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“Why couldn’t I ever get kicked out of school?” Howlin’ Maggie leader Harold Chichester slyly asks on “Long Live Doug (Standing),” a catchy funk workout from the band’s debut album, Honeysuckle Strange. Practically tripping over his words, he concludes, “I wasn’t good, but I wasn’t bad enough.”

Chichester was once the bassist for Royal Crescent Mob, a Columbus crew that outclassed its mates in the post–Chili Peppers race to run the term “funk metal” into the ground. The Mob’s melding of the Ohio Players and Led Zeppelin, along with their look-askance-at-everything lyrical POV and knack for dropping into the occasional sticky-sweet cover of the Kinks’ “Do You Remember Walter,” set them far apart from the crowd. Though largely relegated to the background by frontman David Ellison’s antics, Chichester was a great mugger and the auteur of “Corporation Enema,” a yelp about a bad boss that remains an anthem in some corners.

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Chichester’s working-class smirk and smarts are much in evidence on Honeysuckle Strange. In addition to “Long Live Doug,” there’s “$3.99,” which might have been inspired by seeing most of the Mob’s records cut-out in the wake of deals with Celluloid and Sire. With a hilarious vocal nod to Axl Rose (with whom the fast-track Maggie shares management), Chichester’s street musicians proclaim themselves “well equipped for shit” over a crunching riff. Yet another work-related ditty, “Rubbing the Industry Raw,” slaps another manager—the Mob’s—whose “lack of results was difficult to understand.”

But while the implosion of his old group informs Honeysuckle Strange, this isn’t the bitter statement of a cynical last-chancer. If anything, Chichester’s gleeful set of songs is more consistent than those presented by the Mob’s last couple of discs. The tight-but-limber feel of great funk and a hard-rock push-and-pull fuel tunes like “I’m a Slut” and “How the West Was Won” (which knowingly posits junkie slackerdom as this half-century’s true American legacy). With the combination of great songs and killer band often on the back burner at commercial alternative radio these days, it’s good to bear Chichester’s reminder of verities forgotten by the likes of the humorless 1996-model Paul Westerberg.

Chichester has been contributing keyboards to the Afghan Whigs on the side. Like Whigs leader Greg Dulli, he shares something with the danceable ’70s Stones; “I’m a Slut” would have sat comfortably on Black and Blue or Some Girls. While Dulli’s toughness roots itself in a much darker place, Chichester’s revels in its own good spirits. They don’t call this guy “Happy” for nothing. And on the evidence of Honeysuckle Strange, they should never call him stupid.

Key to the Ass Ponys new album, The Known Universe, is an image that’s rapidly becoming as emblematic of leader Chuck Cleaver’s vision as burning out and fading away is to Neil Young’s. The putative stalker who narrates “God Tells Me To” searches his yard for an anthill in order to “take a magnifying glass” and “heat ’em up and watch ’em dance.”

That A&M apparently deems “God Tells Me To” worthy of single release (it’s one of two cuts plugged on a cover sticker) also says a lot about Cleaver and his band’s methods—ants and all, it’s catchy. With Pere Ubu as a kind of home-state model and a stately, slightly twisted version of heartland rock their major vehicle, the Ass Ponys are extending the tradition of Ohioan outsider musical expression. The Known Universe may be their best yet.

In a CD-booklet mock-diagram, the Ponys place themselves at the center of The Known Universe. It’s a good joke, both on the group and on a hipster galaxy that has long (well, for three years or so) held fellow state representatives Guided by Voices in a similar position. Not for Cleaver the occasionally too-precious impulses of a Bob Pollard; if Universe contained something called “The Official Ironman Rally Song,” there’s no doubt its Marvel Comics–crazed hero would be pasting small sheets of metal to his skin while warbling. Cleaver’s neighborhood is flecked with blindingly articulate losers Randy Newman would be proud to have created. The opening “Shoe Money” presents a would-be king of the road whose tires have been put to use around the garden, and who, bemused, reads a scribbling on a cemetery wall: “Satin lives in Hell.” “Blow Oskar” pays tribute not to War harpist Lee, but to a kid who serenades the block with his car horn. The devil himself makes an appearance, as does “the Snake Man from on the TV.”

Cleaver’s true gift is his humility; it’s one that he passes on to his characters. Like Ubu’s David Thomas, he never treats his creations like exhibits in a freak show. He understands what might drive a man to eat himself to death (of indigestion from pickled eggs—a true story, supposedly) or conclude that a homeless friend “must be having some kind of fun.” That his compassion never intrudes on the edginess of these songs, or vice versa, helps make his work as special as that of the Ohio avant-gods who helped make it possible.CP