Updated: Monday, 10th August 2020 @ 12:42pm

Review: Cousin Kula @ Night People, Manchester

Review: Cousin Kula @ Night People, Manchester

| By Philip K. Marzouk

Imagine if you will that Quincy Jones, Marcus Miller and every member of Snarky Puppy slapped Mac DeMarco round the chops and told him to put some effort into it. The result of such an intervention would be Cousin Kula.

At first listen, a lot of the requisite pop-psych elements form a large part of Kula’s sonic make-up. However, what separates Kula is that behind the phaser-laden guitars, expansive modular synths and the reverb-heavy vocals epitomised by tracks like Jelly Love, is a virtuosity rarely seen outside of the jazz scene.

In the many years I’ve been following Cousin Kula, their performances repeatedly solidify themselves in my mind as one of the best British bands working. They are undoubtedly a band that should be seen live, particularly for music fans who love Tame Impala as much as they love STUFF.   

Take one of their latest singles, Brain Abroad, a brilliant jazz-fusion inspired track. It’s a record with a stunning amount of depth but seeing it live exemplifies what’s so special about this band. Not a note of the studio version’s depth was missing. The band was airtight and there wasn’t a whiff of on-stage sampling as they performed on this occasion at Night People, Manchester.

Lead vocalist Elliot Ellison, alongside having a fascinating and unique voice, was consistently pitch perfect throughout their set. Working For It, the opening track of their set, gives Ellison’s voice some breathing space before serving as a prime example of Kula’s dynamic range.

Their set expertly pushed and pulled, moving from moments of restraint to great complexity. Their performance of MIMO, a personal favourite of their tunes, had Ellison’s voice sounding as though a breeze would break it but with the track’s rising intricacy and multiple crescendos, his voice moves from subtle to powerful without losing an ounce of its unique character. 

Within Working For It and many other songs are intricate and pinpoint three-part harmonies from guitarist Jordan Woollgar and keys player Will Wells, the band’s answer to Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Jan Hammer. As the latter’s four keyboard set-up will attest, they hit these harmonies while performing wonderfully intricate instrumentation.

What the band truly gets is a sense of dynamic range that is sadly lacking in much of contemporary music. Often the key to great musicianship is knowing when not to play; knowing when to create space; how to use quiet moments. That tension makes louder moments all the more impactful.

Every single member of Cousin Kula understands this intimately. Drummer James Vine’s regularly syncopated snares and deft high-hat work makes the percussive elements of Kula’s tunes nigh on melodic.

His Robert Searight-esque understanding of the entirety of his kit, the subtlety of his ghost notes and his judgement of when to dig in make him a joy to listen to.

He was backed up by bassist Ollie Horme, who also exhibited this sonic intelligence throughout the set. During Stacked, Horne transitioned from a restrained percussive bass line to a blistering outro, one that feels well-earned. His bass playing consistently has excellent narrative pacing.

Finally was Doug Cave on synths and saxophone. For much of the set, Cave provided the essential synth soundscaping that goes some way towards giving Kula tunes their quintessential intrigue but then they played TTTTTTTT.

Here, Cave’s saxophone talents were fully on display in a tune that sums up Kula perfectly. All the other instruments gave way for Cave to start a subdued sax solo. This crescendos into one of the most rousing outros of their already dynamic set and stood out as a highlight.   

Special mention must also go to Night People’s sound engineer Luke Sanderson. Even with the band doing some of their own mixing, it is no easy task engineering a band this intricate.

What makes his work even more impressive is that they only had a 15-minute line check. In the hands of a less capable sound engineer this could have spelled disaster for the balance that defines Kula.     

I can’t recommend listening to Cousin Kula’s studio work enough but I have to stress once more that this is a band that it’s absolutely necessary to see live. An outstanding performance from an outstanding band that deserve more recognition.

Images courtesy of Chelsea Cliff, with thanks.