The story of Acetone is one filled with dichotomies. One of promise and disappointment, calmness and noise, darkness and light, reverence and indifference, and of tender souls and hard drugs. Formed in 1992, comprising Richie Lee (bass, vocals), Mark Lightcap (guitar, vocals) and Steve Hadley (drums), the LA band were one of many swept up in the post-Nirvana gold rush and signed for a huge advance, only for them to later fade into a distant memory, a spectre of unfulfilled potential.
However, while their trajectory fitted into a familiar formula during an era when bands were signed impulsively and thrust into the limelight seemingly overnight, their music slotted less neatly into a prescriptive pattern. They weren’t some watered-down grunge band, post-hardcore noise outfit or a group trading on that predictable loud-quiet-loud vibe; instead they existed between the cracks. They floated between the stirring songcraft of Big Star, the guitar squeal of The Stooges and the woozy melodies of later-era Velvets, topped off with heavy lashings of country and touches of psychedelia, all wrapped up with a touch of sunshine-kissed dream pop and hypnotic, druggy grooves. Success never truly came, and the band ended in tragedy with the 2001 suicide of Lee, aged just 34. For decades they seemed forgotten, but in recent years a Light In The Attic Compilation, 1992-2001, along with a biography by Sam Sweet, Hadley Lee Lightcap, has seen the legacy and output of the band spotlit and reassessed. Now this boxset presents the entire released catalogue of the band, plus an unreleased bonus LP of outtakes and demos, alongside a 60-page booklet in which the likes of Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce and Matmos’s Drew Davies write with real warmth about their love for the trio. Pierce offers: “In their short time Acetone made the music they needed to hear. Music that filled the gaps, cleared the fog, and made sense of the rattle of life. Music that touched the edges. Full of frailty, love, pain, satisfaction, disquiet, and boredom.”
For a band capable of making such tender, delicate and endearingly beautiful music as Acetone, it’s a jarring image to think that they were once deemed “too messy and too much trouble” for Pierce, hardly a straight-edge poster boy, to get in touch with. However, it’s a story that aptly sums up a group who were certainly multi-layered, and for whom darkness often co-existed alongside moments of staggering beauty.
The circulation of their self-recorded demo tape in 1992 created a buzz, and they were soon subject to a label bidding war. Despite never having released a record and being somewhat of an unknown entity, they were signed as the first act to Vernon Yard Recordings (a subsidiary of Virgin) for $400,000. There was real expectation for the band, both externally and internally, and tours with label mates (The) Verve were scheduled – with Oasis on the same bill – as plans were locked into place for Acetone to be pushed and promoted as a breakthrough act.
Their debut EP, “Acetone”, and album, Cindy, both came in 1993. The former merged screeching guitars on “I’m Gone” with the more restrained, unwinding and post-rock tonalities of “Cindy”, and suggests a band still in the stages of locating its key sense of personality, sound and style. The swiftly arriving Cindy LP, however,already feels much more fully realised, combining the edge, volume and bite of some of the EP with a gentleness and melodic flair that would in many ways come to define the band.
The opening “Come On” is an unashamed homage to The Velvet Underground’s “Ocean”, with a lyrical refrain of “I’m still waiting” that pulls on the Bob Marley & The Wailers track of the same name so hard that Chris Blackwell requested royalties. There are nods, winks and thefts throughout – one track is even called “Pinch”, perhaps knowingly – from the Grease-referencing “Chills” to Isaac Hayes’s version of “Walk On By” reflected in “Sundown”, via more flavours of the VU elsewhere.
Yet even when operating within someone else’s sonic template, the band manage to carve out a unique space of their own to operate in – forging their own personality while standing in the shadows of others. Perhaps this is most beautifully realised on “Louise”, a song plucked straight from the world of the self-titled VU album, all languid, woozy, melody-drenched guitar lines that slowly unfurl with almost doo-wop vocals and the gorgeous, lullaby-esque refrain of “just close your eyes”.
Despite drugs increasingly becoming an issue – overdoses, trips to hospitals, stints in rehab – Acetone managed a fairly prolific run between 1995-97, releasing an EP of country covers,“I Guess I Would”, and two full-length albums. “I Guess I Would” applies the band’s drowsy, almost Hawaiian tone to tracks by the Flying Burrito Brothers and John Pine, but the deeply slowed-down nature of the record is perhaps representative of a band who were struggling to hold on to a sense of momentum and dynamism as hard drugs took hold.
Similarly, 1996’s If You Only Knew is stripped-back and slowed-down with a darker tone permeating much of it. However, against a backdrop of turmoil, there’s a wealth of beauty to be extracted. While some of Lee’s vocals sometimes feel a little lost and distant on the album, the band are capable of creating swirling atmospherics and hypnotic grooves: “Hound Dog” and the bleakly titled “I’ve Enjoyed As Much Of This As I Can Stand” recall nothing so much as Zuma-era Neil Young & Crazy Horse.
It’s fitting, then, that after being dropped by Vernon Yard, the band’s final two albums would be on Young’s own Vapor Records. 1997’s Acetone and 2000’s York Blvd. may not have brought the success they once hoped for, but they did see the band bow out with grace, flair and some stirring music that still feels incredibly free of a date-stamp.
While there’s a sense that the time spent around Pierce and his music may have worked its way into some of the band’s final record – the opening “Things Are Gonna Be Alright” could be an outtake from Spiritualized’s Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space – there’s an assuredness about the album. It merges the band’s by now distinct melodic haze with punch and bite, as wailing guitars wrestle with bursts of freshly added organ and Lee and Lightcap’s interlocking harmonies.
Despite the turbulent journey, the final York Blvd. feels less like an implosion, more a document of a band re-energised and having fun, which makes the suicide of Lee the year after its release all the more tragic. While he no doubt falls into the category of several talented, and perhaps a little fragile and troubled, singers and songwriters who died this way in the 2000s – from Elliott Smith and Mark Linkous to Vic Chestnutt – Lee has never had the same posthumous attention or adulation. This boxset successfully remedies that, not only highlighting his devastating and clearly underappreciated talent, but also showcasing the combined forces of a band that at their best can match Big Star, Yo La Tengo, Low and other outfits whose legacies feel enshrined in the history of alternative music. Perhaps now Acetone can finally join them.