tue 27/02/2024

Music Reissues Weekly: McNeal and Niles - Thrust, Wilbur Niles and Thrust - Thrust Too | reviews, news & interviews

Music Reissues Weekly: McNeal and Niles - Thrust, Wilbur Niles and Thrust - Thrust Too

Music Reissues Weekly: McNeal and Niles - Thrust, Wilbur Niles and Thrust - Thrust Too

Ohio funk rarities with surprising links to the state’s new wave scene

Wilbur Niles (seated) and Thrust, c. 1980

An original pressing of 1979’s Thrust fetches at least £1000. Its 1980 follow-up Thrust Too can be a relative bargain at around £400. The prices are partly explained by J Dilla having sampled Thrust Too’s “Survival of the Funkiest” and Thrust’s “Summer Fun” being sampled by Daphni. Both funk-soul albums – the first credited to McNeal and Niles, the second to Wilbur Niles and Thrust – were barely circulated and barely sold. Text-book collector’s items.

But without the music, potential buyers’ wallets would stay in their pockets (though the attraction rarity brings can, of course, sometimes trump musical quality). Thrust, made with Niles’s girlfriend Michelle McNeal on keyboards and a full-band line-up, is a seven-track, half-hour synth-funk workout with library music touches. Images of car chases, scenes in darkened bars and warehouse-filled cityscapes come to mind as the album unfolds.

McNeal and Niles ThrustThe jazzier, 40-minute Thrust Too is similarly inclined but overlaid with sax lines and a more dominant role for Niles’s guitar (especially on “Electric Earth,” with its George Duke-ish jazz-funk leanings). After a listen to the two new reissues of Thrust and Thrust Too, it’s clear that Niles and his collaborators were onto something.

Thrust and Thrust Too were the first albums to feature a credit to Wilbur Niles, who had first hit vinyl in 1971 as a member of one-single soul band The Basement. After the two albums, there were others in 1982 and 1987, and one in 2011. Based in Akron, Ohio, just south of Cleveland, Niles was part of a soul scene thoroughly gone into by the 2022 book Soul Music Of Ohio – An Illustrated Catalog Of Records.

Wilbur Niles clearly followed his own nose – evidenced by following up these albums with more which achieved the same limited level of contemporary recognition. TinkerToo Records, the label they were originally on, operated from around 1972 to 1980. Its main signee was John Bassette, a Cleveland poet and singer-songwriter who had played 1967’s Newport Folk Festival. After one album for United Artists, Bassette seems to have founded TinkerToo (at least initially) for his own releases. So Niles ties-in with one aspect of north-east Ohio’s music scene.

Wilbur Niles and Thrust Thrust TooHe also ties-in with another aspect of north-east Ohio’s music scene – the region’s punk-era individualism. Side One of Thrust was recorded at a makeshift Akron studio run by Devo and named, like their music publishing company, Man-Ray. The engineer for Niles and Co’s recording there, Ed Barger, had worked with local band Chi-Pig and a little later was in LA, where he worked on records by The Human Hands, Monitor, The Romans and The Meat Puppets. Thrust and Thrust Too were mastered at Suma, the local facility run by Ken Hamann – who worked extensively with Pere Ubu.

It takes a few leaps to imagine Wilbur Niles being caught up with the post-Devo Akron hype which led to June 1978’s The Akron Compilation album, issued by Stiff. Nonetheless, he wasn’t so removed from this aspect of what was going on locally. Thrust’s third track is the pointedly titled “Punk Funk.” However, Wilbur Niles was embedded in soul rather than what would be lumped in with punk or new wave.

Thrust was last reissued in 2004. Thrust Too, now given a new sleeve image, has not been reissued before. The reappearance of both engaging albums is a reminder that boundaries between different music scenes were not necessarily as fixed as they might seem.

@MrKieronTyler

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