George Ezra flies to Africa, Rufus Wainwright croons to Judy – the week’s best albums

Gold Rush Kid is the third album from George Ezra - Adam Scarborough
Gold Rush Kid is the third album from George Ezra - Adam Scarborough

George Ezra, Gold Rush Kid ★★★★☆

By George, he’s done it again. Gold Rush Kid is this wholesome 29-year-old English singer-songwriter’s third album of tuneful singalongs and positive psychology, absolutely packed with fruity goodness. It is going to be inescapable.

Ezra is a pop star whom it’s almost too easy to dismiss as trite. He’s characterised by a spirit of near-relentless bonhomie as he delivers blasts of upbeat melody allied to cheery self-help messages in a big, hearty voice. Strumming his guitar, beaming his ever-present toothy smile, he can come across as a souped-up summer-camp youth leader, stirring the festivities around our communal campfire. Anyone with even an ounce of cynicism in their souls may feel like pelting him with toasted marshmallows – until about the time they find themselves joining in the chorus. These are songs built to be sung and led by a man who knows how to sing them.

There are formulas at work, in the sense of Ezra repeating tried and trusted tricks. Travel has been a principal theme of Ezra’s songcraft since he wrote his first album, 2014’s Wanted on Voyage, while interrailing around Europe, scoring a hit with Budapest, a song about a city he never managed to visit. Now here he is again, flying over the Serengeti (smartly rhymed with “don’t forget me”) on opening track Anyone for You. Although mainly composed at home in Hertfordshire due to pandemic travel restrictions, Ezra still manages to squeeze in a foreign city on Manila, the homebound singer proclaiming “No flights to Manila / Lockdown Cinderella”.

There is a nursery rhyme aspect to Ezra’s lyrics, which tend to feature short lines with brash rhyme-schemes and colourful images, and don’t waste any time getting to a chorus such as “Green green grass / Blue blue sky / You better throw a party / On the day that I die.” All of this is driven by bright up-tempo rhythms, cheery piano and perky horns, topped off with mass layered backing vocals, all the better to show the audience where to join in.

Yet let’s be honest – if everyone could write songs this catchy, they would. Ezra and main collaborator Joel Pott (formerly of underrated 2000s indie band Athlete) keep the chords beneath the top-line melodies constantly shifting, maintaining momentum and novelty as they layer in hook after hook, so that if one line doesn’t catch you, the next one will.

Ezra’s rich baritone has drawn comparison to vintage blues shouter Lead Belly, but he also has a sweet falsetto and likes to jump between octaves to create quirky vocal hooks. On the gloopily romantic Sweetest Human Being Alive (destined to accompany brides down the aisle in video clips for decades to come) his sinuous vocals pack a potent emotional load into sentiments that could make a Hallmark Card poet blush.

But even at their most trite, Ezra’s lyrics are sustained by a sense of personal conviction. As the second half of the album dips into welcome minor key territory with I Go Hunting, In The Morning and Love Somebody Else, Ezra explores his own insecurities, while still offering optimistic escape into melody. At the heart of Ezra’s mainstream pop appeal is a sense of joy that infuses his music with radiant positivity. In such troubled times, Ezra’s escapism is pure gold. Neil McCormick

Rufus Wainwright on stage in Barcelona in 2019 - Redferns
Rufus Wainwright on stage in Barcelona in 2019 - Redferns

Rufus Wainwright, Rufus Does Judy at Capitol ★★★☆☆

Rufus Wainwright’s adoration for Judy Garland knows no bounds, and his latest album takes his fan-love to new extremes.

Rufus Does Judy at Capitol Studios captures the American-Canadian musician performing his previous 2007 tribute album to Garland – Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall – with newly pared-down arrangements, recorded at the famous Los Angeles studios in the title. He recorded these new versions using the same microphone that was used at Capitol by Garland when she recorded there, and he has timed the release to coincide precisely with the centenary of her birth. Not only this, but new album was made in front of an audience of one: actress Renée Zellweger, who won an Oscar in 2020 for her portrayal of Garland in the film Judy. The sound of a single person clapping at the end of the tracks is her.

