Friendly neighbors of the end-of-the-’80s Manchester rave scene alongside Happy Mondays and Stone Roses, Oldham’s better-behaved Inspiral Carpets raised the retro-pop stutter-groove stakes with the distinctive chortle of Clint Boon’s vintage Farfisa beat. Ironically, this all-American idiom that wouldn’t get any likeminded Stateside band out of a ’70s or ’80s garage proved a boon to these lads. (The quintet went so far as to pay its respects with a brisk cover of “96 Tears” on the five-song Plane Crash EP, produced by ex-Chameleon Dave Fielding, otherwise relying on its own simple creations.) Adding it to the swirling whorls of carefully formed psychedelia and Tom Hingley’s strong, pleasant voice brought the quintet major chart action at home. (The Singles, which doubles as a career-spanning album sampler, provides a handy overview of the group’s UK successes.) It also provided adequate creative momentum to keep the Inspirals more durably productive — if not consistently good — than most of their peers.
The four new tunes on Trainsurfing hint at the band’s biggest shortcoming: shallow and ineffectual songwriting (by Boon and guitarist Graham Lambert). “Butterfly” and “Causeway” are adequate fodder for the band’s narrow range of sensuous textures but are way too flimsy to hold up on their own merits. Although the title track of Joe (by which time Hingley had taken over the vocals from original singer Stephen Holt and bassist Martin Walsh had replaced David Swift) is forgettably lame, the flipside of the EP introduces two of the band’s few good songs: the Doors meet the Electric Prunes in the droney “Directing Traffic,” while San Francisco acid-rock gets a colorful revisit in “Commercial Rain.” Recorded immediately after the Joe sessions, the four-track Peel EP includes “Directing Traffic” and a terrible organ-colored rendition of the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” as well as Hingley’s first recorded swipe at Plane Crash‘s “Keep the Circle Around.”
Cool as **** (the title is a sanitization of the Cow label’s T-shirt parody on a British milk-ad slogan) weakly introduced Inspiral Carpets to America with a compilation of “Joe,” a subsequent B-side and all three tracks from the “Find Out Why” single, including the numbing 16-minute “Plane Crash” jam (not to be found on the EP of the same name). Wow, man — this milk is groovy!
By the time Inspiral Carpets got around to recording a full album, their international discography was hopelessly out of synch. As a result, the American version of Life omits “Besides Me” to add an overzealous remake of “Commercial Rain,” two items from the three-song Island Head EP and another song from those sessions. The resulting 16-track extravaganza is way too much of an occasionally good thing, surrounding appealing songs like the sturdily melodic “This Is How It Feels,” the Stranglersish “Song for a Family,” the poppy “Move” and a new unimproved version of “Directing Traffik” with far too many inferior soundalikes.
Adding no memorable songs to the Carpets’ catalogue, The Beast Inside is a misbegotten attempt at formula- tinkering that broadens the band’s dynamic net but doesn’t pull anything worthwhile in. “Grip” builds a funky fire, and “Please Be Cruel” boils it up good and slow; Hingley whispers the verses of “Sleep Well Tonight” and “Niagara” over delicate instrumental washes; “Beast Inside” wanes gothic, with carillon intro and foot-dragging tempo. “Dreams Are All We Have” is a graceful soundtrack- like instrumental that couldn’t be less psychedelic if it was wearing a bowler.
Evidently reconsidering diversity as a strategy, Inspiral Carpets returned to the straight and narrow for Revenge of the Goldfish, laying down consistently brisk beats and a thick instrumental shag on which the organ-pumping ghosts of Steppenwolf and Arthur Brown do the funky monkey. Material-wise, the record is hit-and- miss. “Dragging Me Down” and the surly “Irresistible Force” get the blood pumping, but the cheek to name a pop original “Bitches Brew” doesn’t yield a song worth provoking the ghost of Miles Davis for. The Carpets do better with “Fire,” honoring an earlier English tune by the same name with a rousing chorus and dramatic swelling flourishes. Elsewhere, nonsensical lyrics (“Smoking Her Clothes,” “A Little Disappeared,” “Here Comes the Flood”) and routine sounds make Revenge of the Goldfish a hollow victory.
An incorrigibly mature album that siphons off most of the band’s remaining personality in favor of various stripes of ordinary (like a very sorry imitation of the Animals and a surely unintended recollection of the forgotten Fischer-Z), Devil Hopping — produced, like Revenge of the Goldfish, by Pascal Gabriel — is an object lesson in the evil of banality. The nearly lifeless music is at best self-parodic; the lyrics are hopelessly trite. How is “It’s a funny old world/It’s a funny old human race…Knowing you’re just a rolling stone/And you’re never gonna gather no moss” for blinding invention and insight? Ironically, Devil‘s best moment — a version of the leadoff “I Want You” with Mark E. Smith of the Fall jabbing his wry interjections all over Hingley’s singing, which suddenly resembles mid-’80s Paul Weller — isn’t even on it. You’ll need The Singles for that one.