Wunderhorse: Singer/Songwriter in Spirit, Amps-to-Eleven in Execution

Released: October 7, 2022

It’s an all too common tale: a young band bursts onto the scene, makes a ton of noise, and soon crumbles under the weight of critical acclaim-fueled expectation. Occasionally, a mercurial artist manages to emerge from the wreckage and sets out in a bold new direction. This list isn’t as long as you might think, but somewhere beneath Peter Gabriel and Sting ( and Harry Styles?), you can go ahead and write Jacob Slater’s Wunderhorse.

In what seems like another life (ahem, pre-COVID), Slater and his band (Dead Pretties) were the proverbial toast of London. With a certifiable hit (“Confidence”) under their belt, the scrappy trio did what any self-respecting punk band does the moment their stars align: they broke up.

For any number of singers, the story ends there. In this case, however, Slater was only getting started. On the heels of his first acting stint (playing Paul Cook in an upcoming Sex Pistols biopic?!?), Slater has just released his debut solo record (under the moniker Wunderhorse), ‘Cub.’ 

‘Cub’ is a remarkably diverse affair, something the advanced singles only hinted at. The album-opening “Butterflies” (featuring a Kyuss-sized riff) and the sway-inducing banger “Leader of the Pack” makes for an impressive opening salvo. Still, the pair of muscular anthems is hardly a harbinger of what’s to come. The trio of songs that follow (“Purple,” “Atlantis,” and the absolutely brilliant “17”) features a more subdued treatment that highlights Slater’s lyrics. In place of heavy-handed imagery or clunky metaphors, Slater opts for a bold, confessional approach that is perhaps most fully realized with the closing one-two punch of “Morphine” and “Epilogue.”

Taken as a whole, it’s difficult to assign a genre/tag/label to ‘Cub.’ Much of the album is singer/songwriter in spirit, but Slater often opts for an amps-to-eleven indie-rock approach in execution. The result is far more cohesive than it has any right to be. Not unlike Jeff Buckley’s ‘Grace,’ Slater covers an impressive amount of stylistic ground and ties it all together with his unforgettable voice.

Citing one of the ‘90s most beloved records will likely earn a scoff (or three), but the comparison is apt. Slater may not have Buckley’s thirty-seven-octave range, but his ability to morph his vocal approach from song to song is equally impressive. Be it the frantic howl driving “Teal” or the reticent croon of “Poppy,” Slater capably shifts gears from song to song. And in the case of the Brit-pop-tinged “Mantis,” the singer delivers a surprisingly delicate vocal that doubles as the album’s most impassioned performance.

With a collection of songs this solid, complaining about the album’s production feels a tad unnecessary, but if not here, then where? The mix on ‘Cub’ is appropriately bare (or dense) depending on the song, but the album is yet another sad victim of the ‘Loudness Wars.’ The ‘brick walled’ mastering robs the quieter moments of their dynamics and leaves the louder numbers coated in a hard-not-to-hear distorted crackle. Granted, this is par for the course when it comes to modern music, but given the album’s scope, it feels like an unnecessary misstep.

That admittedly subjective gripe aside, ‘Cub’ is a phenomenal debut. By relying upon tried and true ingredients (guitar, bass, drums, and vocals), Slater has delivered an album that doesn’t feel ‘of its time’ (or any other time, for that matter). Some moments feel like lost ‘90s anthems, and others feel like ‘70s arena-rock staples, but the majority of ‘Cub’ floats out of step with any specific decade—an impressive feat in and of itself. Whether Wunderhorse remains his moniker of choice remains to be seen, but regardless of the vehicle, Jacob Slater is clearly an artist on the rise.

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