Brian Buel’s debut album State of Change has been described as “a cross between Steely Dan and the Beatles with a bit of Tom Waits thrown in for good measure”. If I had purchased this album based on that overstated comparison, I would’ve been one disgruntled consumer.
To Buel’s credit, State of Change is a smooth jazz/pop ride that showcases sophisticated arrangements, superb musicianship and his ability to pen thoughtful, intelligent lyrics; but Steely Dan it is not. The only hint of the Becker/Fagen influence comes courtesy of the album’s first two tracks “Happy for You” and “Whachu Gonna Do”. “Happy for You” drips of Steely Dan from its jazzy orchestration right down to the “Skunk” Baxter-infused guitar solo, while “Whachu Gonna Do” utilizes a quirky piano line reminiscent of “Haitian Divorce” and is backed by thick, Chicago-esque horns. But after that, there isn’t a trace of Steely Dan to be found on the remaining 10 tracks—none.
While State of Change is extremely smooth musically, the vocals are not. Buel has a nice voice, perfect on soft, subdued numbers like “Another Stab in the Dark” and the exquisite acoustic gem “Miles of Life”. But his uptempo departures like “I’m Disappearing”, “Oh Well, Nevermind” and the Beatles-inspired “Try” expose a raspiness that doesn’t add colour to the music at all, but suggests that singing effectively might be somewhat of a struggle.
As easy as it is to criticize certain aspects of this record, it’s equally easy to give Brian Buel his deserved props. Instrumentally, State of Change is without flaw. Buel’s arrangements are beautifully orchestrated and his melodies are absolutely splendid. Had this been an instrumental record it would have been worthy of any and all praise. But in its present eclectic form, it lacks the ingredients that would endear itself to a broader audience; what it does have is the potential of making a considerable impression on the thirty- and fortysomethings—the wine and cheese crowd.