I first heard a couple of songs by Chicago’s Kaspar Hauser a few years ago, though I don’t remember exactly because they failed to make any impression on me. I’m pretty sure their dramatic improvment is part of the reason I’m mildly taken with their new album, Quixotic/Taxidermy (Backward Masking), though it’s good enough that I’d pay attention even if I’d never heard the band before. Named after the feral German teenager who captivated Germany in the early 19th century (later the subject of the Werner Herzog film Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle), the band was formed by experimental filmmaker and School of the Art Institute teacher Thomas Comerford in 1999, a year before he moved to Chicago from Iowa City. Through three singles and one album the line-up has been pretty fluid; the new record features musicians like Jonathan Crawford (William Elliott Whitmore, ex-Grey Ghost) and Kent Lambert (Roommate).
Comerford, who writes all the songs and also plays guitar and keyboards, sings in a nasal tenor that reminds me of Bill Callahan (the artist formerly known as Smog), ripping through shambling, melodic rock tunes with a bored swagger. There’s a definite shot of the Rolling Stones here, particularly in the looseness of the arrangements, but Kaspar Hauser doesn’t seem particularly concerned with using classic rock ‘n’ roll riffery; the guitars sputter and clamber more than they groove. A few ballads embrace a darker, more atmospheric vibe—including a surprisingly good cover of Big Star’s “Holocaust,” a tough tune to mess with—but ultimately Comerford’s writing and the way he comfortably wears the skin of these warmly familiar songs is what puts the band over. Even when the songs seem like they’re about to fall apart, his singing threads them back together. Kaspar Hauser plays Subterranean this Sunday, March 11.