The Ass Ponys' flirtation with mainstream success was embarrassingly brief, but it's not quite fair to lump them in with Nada Surf, Better Than Ezra, Possum Dixon, or the countless other harmless chumps who got swept up in the mid-90s alt-rock gold rush. Nobody in the quartet is particularly cute, and their music has never been what you'd call punchy. Their biggest "hit" bore the decidedly radio-unfriendly title "Little Bastard." And although Some Stupid With a Flare Gun (Checkered Past) is their first album since they were let go by A&M in 1996, it doesn't sound like a last-ditch attempt to remain relevant. Ten years after their first album, Mr. Superlove, was recorded at the home studio of the Afghan Whigs' John Curley, the Cincinnatians are still crafting strangely hooky roots-rock frames for front man Chuck Cleaver's bizarre portraits of middle America. Cleaver's a master at capturing human quirks without passing judgment, whether he's going for a laugh (as on "X-tra Nipple," in which a guy with three nipples tries to make himself feel better about it) or a shock ("Casper's Coming Home" is a graphic catalog of the ways ill-equipped parents abuse their children). And in "Sidewinder" he nails a central existential dilemma of the working class: "She's wasting her life / But other than that she's doing fine." Cleaver sings in a squeaky yawp but nonetheless manages to execute some nice melodic twists, and the band subtly but effectively ornaments the midtempo tunes with gentle guitar, piano, and banjo filigree. There's still nothing about the Ass Ponys that will rivet your attention--these guys earn it the hard way. Friday, January 12, 10 PM, Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee; 773-489-3160.