This review was originally published in Chicago Blues Guide on June 22, 2014. Be sure to check out their website at: www.chicagobluesguide.com
Jarekus Singleton - Refuse to Lose
By Rex Bartholomew
As he hails from Mississippi, it would be natural to assume that Jarekus Singleton would be another in the long line of Delta bluesmen, but the scope of his music goes far beyond the borders of the Magnolia State. His original songs are blues-based, but he calls upon many genres to achieve a unique mood, including rock, jazz, funk, hip-hop, and maybe even a little country. This contemporary blues sound caught the ear of Alligator Records’ Bruce Iglauer, who helped Jarekus produce his debut album for the label, Refuse to Lose.
Though Singleton is barely 30 years old, music has been a life-long passion for him, and he started playing bass at the age of nine in his grandfather’s church. After switching to guitar and discovering his voice he fell under the spell of the blues at the age of 15. He showed impressive athletic prowess during college, but he always stuck with his music. This was fortunate for him (and us) as his basketball career was cut short in 2009 by injury, just as he had caught the eye of the NBA.
That same year, Jarekus formed his own band that self-released an album in 2011, and some of its tracks received regular airplay on satellite radio. He won the first of many blues awards in 2012, and it was only a matter of time until he signed with a label that could get his music heard across the country and around the world. His decision to work with Alligator worked out well -- Refuse to Lose is 53 minutes of exceptional art that is broken up into 12 self-penned tracks, and it is getting him the attention he deserves. Singleton takes the guitar and vocal parts for this project, and he is joined by a more than capable crew that includes James Salone on organ, Ben Sterling on bass and John “Junior” Blackmon behind the drum kit.
This set kicks off with “I Refuse to Lose” and the first impression is that this project has a very live sound. The guitar, bass, drums and organ on this blues rocker have a natural tone and blend, so that it is almost like being at a perfectly mixed blues gig. Credit for this vibrant mood goes to Pete Matthews of Nashville’s PM Music, who puts together a consistently tight product. Jarekus’ voice ranges from a spoken-word style all the way to a throaty roar, and if you listen to the words you will get to learn a bit of his life story.
Not knowing all of Singleton’s history, it is easy to assume that many of the songs are autobiographical as the lyrics are written in a very personal manner. Both “Hero” and “High Minded” sound like the voice of experience, taking to task folks that are haughty and egotistical, or possibly just too big for their britches. Also, “Crime Scene” and “Suspicion” are full of worldly wisdom that can only come from having a few relationships go sour. These subjects have been staples of the blues since day one, but Jarekus’ use of modern language and pop culture references brings his songs into the present day and makes them accessible to a new generation of listeners. He is a masterful storyteller!
In the same self-revealing vein, “Keep Pushin’” describes his motivation as well as specifics about his athletic history and the path to his new life in the blues spotlight. This hard-driving rock song uses a killer walking bass line, hammering drums and superb organ work to give it a rock feel that contrasts well with his rap-like lyrical delivery. It makes for a catchy package that results in one of the standout tracks on Refuse to Lose.
The other prize-winning tune is “Blame Game” which has a traditional 12-bars blues construction, but uses a sparse arrangement that is refreshingly different than what other artists are bringing to the table. Singleton changed things up for this song and brought in a different band to back him on this song: Ben Sterling popping out a very organic-sounding bass, Brandon Santini honking out a tasty harmonica lead and Robert “Nighthawk” Tooms playing a subdued piano accompaniment. This ends being a bare-bones shell that is decorated with Jarekus’ simple syncopated guitar chords and an all-too short solo. He really is quite a singer and guitar player, and the closer, “Come Wit Me,” arrives all too soon to end things on an upbeat note.
With its unique modern blues sound, wicked arrangements and heartfelt songwriting, Refuse to Lose is a winner in every way. Jarekus Singleton has made his own niche with his progressive sound and style, and he surely will play an important role in the future of the blues!