Perhaps best known as the band Noel Gallagher roadied for before he rescued brother Liam’s no-hoper group the Rain and renamed them Oasis, Inspiral Carpets were the runt of the late-’80s Madchester litter. Where scene leaders the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays transformed themselves from indie-rock traditionalists into house-inspired futurists, the Inspirals remained avowedly retro, their entire pop-cultural ethos forever pegged to bowl-cut-wearing keyboard player Clint Boon’s rinky-dink neo-psychedelic organ sounds. Their infamous T-shirts may have proclaimed them “cool as fuck,” but ultimately only a cult audience was to be persuaded.
Listening to the band’s first album since they split in ’95, it’s as if baggy never happened. Behind the scenes, though, there have been changes, at least one of them for the better: their gormless, foghorn-voiced singer from the Madchester years, Tom Hingley, has been replaced by his predecessor from the mid ’80s, Stephen Holt. In truth, there’s not a huge difference in how Holt actually sings, but it’s sufficient to open up the Inspirals’ appeal to any number of erstwhile naysayers. He sounds more convincing delivering menacing lines like “I’ll take you on a journey through the night” on opener “Monochrome.” In short, he gives this cuddly combo edge.
Confidently self-titled, Inspiral Carpets starts well. “Monochrome”‘s darkly punchy pop leads onto “Spitfire,” where Boon’s crunchy organ, Graham Lambert’s dreamy guitar licks and Holt’s saccharine chorus blend together for a hyper-melodic, radio-friendly brew. Boon’s keyboards shamelessly echo the Tornadoes’ “Telstar” on “A to Z of My Heart”, and “Calling Out to You” (among others) is almost criminally Doorsy, while everywhere else the tootling aesthetic of ? and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears” reigns supreme.
In the 20 years since Inspirals’ star waned, such light-fingered cultural referencing has come to be viewed less dimly — you could even argue that it was their old guitar tech, Noel G., who legitimized it. Less forgivably, the album’s second half bogs down until the penultimate “Let You Down” (reference check: “Pushin’ Too Hard” by the Seeds), where punk poet John Cooper Clarke pops up for a cameo rap as the self-styled Doctor Reliable. That song’s lyrical drift is essentially an expansion of Gallagher’s undependable-rock star warning in “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” These Carpets remain hardly world-beaters on Oasis’s stadium scale, but their ’60s garage-pop confection still holds up.