It would be very easy to label Michael Juan Nunez’s Rise as a blues album.
After all, it was recorded over a three-year period he calls some of the worst in his life and in the lives of the musicians involved in the recording. And, it is loaded with his resonator guitar spitting out Delta licks. But that knee-jerk reaction would ignore all of what else Rise has to offer. The tag of simply being a blues record is a limitation and a misrepresentation that Nunez seemingly embraces and struggles with at the same time.
“In reality, I’m more of a ‘If you like the blues then you might like this’ artist. In the end, I’m a songwriter who really likes guitar — preferably loud guitars,” says Nunez. “Genre is something marketing guys have made into a big deal to funnel shoppers to their next buy. In that world, alas, I am a blues artist.”
Tracks like “Lemonade” and “Nickel Roll” add to the modern blues feel, in the ilk of John Lisi. With their metaphors, similes and swagger, the songs’ lyrics fold nicely into the lexicon of the blues. The record — an album made with the help of producers A.J. Dauphin and Grammy-winner Tony Daigle and a host of local musicians like Eric Adcock of The Hub City All-Stars — could serve as Nunez’s explosive, turning-point record.
Rise features Nunez at his songwriting best, adding new material — tunes like the swagger-filled “Nickel Roll,” a tale of him being a nickel rolling down penny lane — to a genre that has its limitations. Tracks like “Lemonade” and “Devil’s Daughter” have waves of Buddy Guy meets swamp water. Slower, sweeter but sultry bedroom blues numbers like “BLTLO” and “Burning” round out a well-rounded record.
Other times, gritty songs like “Betta” break out of blues expectations and find Nunez on the far-out fringes. In the way that C.C. Adcock brings swamp pop and rock into the future then whiplashes them back into the present, Nunez does the same for blues. However, via effects, it is a more raw and unorthodox sound.
For example, the backing on “Human” has a post-apocalyptic blues feel as Nunez speaks an indictment with the disenfranchised outlook of a Trent Reznor. Ever evolving, it is loaded with big beats, ritualistic chants of the guitar gods and a jagged edge that cuts. “Betta” has an electro snare backbone in its intro and gobs of distortion along with Delta guitar licks from Nunez’s more than capable hands. On “Trouble,” simple tambourine style percussion mixes with Southern Gothic lyrics. Yet, Nunez is never too far out in the wild, coming back to his core with sweaty rhythms and the New Orleans piano sounds of Eric Adcock. “Lost It” remains in the blues canon but with a very rugged rock vibe.
“I love roots music. Particularly the roots music that I grew up with — Cajun, zydeco, the rhythms of New Orleans and certainly the blues,” says Nunez. “I also grew up with a lot of rock, funk, pop. All of that makes its way in. We call it roots rock, but really it’s just music.”
Ultimately, the genre conundrum fades away and it’s not if it is a blues album or not, it’s that it is a good album, no matter in what bin in may land. Nunez may pull vocabulary from a few different vernaculars but is fluent in his own tongue. Rise is a strong album that doesn’t define him as an artist of one genre but a master of many, blending them and bending them at will.
Rise’s simple title belies its complexity and shadows a deeper meaning. The tag could be easily taken as Nunez’ attempt to break through the musical ceiling. At the same time, Rise seems to have taken on a new meaning as its makers struggled to overcome what they faced. Yet, Nunez also wanted to push himself and top his previous efforts.
“It’s a bold title, but man, I’m not a kid. I’ve been doing this a long time,” says Nunez. “I’m at a place in my life where I’m comfortable with who I am. I’m confident in my abilities, I have nothing to prove to anyone else but myself. In that situation, however, I’m constantly restless — always learning.”