Background Check
This 32-track singles-and-rarities anthology by quasi-legendary Tampa Bay act Pink Lincolns serves, more than anything, to show just how much American punk has changed over the last 15 years. Primal, occasionally grating and determinedly antisocial, the group's sound was and remains almost diametrically opposed to punk's contemporary position at the cool edge of mainstream music. It's not just that crossover appeal was never possible for the Lincolns and their ilk; they would've gleefully torn off and swallowed any hand offering such a thing.

Cruising on capable less-is-more musicianship from an ever-changing cast, and dependent upon vocalist Chris Barrows' snide, menacing growl for an identity, the Lincolns have always been at their best live. To his credit, Barrows' twisted charisma is strong enough to stick to studio tape, but generally speaking, any given Lincolns full-length contains a little more ranting and old-school frantic-to-plodding tempo changeups than anybody needs in one sitting.

Background Check, however, has a couple of things going for it that the others don't. One is an interesting sort of comprehensiveness, running from early stuff like "Cotton Mather" (still one of the band's best songs) through the semi-experimental groove of "Torture Yourself" to recent live tracks that prove they can still bring the goods onstage.

The other is a comparative shitload of covers, from the expected (Black Flag, Wire, 999, Gargoyles) through the surprising (Bikini Kill, A Flock of Seagulls, Psychedelic Furs) to the downright hilarious (KiKi Dee, The Rembrandts, Earl Scruggs). These elements break up the snarl of blast and dirge, keeping the listener interested. Plus, like any good punk collectible, there are mistakes in the printing - "Not for Sale" and the X-Ray Spex cover "Oh! Bondage Up Yours" are reversed in the track listing, and Sparky's Nightmare singer Natty Moss-Bond is incorrectly credited for backing vocals on the demo "I Wish," instead of her presence on a version of the Neil Finn tune "I Got You."

Old school, indeed. (www.hazzardrecords.net) 1/2 -SCOTT HARRELL

The Relatives
Thrill Jockey
After making some free-noise for Atavistic's Out Series, guitarist Jeff Parker re-embraces melody and structure on The Relatives. A member of Tortoise and Isotope 217, dons of Chicago's post-rock mafia, Parker shows he can hold his own in an effort that's more jazz-leaning, if not exactly straight-ahead. The disc is a tight 40-minute affair, with engaging melodies, a penchant for odd meters and some strong interplay between Parker and his three mates. Tackling Marvin Gaye's "When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You" (from Here, My Dear) was an inspired choice, although the quartet's breezy swing treatment doesn't quite own the tune. Parker's "Mannerisms," on the other hand, deftly walks the line between post-Miles fusion and tricky prog-rock. Parker's terse tone and spiky lines carve out unique improvisational contours, which he fleshes out with intriguing chord licks. -ERIC SNIDER

Wicked Twisted Road
Sugar Hill
Born-again Austinites Reckless Kelly have been kicking around the underground roots scene since the mid-'90s. Too rollicking and eclectic for purists, yet too smooth around the edges for a lot of insurgent-country snobs, the group has had a hard time finding an easy niche in country music. Still, they've managed to build a cult following on the strength of four above-average albums and a rowdy, crowd-pleasing live show. It seems they may have tired of the grind, however; Wicked Twisted Road is the band's most mainstream effort to date, and invites questions as to whether or not Reckless Kelly is actively courting the Big Time. If so, they'll definitely be one of the better bands on CMT - tracks like the brooding title cut and mean, muscular "Nobody Haunts Me Like You" easily smoke the formulaic pop-country still choking the genre's upper crust. At the final tally, however, this talented combo definitely loses something in the trade. Most of this disc (particularly the hey-now-we're-Irish "Seven Nights in Eire," "Motel Cowboy Show" and the regrettably slinky "Wretched Again") comes off as more forced and pandering than almost everything in Reckless Kelly's back catalog, deceptively elevating nice enough cuts like "Broken Heart" and "Stick Around" to the level of standouts by comparison. It says a lot about the state of country music when a good band thinks putting out a decidedly mediocre record (by the standards they have already set for itself) could be just the shot in the arm their career needs - and they could be right, at that. 1/2 -SCOTT HARRELL

Singles 1969-1981
A&M Chronicles SACD
Carpenters music is some of the most whitebread in the annals of modern pop, but that doesn't mean it lacks soul. The brother-sister duo's emotional clout comes from Karen Carpenter's pristine voice. On the surface, her exquisite alto comes off as almost bland, but closer listens reveal a palpable sadness and ennui. Her singing is like a warm caress, and lifts up sentimental pap like "We've Only Just Begun," "Goodbye to Love," "I Believe You," "Yesterday Once More" and "(They Long to Be) Close to You." She sang with an utter lack of pretense or artifice, never copping phrases from black singers to juice up her interpretations. With impeccable diction and an exquisite tone, she made such great songs as "Superstar" and "Rainy Days and Mondays" into pop classics. The Carpenters' last hit, 1981's "Touch Me When We're Dancing," sounds hollow when compared to their earlier work. By that time, Karen Carpenter was wasting away from anorexia nervosa. She died from complications of the disease in 1983. 1/2 -ERIC SNIDER


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