Band thrives with indie embrace, label support

After two years on the road, Cute Is What We Aim For also aims for a more eclectic sound

November 06, 2008|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,

Many bands, even in today's reality TV, Internet-savvy world, go through a stretch of paying dues. The story usually goes something like this: For a while, the group travels from gig to gig in a beat-up van, selling its CDs at shows. A buzz starts. Eventually, a suit at a major label catches wind of the group's "fresh" sound and offers a contract.

By the time mainstream pop audiences hear said band's music, all the style kinks have usually been smoothed out.

Well, that is not the story of Cute Is What We Aim For.

The emo-pop band, whose name originated from an inside joke, landed a major-label deal soon after forming and posting songs on its MySpace page. For the past two years, the group has been trying to find its way musically with the benefit of resources from mighty Atlantic Records by way of the indie label Fueled by Ramen. It's a rare situation these days as new acts are generally expected to hit big and fully formed right out of the gate.

"I keep thinking this is some twisted dream, and I'm gonna wake up and it'll all be gone," says Shaant Hacikyan, lead singer and chief songwriter for CIWWAF. He and his band mates (bassist Dave Melillo, drummer Tom Falcone and guitarist-pianist Jeff Czum) headline the Recher Theatre tonight. "We're signed with an indie working with a major. We have the TLC of an indie and the potent swing of a major. It's a great combination."

With its 2006 debut, The Same Old Blood Rush With a New Touch, the Buffalo, N.Y.-based band garnered airplay on alt-rock stations with fizzy, wordy tunes that somehow managed to be catchy. The album was a respectable seller, snagging more than 200,000 buyers.

On Rotation, the group's new CD released in June, the approach is slicker, the sound bigger and the songs more self-consciously clever.

"We wrote an eclectic record this time as opposed to throwing something against the wall to see what sticks," says Hacikyan, who talked by phone from his home in Buffalo last week. "I wanted to tell stories [with] a beginning and an end to everything, like Bob Dylan and Billy Joel did in the past."

None of the new songs come close to matching the ambition, transcendency or scope of the classic works by Hacikyan's musical heroes. There is a noticeable attempt to unkink his knotty lyrical style as heard on the debut. However, the sentiments haven't deepened much. Blustery and ultimately bland empowerment messages ("Do What You Do") are mixed with awkward romantic come-ons ("Navigate Me"). Lyrically, CIWWAF is still reaching for substance.

"This time, I was in the music-making process in the studio," Hacikyan says. "Usually, the music is already together and I write. [As] Jeff and David put the music together, it allowed me to go off the cuff. It was a great vibe this time."

It's obvious from the first note on Rotation that CIWWAF is gunning for a mature sound. In the two years between projects, as the band toured relentlessly, the guys had a little time to think about the direction of the new album.

"We learned so much," says Hacikyan, 21. "We learned that usually the first idea is the best. Songwriting is like a sport: The more you practice, the better you get. We learned to trust ourselves."

To craft the multilayered sound of the new CD, the group enlisted producer John Feldmann, known for his work with The Used and Story of the Year.

"A lot of that had to do with the luxury of time we had and the brilliant work of John Feldmann," Hacikyan says. "Our budget was immense. [Feldmann] literally put his bells and whistles on it. I hear something new on it every time I hear it."

Feldmann beefs up the sound with a horn section and synthesizers. Heavy doses of studio gloss coat such numbers as the first single "Practice Makes Perfect" and "Hollywood." Though overly calculated in some spots, the ultra-bright production is an improvement over The Same Old Blood Rush. But, still, CIWWAF hasn't locked down a sound that makes the band stand out. The group is trying, though.

"This album reflects us growing up so fast," Hacikyan says. "We went from being 17-, 18-year-old kids and then we traveled the world four times. I know we're lucky to have the chance to make music and have a label that believes in us. We're too young for this to fail, man."

if you go

See Cute Is What We Aim For at the Recher Theatre, 512 York Road in Towson, at 6 tonight. Tickets are $18 and are available through Ticketmaster. Call 410-547-7328 or go to

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