To recap: Rufus Does Judy at Capitol Studios is a tribute album to a tribute album recorded in front of the actress who herself played an award-winning tribute to Garland. It’s a mega-meta concept that’s equal parts genius, equal parts bonkers and equal parts spooky.

Garland’s original 1961 concert album on which all this is based, Judy at Carnegie Hall, spent 95 weeks in the charts and won five Grammy Awards. Wainwright’s original tribute album recreated this concert with a 36-piece orchestra. Here, he’s backed by a four-piece jazz ensemble playing arrangements based on those from his Carnegie Hall show. The slower songs, such as I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, are beautiful. His rendition of George Gershwin’s A Foggy Day is wonderfully mournful, particularly when Wainwright laments that “the British Museum has lost its charm”: it was in London where Garland died of a drug overdose in 1969 aged just 47. But the song ends on a high, with the sun shining through.

Other tracks on the album work less well. Come Rain Or Come Shine lacks the drama of Garland’s version with its frenetic bongos and urgent double bass. On these upbeat tracks in particular, Wainwright’s voice, which is so effective on his own lush torch songs, can sound lachrymose when compared to the Champagne fizz of Garland’s own delivery. Still, it’s an interesting album and a heartfelt homage. Perhaps in another 15 years, Wainwright will release its natural follow-up, Rufus Does Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall at Capitol Studios. I wouldn’t bet against it. James Hall

Maluma, The Love & Sex Tape ★★★☆☆

Earlier this year, 28-year-old Colombian Maluma became the first ever male South American artist to headline the O2 in London, drawing 20,000 feverish fans to Greenwich with his Spanish-language pop. That most couldn’t understand the lyrics didn’t matter: they were there to soak up the sexiness that Maluma has exuded since his 2015 breakout second album, Dirty Boy Pretty Boy. It’s the same heartthrob quality he brought to his recent role in the Hollywood rom-com Marry Me, in which he starred alongside Jennifer Lopez, and to his Instagram persona, where he has 62.5 million followers – 17 million more than Harry Styles.

It’s also, one might suspect, what inspired Versace to cast Maluma, who was born Juan Luis Londoño Arias in Medellin, as the face of its most recent campaign, not to mention Madonna, who tapped him for a collaboration back in 2019, causing quite the stir with a video that showed her licking his big toe. Since then, Maluma has become an A-lister, selling over 15 million albums in the US alone. His rise is indicative of the wider Latin American music boom, which has the fastest revenue growth of any music genre in the world, and is vital to platforms such as YouTube, where Maluma now has more subscribers than Adele, Drake or Beyoncé.

His sixth album, The Love & Sex Tape, is presented in two four-track parts, and fuses traditional reggaeton with softer sounds, drawing on the romance of salsa while foregrounding a grittier sound that Maluma says reflects his desire “to communicate with the streets”. They are, as one would well expect, all love songs of sorts; the first four on the “Sex” side are more salacious, while the other half under “Love” are more sincere, if still explicitly lascivious. The first track and lead single, Cositas de la USA (Little Things From the USA) positions him as a lothario who, in the video, has three women ensconced on different floors of his hotel, while track four, Mojando Asientos (Wetting Seats) is a suggestive heartbreak anthem that sees Maluma beg to have his “Queen” back.

Nos Comemos Vivos (Eat Us Alive), featuring the Puerto Rican artist Chencho Corleone, is the standout here, because it’s reggaeton at its best – catchy, buoyant and beat-driven, with an obvious dub and reggae edge. The album’s experiments in production are also fun, such as the Marimba-style synths and plucked strings on Sexo Sin Titulo (Untitled Sex).

