It would be very easy to label Michael Juan Nunez’s Rise a blues album.
After all, it was recorded over a period of three years he calls some of the worst in his life and the lives of the musicians involved. And it is loaded with his resonator guitar spitting out Delta guitar licks. But that knee-jerk reaction would ignore all of what else Rise has to offer.
Tracks like “Lemonade” and “Nickel Roll,” a tale of him being a nickel rolling down penny lane, 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. Rise features Nunez at his songwriting best, adding new material to a genre that has its limitations. Along with those, “Devil’s Daughter” also has waves of Buddy Guy–meets–swamp water. Slower, sweeter but sultry bedroom blues numbers like “BLTLO” and “Burning” round out the 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.
Ultimately, the genre conundrum fades away. The issue is not whether this is a blues album—it’s that it is a a good album, no matter in what bin it lands. Nunez may pull vocabulary from a few different vernaculars but he is fluent in his own tongue. Rise is a strong album that doesn’t define him as an artist of one shade but a master of many, blending them and bending them at will.