For a band whose touchstone would soon become obdurate slowness, Acetone certainly began on the record industry’s fast track. In the early ’90s, when music executives were quick with cash, the unproven trio of California students inked a deal with a nascent Virgin imprint on a demo alone. On the prowl for the next alt-rock crossover phenomenon, Vernon Yard—named for the English enclave where Virgin began two decades earlier—offered Acetone $400,000 (nearly a million today), making them the inaugural act on a roster that would soon include the Verve, Low, and David Gray.
There were promotional budgets, tours with Oasis and Garbage, and the growing realization that their pained, gorgeous, and patient records could never actually recoup those kinds of post-Nirvana costs. This was not music for MTV but instead for a meditative and melancholy cloister, folks with the time and temperament to sit still with these graceful testaments to existential ache. After Vernon Yard dropped Acetone into a legacy of penury, they made two of indie rock’s most exquisite albums for Neil Young’s new Vapor label. Still, those didn’t take. And in 2001, at 34, bassist Richie Lee—whose twilit voice and heroin woes had been Acetone’s angel and devil—died by suicide. Ever since, Acetone have continued their descent into cultish obscurity, their records long out of print and mostly not streaming, a band on the fast track to the record industry’s wasteland.
At last, I’m still waiting. puts Acetone on their proper pedestal as one of their generation’s most hypnotic acts. They are like Bedhead without the morning-time stiffness or Mojave 3 with more earworm ease, a band wrongly forgotten among contemporaries they often bested. A titanic 11xLP box set that collects almost all of Acetone’s recorded work, I’m still waiting. doubles as a love letter for three kids—Lee, drummer Steve Hadley, and guitarist Mark Lightcap—who were lured inside a vicious system that did not know what to do with their muted wonder except write it off as a loss. For the first time ever, their four LPs will be available at once (as a set and as standalone records) and eventually on streaming, having outlived both Vernon Yard and Vapor in aptly tragic fashion. Three decades after Acetone accepted that $400,000 check, their music still radiates a hangdog sort of hope, holding on even as the idea of letting go beckons.
Amid the big-game hunt for the next Nirvana, Acetone looked and sort of sounded the part—Lee’s dirty grunge curls, the beautiful Hadley’s thousand-yard stare, Lightcap’s steely glower. Their Acetone EP, released in 1993, is a fiery baptism of distortion and dynamics, the first three songs grinding through Big Muff riffs and splenetic solos but pausing for uncanny spans of pillowed harmony. “D.F.B.,” a four-minute excoriation of a dead asshole, called “next” during a Stone Temple Pilots/White Zombie Rock Block. But then there’s closer “Cindy,” an imaginative and enigmatic eight-minute devotional about virginity or black-widow-like sacrifice or narcotized oblivion. The song is a seesaw, rising into heavy outbursts before falling repeatedly into quiet passages so vulnerable and delicate that they suggest rehearsal tapes, at least until you notice how intentional the playing is. No faint note is out of place, no twinge of dissonance accidental.
Acetone’s next eight years—that is, nearly their entire oeuvre—unspool from that locus, on four albums that descend toward low-volume silence before rising again for one last outburst. In fact, “Cindy” became such a touchstone that they named their 1993 full-length debut for it without including the track itself. Blistering bits of rock speckled Cindy’s 55 minutes, like the tube-screaming “Pinch” or the space-rock ascendance of “Endless Summer.” But they are mere blisters, aberrations on a surface so wide and smooth it’s easy to get lost there. A plea to a lover set on leaving, “Louise,” moves with doo-wop grace, subdued until it twinkles as faintly as a distant star. Low would not release I Could Live in Hope for another year, so “No Need Swim” gets to their paradigm—gentle but insistent harmonies that dovetail so well they sound like one voice and its shadow, over a rhythm that hides inside that heat—first. “I’m a molecule of water, flying over Niagara Falls,” they sing, masterfully framing existence as a free fall into someone else’s inescapable reality.
Indeed, they did soon descend into the merciless pit of the music industry and its endless grind for commercial attention. Hadley and Lee surrendered to heroin, perhaps informing the astral gaze and icy pace of what was becoming their best work but not necessarily helpful for writing more of it. Decamping to a modest Nashville studio for an extended stay, they managed only to make parts of two records. The results were, artistically, worth the expense: I Guess I Would, a brilliant country covers EP, relaxes into the work of George Jones and John Prine like a featherbed, indulging in these little tragedies. A setting of William Blake’s “How Sweet I Roam’d from Field to Field,” earlier attempted by the Fugs, is so hazy it feels like ascending heavenward through clouds, life itself just a memory.
