance — as well as a career makeover. When the Like returned on Tuesday with "Release Me," a spunky, '60s-influenced girl-group romp complete with a street-wise attitude and vibrant organs, it saw the nine-year veterans restarting at ground zero.

If you happen to be one of the 21,000 people Nielsen SoundScan counts as buying the Like's debut, forget it. You'll likely never hear those songs again.

"It's not like there's a demand for it," Berg said. "People aren't screaming out our old songs. And truly, this is such a different band … I don't know if I want to look back."

The Like would likely be a forgotten blip on the L.A. scene if it weren't for Ronson. Best-known for giving a retro-cool sheen to Amy Winehouse, he connected the Like with his pals in Sharon Jones' backing band the Dap-Kings, helping the band strip down and toughen up.

Check "Narcissus in a Red Dress," which cops a Motown strut and sees Berg lacing her vocals with spite, or "Fair Game," which locks into a frenzied, Zombies-era organ. And then there's "Release Me," which marries girl-group harmonies with venom.

"When you see them together, there's a bad-ass look to them," Ronson said. "They look like a gang. The music should have that energy."

The band has been working to alter more than just its sound.

"They were on a major label, and it was like they were already bigger than the scene," said Neil Schield, who owns Echo Park's Origami Vinyl. "That's not their fault. Being in the families they were raised, and with the connections that they had, that was an obvious path."

Geronimo joined after "Release Me" was recorded, but was aware of that impression. At her urging, the act has embarked on what she dubbed an "anti-hater campaign." She's led the Like's newfound dedication to perform at venues in and around Echo Park. The bassist booked the band's May residency at the Echo, as well as a gig at the Smell with Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti in March.

"Everyone's approach to this band has been skepticism," Geronimo said. "There was this perception that the Like were this huge band. Let's just dispel that."

As recently as 2008, the Like was floundering. It became apparent that a 2007 album recorded with Martin "Youth" Glover, Paul McCartney's partner in his experimental side project the Fireman, was never going to appear on the now-consolidated Interscope Geffen A&M docket.

"Everyone was being vague," Thomas said. "Time kept passing."

She took off to England, and had a chance run-in with Ronson. Thomas told him the band's future was in doubt, and he asked to hear the aborted record.

"It sounded like Aimee Mann," Ronson said. "It sounded very L.A. So I asked if I could re-cut it."

The then-blossoming — and ultimately doomed — relationship between Thomas and Ronson is not a topic Like members are eager to discuss. "He came along as a sort of Prince Charming," Thomas said.

Ronson is more forthcoming. "I had a crush on Tennessee, and while I didn't feign an interest in the band, it was definitely an incentive to go and hear the stuff. It ended before the record was finished ... But I was genuinely interested in hearing the band. It was also a good excuse to ask her on a date."

Ronson persuaded Interscope Geffen A&M to pay for a week in the studio. Everyone was on board, and then Froom and the band split three days before the session. Berg drafted friend and ex-Phantom Planet member Alex Greenwald to play bass.

Today, Froom is taking classes at Santa Monica College and aims to get a master's in clinical psychology. She recently released an album with Taylor Locke & the Roughs, a band led by the Rooney guitarist. She noted only that her split with the Like was "a long time coming."

Berg, however, was determined to keep the Like afloat. "We were not going to waste that opportunity," she said. "By hook or by crook, we were going to make this happen."

Ronson, said Berg, was the first producer to get her vision. The band cut nine songs in five days, and utilized the Dap-Kings' Victor Axelrod on organ. "I wanted to record live," she said. "I wanted one guitar track. Yet every producer that we had ever worked with said that that's not how records are made anymore."

Whether it was Ronson's busy schedule or the dissolution of his relationship with Thomas is not clear, but he left four songs to Dap-Kings drummer Homer Steinweiss to produce.

Looking back, "I could have been more responsible," Ronson said.

With a finished album, Berg and Thomas needed a band. Geronimo was suggested by Jim Smith, who runs the downtown club the Smell, and keyboardist Annie Monroe, who attended Santa Monica's Crossroads school with Berg, auditioned after graduating from New York University.

Interscope Geffen A&M agreed to release the Ronson-produced album, shuffling it to Downtown Music, the label responsible for Gnarls Barkley. Downtown's Deutsch was aware of the Like's early hype, noting that he heard talk of a "bidding war" in 2004. "I look at this as the first record," he said.

As does Berg, who's bringing a fresh outlook to the Like's new lease on life. "I've spent my whole life trying to be precocious and plan everything," she said. "At this point, we want to do every strange opportunity that comes up, whether it's being asked to play a show that day, or playing a house party.

"We want to work," she continued." We want to be good."