Over the course of the past three years, The Junkers have become something of a Madison institution, packing local clubs, serving as house band for the Cieslewicz campaign and even performing on the local news. Their reputation has been built almost entirely on their live show, a fiercely energetic set of country classics and their uniquely memorable originals performed with punk intensity and the highest level of honky-tonk legitimacy.

The band is currently preparing to release its second album, Live Characters Nightly. A consistently exciting collection, Characters is another successful journey into the drunk-and-dirty minds of Madison’s premier purveyors of maximum country-and-western.

Unlike so many sophomore releases, Characters is by no means a step down from the band’s 2001 debut, the excellent Hunker Down. The songs and musicianship are first-rate, from the hedonist gallop of opener “Tie One On” through to the endlessly clever “(Baby Let Me Be Your) Desert Storm.”

Vocalist Kenneth Burns’ voice grows subtler and suppler by the moment, and his undeniable power lends both believability and great emotion to songs that would otherwise risk being overwhelmed by the wittiness so prevalent in the band’s writing.

Case in point: “I Always Cry At Divorces,” a mid-tempo lament in which Burns’s weepy, vulnerable baritone glides over lyrics both darkly humorous (“Home is where the heart is broken”) and devastating in their forthrightness (“I’m not sorry that we married, at times it wasn’t bad / But I’m sorry about the happiness we never really had”).

As solid a band as The Junkers are, it is Burns’ vocal ability that is clearly the group’s strongest asset. A nice surprise is hearing his overdubbed harmonies on “Friend Of The Family,” a philanderer’s waltz and the tearjerker “It’s Only Funny (Because It’s True).”

Of course, the band is mighty good. While The Junkers have yet to capture their truly thunderous live sound on record, Characters — more so than their debut — demonstrates the broad range within which these honky-tonk heroes operate.

For example, there’s “Grizzly,” which alternates between a menacing strut and full thrash-country without feeling disjointed; this is most attributable to Thomas Crofts’ pounding rhythm and Matthew Stratton’s piercing guitar fills.

“Cowboy La Cage Aux Folles” is a most unexpected two-stepping romp, and the expertise and fun with which the bright arrangement is delivered makes the tale of this “place that put honky-tonk cross-dressin’ on the map” a highlight.

“Bad Dog” allows the rhythm section of Crofts and bassist Dave Junker (who recently left the band, to be replaced by the similarly talented Ed Larsen) to exist in a continual state of near-collapse around a funky backbeat that complements Burns’ snarling delivery and Stratton’s spiking guitar work perfectly. Characters benefits from a rich production mix that more fully represents the Junkers’ thick honky-tonk swing than Hunker Down did.

Although the album’s first five songs are all classics, the album is by no means front-loaded. In fact, two of its best songs are near the end. “Too Drunk For Church” is perhaps the quintessential Junkers song: irreverent, funny (“I hear the choir singin’ as at the church door I stand / All dressed up in my Saturday worst, pint bottle in my hand”), endlessly catchy and delivered with feverish sincerity.

Then there’s the aforementioned “(Baby Let Me Be Your) Desert Storm,” which manages to be both a skillful excoriation of American foreign policy (“Tomorrow we pull into Kuwait City to give democracy back to the Emir”) and a surprisingly sweet ode to love during wartime, all while being backed with a faux-march arrangement that recalls the most syrupy pro-war ballads with devastating, and hilarious, accuracy. Let’s just hope Toby Keith doesn’t hear it; he may think they’re serious.

Although they certainly play with clichés both lyrical and musical, The Junkers are far from being smirking, post-modern ironists. They’re simply too talented for that, and they’re far too in love with country music to fall into simple parody. Their true genius lies in their ability to succeed on both levels, constructing songs that are intelligent and clever while also being affecting and expertly performed. Live Characters Nightly is a fine example of their unique craft and one that fosters much hope that many more are on the way.

The Junkers will celebrate the release of Live Characters Nightly with a record release party May 17 at the Crystal Corner Bar. Call the Crystal Corner at 256-2953 for more information.