THE NEW Riders in the Sky album, "Horse Opera," is the trio's usual blend of exquisite vintage cowboy music and lowbrow cowboy humor -- with the emphasis tilted toward the music this time after several comedy-dominated projects. The band's stage shenanigans -- the broadly drawn parodies of the old two-reelers and radio serials -- may be painfully obvious but they're also painfully funny. Yet the humor often obscures the trio's very real musical talents: Woody Paul's lyrical fiddle work and the flawless, feathery three-part harmonies.
Those talents are showcased on "Horse Opera." Paul plays a pretty fiddle waltz and sings a convincing two-step love song. Ranger Doug Green shows off his unusually controlled yodeling and sings deep and romantically on "Maybe I'll Cry Over You" by one of the original Hollywood cowboys, Elton Britt.
Of course, there's lots of humor, too. One of the band's regular characters, would-be country singer Drywall Paul, sings a different kind of road song, "Livin' in a Mobile Home." As the band prettily sings "Sidekick Heaven," Fred "Too Slim" Labour recounts a shaggy-dog dream where he visited Gabby Hayes, Walter Brennan, Andy Devine and other famous Hollywood sidekicks in heaven.
If you get all the obscure cowboy-movie references and sly musical jokes, then this album, the Riders in the Sky's 10th variation on a very limited theme, is for you.
RIDERS IN THE SKY -- "Horse Opera" (MCA). Appearing Friday and Saturday at the Birchmere.