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In a more honest world, Speedball Baby would be providing the Top 40 soundtrack to a society coming unraveled at the seams. Few bands are better qualified for the task; the quartet hails from one of the craziest places on earth, New York City, and is damn proud of it. "You think you're the black cat, but I'm the one living in the jungle," screams Speedball frontman Ron Ward (to the point of losing his voice) on "Black Cat Moan," a defining moment from Cinema!, the band's raving major-label debut. Rest assured, Ward's not whining. He's boasting. And he's ready to take a chunk out of anyone who challenges him -- survival of the fittest, if you will.

In Speedball Baby's concrete jungle, the populace breathes decadence as if it were just another pollutant, random violence is merely good sport and addiction saves the soul. Soundwise, they indulge in a lo-fi serum of punk, rockabilly, surf and blues that's laced with horrific and sacrilegious overtones but still manages a ghoulish absurdity. If all that evil sounds like some party, then you're just the sort of twisted soul the band is looking to sway. Because when you get right down to it, Speedball Baby is merely out for a good time.

Its version of fun, however, may not be everyone's cup of tea. No, "Rubber Connection," another Cinema! highlight, is not about safe sex; it's about a junkie tying off and getting high. And whatever you read into titles such as "Dog on Fire," "Suicide Girl" and "Skull Poppin', Skin Tastin', Love Wastin' Son of a Bitch," it can't be particularly comforting. Even a comparatively lighthearted tune such as "Toss My Salad" sports disturbing images of death and decay.

With all these morbid references being strewn about, isn't it strange, then, that Speedball Baby can attribute its beginnings to an event with implications as idyllic as Ward's wedding reception? Good and drunk, the former Blood Oranges drummer took the stage at the event with then-Madder Rose bassist Matt Verta-Ray to disassemble some matrimonial standards. Word has it that an inspired chaos ensued when the two abandoned their assigned instruments and took over as lead singer and guitarist, respectively. One crazed evening is all it took, and the pair knew they were onto something.

Speedball Baby found itself a rhythm section in bassist Ali Smith and drummer Dave Roy, and in no time had won over a respectable portion of the picky New York nightclub audience. They released two EPs, Get Straight for the Last Supper and Speedball Baby, in 1995 on the small PCP label before Fort Apache/MCA got ahold of them last year. After one teaser EP, Speedball Petite, Cinema! was released last month. It would have been available earlier had it not been for a bump in the road called "Al Green Shuffle." Label execu-tives fretted over the song's lyrics, which some believed could be construed as racist, holding up the CD's release for months. Finally, and at the last minute, they dropped the track from Cinema!.

To this day, Ward continues to perfect with Speedball Baby the recklessly entertaining rituals he began at his wedding reception. Thrown beer, obscenities and other pleasantries are typically exchanged between the audience and Ward, who, when he's not jerking frantically about the stage, spends his time leaping into the crowd and howling. It's always a good idea to keep your eyes peeled at a Speedball Baby show -- not only to see what crazy thing Ward might do next, but for your own protection.

And by the way, the band is available for funerals.
-- Hobart Rowland

Speedball Baby performs Tuesday, October 15, at Emo's Alternative Lounge, 2700 Albany. Doors open at 7 p.m. Sparkle Party opens. Tickets are $7, 18-20; no cover, 21 and up. For info, 523-8503.

Riders in the Sky -- Over the last 18 years, music critics have tripped over their spurs in an effort to find new and different ways to describe Riders in the Sky. Frequent references are made to dust in the nostrils, roaring campfires, endless sunsets, wide-open spaces and a host of other Wild West allusions, and chances are, the Riders have heard and read most all of them at least once. Put simply, this spit-shined Nashville cowboy outfit has mastered the basics -- among them, by-the-book harmonies, Gene Autry-ish crooning and sprinkles of humor that border on cutesy -- in perfecting and stylizing its vintage C&W ballads and love songs for presentation to modern listeners. Known to national audiences through their exposure on National Public Radio, television specials and the Grand Ole Opry, the Riders (Ranger Doug, Woody Paul, Too Slim and the occasional "fourth Rider," Joey Miskulin) have a knack for embracing yee-haw stereotypes with just the perfect shade of irreverence. And while rumblings were felt around music industry circles when the group left Rounder Records in 1995 after more than a decade with the label, it's the Riders' live shows -- rather than their 16-release catalog -- that speak most prominently to their artistry. At Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue, at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday, October 11. Tickets are $17.50, $20 and $25. 869-TICS. (Greg Barr

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