Not all albums must strive for greater meaning. Plenty attempt and fall short. A great many seek a comforting adequacy—and even those don’t always pan out. On his solo debut, Tame Impala bassist Cameron Avery veers away from psych-rock cosmic revelations in search of a pure musical greatness of times past. Upon the record’s announcement, he made clear his inspirations: Elvis, Sinatra, Etta James, “the big band stuff with less metaphorical lyrics,” as he put it. From the gentle guitar plucks of “A Time and Place,” Avery’s greatest pursuit is beauty over all else, which he achieves often throughout Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams.
Avery is best when ruminating on loves lost, found, and desired. The album’s limited musical and thematic palette, however, means the burden for excellence falls on Avery’s songwriting, which ranges from subtle, self-aware inversions of machismo to overt chauvinism, and in its worst moments, it’s just bland. Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreamsis a deliberately pleasant album that occasionally soars but at a relatively low ceiling.
In making an album that revels in classicalism, Avery reconciles with the old-timey mores of society. On “Disposable,” the record’s jauntiest track, he sees himself as the most ordinary bane of humanity: a dude. It’s effective in its extreme self-deprecation, as he sings happily about being “just as shit as any other brand,” and making a soaring hook out of “I’m disposable.” Avery sees the haplessness of the male pursuit, that of the bumbling fool who sings to the mountaintops about why he just can’t find the right gal. He achieves the endeavor best on “Wasted on Fidelity,” a track where he is in love, yet is unable to resign himself to the domesticity. On these songs, Avery breathes new life into the male pop figure as someone who sees his flaws but cannot help but do the wrong thing anyway
He runs into trouble when he loses the self-awareness of it all. The subversion is absent on “Big Town Girl,” with lines like, “You know I’ve never had the time to wait around for a dame/But if I knew that we could make it, I’d wait around for Jane,” as if trying on a terrible-looking fedora. Platitudes like, “You know she’s a lady,” also highlight this lounge singer mode, but the song is far too conventional for his affectations to land with any honesty. Similarly, his take on Elvis in “Watch Me Take It Away” offers little nuance, only chintzy cock rock.
Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams finds its true comfort zone when it is simply sweet. The opening tracks “A Time and Place” and “Do You Know Me by Heart,” as well as the closing “C’est Toi (Extended)” are tried and true love songs that take their time. They fully embrace the majesty of the American songbook without jamming in any rock’n’roll, winkingly or otherwise. His smoky baritone does the songs justice, though he's still more of an imitator of the past than he is a student of the past. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam’s 2016 collaboration, for contrast, added excitement and contemporary sounds to revive bygone trends. Making an album like this, an album of ancient ballads requires subtle innovation. Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams is a focused record with several wonderful songs. It’s not novel, nor does it attempt to be, just like those old 45s it so fondly recalls.