Back in the early ’90s, when Madchester was at its peak, Inspiral Carpets were perhaps best known for their “cool as fuck” T-shirts, which were essential wear for any young indie fan looking to annoy their parents. But the Inspiral Carpets were never really cool. They were from Oldham, for a start, a former textile town to the northeast of Manchester, and their sound leaned heavily on a very Northern English social realism, more Shelagh Delaney than Shaun Ryder.
The Stone Roses’ bank-busting return aside, the reputation of the Madchester groups has never really recovered from the critical mauling they received when shoegaze and grunge hit. Most of them are to be found playing retro festivals and small-ish gigs to aging British fans, without ever bothering to clamor for mainstream attention. So why should you care about The Complete Singles, the Inspiral Carpets’ third singles collection, on top of a 2003 greatest hits? The simple answer is that the Inspiral Carpets deserve so much more than the frenzy of middle-aged fans and moderately sized UK tour. From 1988’s “Keep the Circle Around” to 1994’s “I Want You,” featuring the Fall’s Mark E. Smith, the Inspiral Carpets were perhaps the best singles band of the Madchester era, cooking up three-minute tales of tear-jerking psychedelia in which a neat eye for lyrical detail met intricately arranged vocal harmonies and Clint Boon’s stirring organ melodies.
“This Is How It Feels,” their best-known song, has it all: a haunting Farfisa organ riff; a wonderfully compact opening couplet, which paints a depressingly relatable picture of domestic woe (“Husband don’t know what he’s done/Kids don’t know what’s wrong with Mum”); and a perfectly constructed chorus of interlocking vocal lines, which mesh together like an Oldham Beach Boys. Equally poignant is “Move,” a 1989 single with an exquisite chord sequence and one of Tom Hingley’s most heart-on-sleeve vocals, a perfectly English work of diffident emotional release that hits like the third pint of beer after your ex leaving. “Saturn Five” is the 1990s’ best ’60s garage single, hands down; “Dragging Me Down” swings from tragedy to ecstasy in four and a half minutes of cinematic drama; and “I Want You” gives an idea of what the Fall might have sounded like if Mark E. Smith had ceded an inch of control to a backing vocalist. True, the band’s quality control slipped when they reunited in 2011 with original singer Stephen Holt in lieu of Hingley, but the four singles from that era feel at home at the end of the record’s chronological history, while the appearance of punk poet John Cooper Clarke on “Let You Down” sounds charmingly inevitable, like the crowning act of a Manchester psych symposium.
These songs are readily available on other albums and playlists. But The Complete Singles comes into its own on the third CD of the set, where many of the band’s remixes are collected for the first time, alongside new mixes from the Go! Team and Martyn Walsh & Simon Lyon. The Inspiral Carpets may have been less steeped in dance music than many of their peers, but they weren’t oblivious to the rave madness around them: “Caravan,” from 1991, had a piano line that nodded to the triumphant plink-plonk of Italo house, and the band commissioned a significant number of remixes to fill out their 12" singles, many from local producers like Jon Dasilva or Haçienda DJ Mike Pickering. The hit rate among these is not particularly high—they often feel awkward, more an ill-matched game of exquisite corpse than a genuine meeting of minds—and it is probably more interesting to know that a pre-trance Paul van Dyk remixed the Inspiral Carpets than to actually listen to his leaden and rather cheap-sounding take on “Saturn 5.” The Go! Team, meanwhile, make the stately majesty of “This Is How It Feels” sound like an ungainly kids TV theme, with Hingley’s voice relegated to the bottom of a leather boot.
When the remixes do work, though, the results are enlightening, a trip to a Madchester time capsule where Farfisa organ soul meets bubbling house beats. Justin Robertson’s take on “Caravan” manages to be both utterly cosmic and totally Manchester, like Ibiza 1988 under gray Northern skies, using the original song’s piano to great effect over bubbling 303 and the suggestion of bongos. Mike Pickering & Paul Heard’s 12" mix of “Two Worlds Collide” is a charming mixture of dub basslines, distorted guitar, and house beats that lollop around with the fishtail-parka swagger of prime Liam Gallagher, while Sheffield bleep legends the Forgemasters’ mix of “Commercial Reign” rubs the song down to its tough industrial core. Inspiral Carpets never quite reach the gloriously seamless dance-rock fusion that Primal Scream achieved on Screamadelica, but they do sound very much at home on the dancefloor when in the embrace of a sympathetic talent.
Madchester’s role as a forward-looking musical force is sometimes missed by music fans outside of the UK, who see all the Byrds influences in the Stone Roses and none of the Mr. Fingers. The Inspiral Carpets had their retro moments, certainly, but they were never consumed by the past. This makes The Complete Singles the most accurate (and interesting) portrait of the group to date: crack songwriters with their shaggy bowl cuts tilted toward the past and Adidas trainers pointed tentatively toward the future.
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