The Upshot: There’s an incorrigible soul deeply ingrained in the music of southern Louisiana that’s as essential as blood and water to all who live in her mystical shadows. MJN drops praise into just the right spot on every occasion.
BY ERIC THOM
How many times have you come to realize that some of your favorite artists are those who consistently prove to be the most difficult to categorize? Michael Juan Nunez (MJN) is a graduate of this school. He’s driven by some other-worldly demon to play whatever he feels – to hell with the rules. Head over heart. And while that may sound like a recipe for failure, it’s exactly this trait – one of being thoroughly unpredictable and impossible to define – that has cemented the foundation of his appeal. You just never know what you’re going to get – you only know it will be exceptionally good.
To not know what to expect has long been Nunez’ Ace of Spades. A disciple of Sonny Landreth with a side of Stevie Ray, he’s also influenced by the real-world of local legends Lil’ Buck Senegal and Harry “Big Daddy” Hypolite, having also toured with a treasure trove of Louisiana’s richest bedrock. MJN has earned his position the hard way, driven by something more than dreaming of an eventual payday. It’s like he’s got no choice in the matter – and the music will out – as it has on Rise, his 5th release.
Begin with the cacophonous “Betta” – drink in its dark, distorted vocal, electronic-pulsed intro and thunderous, dirge-like beat, adding a blistering blend of pulverizing guitars like you’ve just stumbled into a fearsome, Led Zeppelin-fueled, Satanic reunion of lost dreamers. He succeeds in scaring off the meek of mind, launching into the comparably upbeat “Come Into The Light” – which anyone would be anxious to do at this point. What’s this? Uptempo, happy music – like you’ve just been rescued by Harry Belafonte, flashing his patented smile and waving a bolero from atop his rearing, white steed? Toss in Mike Burch’s crisp snare, Nunez’ deft, finger-fired, near-Flamenco runs on acoustic guitar, the angelic backup vocals of Charlene Howard and Dudley Fruge and you’re about ready for the volleyball net to go up. Did somebody change the disc? But wait – Beelzebub is back – with a searing guitar and bass-driven attack – and just when you thought the flowers might actually begin to grow. “Lost It” returns the trend to into the dark tunnels with processed, almost-other-worldly vocals that turn out a tough, punishing sound that, still, leans on strong guitar hooks and scorching leads to register its general disdain. “Trouble” is all clean-sounding acoustic guitar as it introduces Eric Adcock’s B3 and the haunting vocal support of Charlene Howard to deliver its bleak predictions. Make note of “Burning” – an exacting power ballad if ever there was one, driven by Adcock’s rich keyboards, Nunez’ soulful vocals and a tasty slide solo for good measure.
If that all feels like an incredible musical range, you’re right. Know that Nunez & his American Electric hail from lower Louisiana – where nothing much counts much unless it’s benefited from the osmosis of everything else first. Hence, British rock is roughly married to Texas blues, Cajun to N’awlins R&B, funk to elements of Louisiana soul and a rich gumbo of everything in-between – sometimes blended into the same song. So “Lemonade” funks up an age-old expression and, with the creative assistance of Clint “Chief” Redwing on drums and percussion, Adcock on Hammond B3, plus (daughter) Jordan Nunez on clavinet, Nunez anoints it with liquid-sounding leads and his own lead and backing vocals, creating a head-turning boogie with a difference. Likewise, little can prepare you for the inventive, deeply soulful groove of “BLTLO (Baby, Leave the Light On)” – packed to the hilt with ardent vocals, a lush chorus, animated percussion and deep-set blues guitar leads – all wrapped up in Djembe Lee Allen Zeno’s warm, fat basslines. The Prince-friendly “Human” is an evil-sounding, sex-dipped, slow-sizzler of a track – an erotic, slow-boil of custom guitar-effects which builds towards a techno-climax, hinting at glam-rock – a true space oddity for a futuristic Science Fiction film, to be named later. “Nickel Roll” is a piano-drenched taste of N’awlins blues with all the dirty guitar you can eat, sensational ivory-tinkling from Eric Adcock and a solid rhythm section in Redwing and Zeno. Adcock’s piano is featured here together with MJN’s dark slide to supernatural effect. As always, MJN’s vocals are his sleeper play – all earthy tones, warm register and capable of bringing each character to life. If you listen close, you’ll see images of Chris Whitley forming over a moss-packed bayou backdrop. “Devil’s Daughter” presents a powerful offering that’s almost commercial in its scope and degree of shine. At the same time, it kicks into a second gear at the 4-minute mark that’s equal parts Texas blues jam and sheer South Louisiana hypnotics. And, in keeping with an aura of authentic Louisiana mojo, snakes, skulls and slammin’ the devil’s brood only adds more zest to Rise’s already distinctive sauce, with its double shot of piquant bite.
All this and a complementary Rorschach Test of a front cover, depicting a bird that may think he’s Phoenix-bound but who’s more than likely headed anywhere but heaven. Satisfy your darker side and seek out this seductive spellbinder. Michael Juan Nunez is one of those rare talents who gets there with his music without ever having tried to jeopardize the process by forcing it or doing anything against the natural flow of things. He’s just that good.
DOWNLOAD: “Betta,” “Levee Breaks,” “Mr. Jones”