Maybe it was all the pot I smoked back then, but Southern California in the mid-1990s sure seems idyllic in retrospect. Rent was still fairly cheap, and the biggest bother for music fans was wading through the glut of major-label product in the wake of Nirvana. This was the setting in which most of us slept through the career of Acetone, now commemorated by the stirring compilation, 1992-2001 (Light In The Attic Records). Our collective snooze isn’t totally surprising, considering how the Los Angeles trio played enchanting indie-rock lullabies carved out of surf instrumentals, country and western, soul music, and lounge music. Bassist Richie Lee and guitarist Mark Lightcap cooed sweet nothings from lonesome lyrics, and Steve Hadley tapped out light, impressionistic meters. When Acetone hit its stride, guitar, bass, and drums melted into water-colored soundscapes — a naturalistic shoegaze that made fans of like-minded groups like Mazzy Star, Spiritualized, and the Verve.
1991-2001 draws rather sparingly from the Acetone official discography (four albums and three EPs), giving equal space to unreleased tracks and recently-unearthed home recordings. I recall that Acetone played rockers as well, maybe not always convincingly, yet you’d never know it from this compilation’s focus on the band’s dreamy style. The result is a narcotic listening experience that lets considerable air and light into an intimate sound. Intriguingly, 1991-2001 accompanies a new music biography, Hadley Lee Lightcap by Sam Sweet. The book traces Acetone’s rise from of the Cal Arts/Newport Beach nexus (the catalyzing of art-college music by suburban networks being a recurring theme in music history) to become the ur-band for today’s buzzing Highland Park scene. The darkness lurking behind the music is made clear in the figure of Richie Lee, who committed suicide in 2001, but Hadley Lee Lightcap stresses the beauty in Acetone as a story and a sound specific to the arid concrete and scrub-brush landscape of 90s Los Angeles. An obscure band could hardly ask for a nicer valentine than this compilation and this book.
Postscript: The surviving members of Acetone will be reuniting next month for one performance in Los Angeles, with old friends filling in for Lee. I haven’t heard much about this reunion — the spotlight will never suit Acetone, I guess — but the appearance of Acetone’s long-time champion Hope Sandoval should make for a memorable evening.
A sociology professor living in upstate New York, Leonard Nevarez is patiently waiting until his kids are old enough for a family roadtrip to Maryland Deathfest. He blogs at musicalurbanism.org and is writing a book about Martha & the Muffins and the late 70s/early 80s downtown Toronto music scene.