They revel in that languid state for 1995’s If You Only Knew, having finally accepted how they wanted to sound. The distortion and vim of just two years earlier appears here only as aberrations, little ripples on a seemingly placid pool where the real drama lurks beneath the veneer. A song so still its melodic motion barely registers, “Esque” is pure heartbreak, a confession from an addict who can’t quite register some bad thing that might have happened yesterday. “When You’re Gone” is another transmission from the edge of confusion, now turned toward a future Lee isn’t sure he has. Guitar and bass lock into a slow-motion death waltz. This is Acetone at the lip of an abyss, where the view is grand but the stakes are grander still.
Turmoil soon ensued between Acetone and Vernon Yard, then entangled in a lawsuit from Verve Records about the use of the name the Verve, just as that band became Vernon Yard’s star. Lee accused the label of not working hard enough to promote the band’s record, not pushing it into enough stores. On the other hand, what was Vernon Yard to do with a big investment who had gone so quiet they’d barely be audible through a car’s FM receiver? Lee rightly rejected grunge as Acetone’s scene and got flustered when folks called him the next Gram Parsons or suggested Acetone were “the new kings of the No Depression movement,” a coronation that vastly overestimated the stylistic boundaries of that scene. What were Acetone trying to be, anyway? Vernon Yard didn’t stick around to find out, cutting them loose after If You Only Knew spiraled toward the cutout bin.
And so, as though in retribution, they made their masterpiece for Neil Young. The 12-track Acetone is focused and intentional in a way the band had never been, sorting through the suffering of survival with tenderness and intensity. “All You Know” is a warped country nightmare, slide guitar and smeared notes underscoring lines about going onward even as everything goes badly. Vaguely threatening and entirely enchanting, “Might as Well” deploys the notion that no one really cares about anyone else as a strange romantic lure. It’s an invitation to disappear completely into being unknown.
All of the record goes on in this way: a quiet quest for the silver linings that come with continuing, in spite of the struggles. This is the last record Acetone would self-produce, and the lessons of their Vernon Yard tenure serve them well. Everything is mic’d so closely that it often feels as if you’re resting your head on Hadley’s snare or Lightcap’s amplifier, that they’re whispering to you as Lee sorts through notebooks of soft blue feelings. Acetone chafed at subgenres, “slowcore” in particular. But Acetone is both apogee and access point for the form, its effortless sense of melody turning its shuffles and sways into vortices.
It is tempting to reduce Acetone’s end and even existence to Lee’s suicide—“to [overwrite] creative and contingent decisions with a fatal trajectory that seems both inescapable and unverifiable,” Drew Daniel of Matmos writes in this set’s empathetic and incisive liner notes. But Acetone’s final album, 2000’s ***York Blvd.***, suggests that they had already reached their cruising altitude, that they were now gilding a wonderfully gray lily. (Prime Cuts, a newly compiled potpourri of demos, lost tracks, and live recordings, confirms that sense.) Vapor enlisted Eric Sarafin, who had previously mixed several Ben Harper records, to helm the sessions, while Acetone brought in Jason Yates to add subtle organ lines. Lightcap even plays trumpet. Much of that old crunch returns alongside a dash of outright soul, both marketing hooks in waiting. But the best songs, like “Stray” or “One Drop,” are archetypal Acetone: methodical drifts toward a future that may not even exist.
York Blvd. begins with “Things Are Gonna Be Alright,” a sunnily titled song for a country still lingering in the afterglow of “You Get What You Give.” But it was a feint for a tune that, like Acetone’s music at large, soon went quiet and dark. “You may try and try again/Not to be unsatisfied, just squeezing by one more time,” they sing as the riff ricochets repeatedly, vaguely peppy despite what’s coming. “But how long do you go on/Believing things are gonna be alright?”
As with most things Acetone ever made, it is simultaneously disarming and unsettling, a balm for the ears that also registers as a lump in the throat. Hearing Lightcap and Lee sing those lines now, it’s hard not to grieve the way it all went down for Acetone, their striking music lost to the shuffle of major labels and ephemeral trends. At least you can hear it now, in this box of absolute treasure salvaged from the collective cultural jetsam of the ’90s.