THE ALBUM -- Dregs, "Unsung Heroes," Arista AL 9548.

THE SHOW -- Thursday at 8 at the Bayou.

It's their sense of irony that has always shaped the Dregs and hoisted them well above the middling contemporaries of their chosen genre. But it's the ironies of the pop zeitgeist that keep them twisting in the wind.

When the Dixie Dregs recorded their first albums, jazz/rock fusion was busily exposing itself as the musical equivalent of a fire sale at an ice-cream store. At the same time, every no-talent rock band schlepping out of the South was enjoying a success directly proportional to its ability to swill Jack Daniels, spew chauvinistic bombast and assault audiences with interminable, mindless boogie riffs.

What the Dixie Dregs (now simply the Dregs) had to offer was a tasteful if not brilliant combination of musical structures that managed neither to slop over into each other nor be cloyingly pure. As an instrumental group, they never had to worry about cramming lyrics full of regionalistic agitprop, but even without lyrics, they always found a way to trade hubris for humor. Their name reflected self-image as much as sarcasm, since it was always the crock-rock Billy Bobs that floated to the top of the charts.

"Unsung Heroes" is not likely to change this situation, although it's as thoughtful and well-played as album as the Dregs have ever made.

The music is less fusion than fission; instead of merely being part of a stylistic jumble, each influence retains a separate integrity withing the overall composition. Thus, on "I'll Just Pick," the listener can focus on the bluegrass fiddling of Allen Slonov, the Mahavishnu-y rhythimic pattern of bassist Andy West and percussionist Rod Morgenstein -- or on all of it at once.

"Go for Baroque" is another example of this three-for-one technique, this time throwing in a mild dollop of classical style via T Lavitz's keyboards. It's as though the Dregs are trying every possible method of conveying the idea that interaction doesn't necessitate loss of identity, and it's fitting that one of the most successful tunes in this regard is titled "Divided We Stand."

A real standout on the album is "Rock & Roll Park," in which West and guitarist Steve Morse dust off some ancient, bluesy riffs and place them with loving incongruity in a sort of oriental-jazz showcase. Not as easy to describe as to hear. I'm afraid, but the end result is guaranteed to make you smile.

Morse is also responsible for the smooth (but not slick), well-paced production of the album. Like the songs it contains, "Unsung Heroes" offers an unassuming finesse that is just as palatable heard track-by-track as it is in a straight-through listening.

The cover of this record is humble almost to the point of self-denigration (the band appears naked with their mouths airbrushed out), and "Dixie" is no longer part of the name. These concessions notwithstanding, it's probably too late to alter the expectations of either pop audiences or critics, long programmed to be suspicious (even hostile) to Southern groups sporting a modicum of technique and grace. (The same treatment applies to women striving to escape the limitations of candy-cane compositions and/or sexual self-exploitation.)

Rock and roll may owe its very existence to the South, but that area has spent a good deal of time at the back of the musical bus lately. It's no accident that the only commercially successful Southerners seem to be the ones most willing to perpetuate the legend of cud-chewing cretin.

Even with their mouths in absentia, the Dregs shout a defiant, continuing challenge to such sociopathic stereotyping.