Music for the discerning this isn’t, but Maluma is a star for the streaming era, where quantity is as important as quality, which is perhaps why it doesn’t really matter if this album feels a bit bland in places. The smooth tracks are sure to soundtrack many a sun-soaked party this summer. And, before we know it, he’ll be back with a new roster of reggaeton hits. Kathleen Johnston

Chase & Status on stage at Radio 1's Big Weekend last month - Getty
Chase & Status on stage at Radio 1's Big Weekend last month - Getty

Chase & Status, What Came Before ★★★☆☆

Last autumn, the English drum ’n’ bass duo Chase & Status hosted a rave, in order to capture an image of the crowd for the cover of their sixth album, What Came Before. The result is a sweaty render of “collective catharsis” in the shadow of pandemic isolation. Dance music constantly evolves, but the euphoria of the dancefloor never abates – and What Came Before sets out to salute that feeling.

Saul Milton and Will Kennard deal in fast breakbeats and in-your-face bass, often to formulaic and facile extremes, though this hasn’t hampered their career, planted firmly in the mainstream with three Top 10 albums and flashy collaborations with the likes of Rihanna, Dizzee Rascal, Craig David and Emeli Sandé. Amid the relentless bludgeoning of their output, Chase & Status have paid homage to the 1990s rave scene, grime, Jamaican dancehall, and DJ culture.

What Came Before holds an umbrella over all these genres, digesting 15 years of the duo’s success. But that approach results in a mishmash of moods. Emphasising the duo’s underground roots, the opening track, Don’t Be Scared, features a vocal recorded in 2010, and a percussive energy shored up by strenuous features from UK rappers Unknown T and BackRound Gee. Chase & Status’s embrace of a newer generation also includes RnB singer Pip Millett, who soars over skittering beats on Over & Done. The less successful Hold Your Ground, featuring Ethan Holt (an alumni of East London Arts and Music, the specialist free school founded by Kennard), is a prototypical Chase & Status track: the kind that enchants lairy lads in their thousands.

What Came Before offers a fairly comprehensive portrait of the British club scene, perfectly evoked by its high point, Mixed Emotions, and rounded off with the crepuscular final track, Forgive Dark. But despite the album’s range, it can’t evade an air of stodgy monotony. Still, the ravers on the cover seem to be having a good time. Kate French-Morris

Julius Rodriguez, Let Sound Tell All ★★★★☆

Jazz isn’t a field that naturally produces prodigies – the artform flourishes best when it’s past their bedtime – but in Julius Rodriguez it found one. This enormously gifted drummer, pianist and composer used to mimic the gospel musicians he heard when attending church, and there’s a charming video of him playing drums aged about 10, wearing a tie.

Rodriguez originally knuckled down to music theory and learned to play Bach, but then he discovered jazz and studied it with the same seriousness. Now 24 years old, his heroes are the straightest of straight-ahead jazz musicians: Art Blakey and Tony Williams for drums, Bud Powell and McCoy Tyner for piano.

All this means that while Rodriguez has now foresworn the jacket and tie, his music stills wears them. On this, his debut album, there’s an absolutely solid mastery of the bebop idiom that will make old-time jazzers sigh with pleasure. Mingled with it are Fender-Rhodes gospel-ish piano harmonies, a dash of hip-hop grooves, and a range of contributors including vocalists Mariah Cameron and Nick Hakin, saxophonist Morgan Guerin, and trumpeter Giveton Gelin. Every track is gilded with sophisticated studio production, including Where Grace Abounds, which begins as a solo piano hymn of such perfectly turned innocence that I confess a tear came to my eye, but by the end has soared into some cosmic realm.

One of the enjoyable things about Let Sound Tell All is the variety of pace and tone. There are driving bop-flavoured numbers with pungent McCoy Tynerish basses, almost too-sweet Motown-ish ballads, and a moment of thrashing free jazz-like energy. It’s all beautifully turned, though the numbers are mostly shortm so we only get fleeting glimpses of Rodriguez’s formidable potential as an improviser. Perhaps one day Rodriguez will cut an album where he actually breaks a sweat; until then, this enjoyable but somewhat lightweight record will have to do. Ivan Hewett