Some bands end up sidelined through cruel twists of fate. Others seem to actively seek mainstream oblivion. Judging by this anthology, Los Angeles-trio Acetone had a foot planted in each camp.
Despite its often spellbinding beauty, Acetone’s subdued sound must have been a hard sell in a Nirvana- and grunge-obsessed musical landscape: there are no distortion pedals being abused on these 16 tracks, many (possibly too many for newcomers hoping for a Best Of... approach rather than curios such as the band’s admittedly hugely affecting take on the “Midnight Cowboy” theme) of them previously unreleased.
Various famous admirers tried to boost the trio’s flagging profile: for examples, Acetone’s later albums were released on Neil Young’s Vapor Records label. Despite good intentions, you can’t help but flinch at the thought of how a rowdy arena-sized throng waiting for The Verve (who Acetone supported) in their “Bittersweet Symphony” pomp might have reacted to tunes as subtle and diffident in their slow-pulse throb and barely-thereness as “Germs”. After six critically acclaimed but roundly ignored records, the trio disbanded after the death of singer/bassist Richie Lee, whose Rolling Stone obituary marked the first and only time Acetone troubled the national press in the US.
With hindsight, Acetone’s poor commercial fortunes were both an obvious injustice and entirely predictable. This clearly wasn’t a band who were eager to break out of the low-key aesthetic they’d thoroughly mastered in order to be noticed and accepted. Think of the third Velvet Underground album without the rowdily rocking cuts or the same band’s Loaded playing on half-speed, with hints of J.J. Cale’s unhurried swamp grooves (especially on the lively – relatively speaking – “Chew”), narcoleptic Beach Boys daydreaming hazily in the West Coast sun, or the blearily drifting contemporaries Spiritualized: Acetone made unhurried music that’s virtually begging to be listened to in solitude and during the most quiet and darkest times of the day. Not an easy sell, in other words.
This is stuff that requires a little bit of patience to reveal its riches. Initially the sluggish tempos and half-whispered vocals may suggest that both the band and the listener may nod off before making it to the end of the tune, which explains comparisons to ‘sadcore’ acts ala Morphine or Low. But there’s a singular steeliness to the proceedings, too: the perpetual whiff of melancholy that lingers over tracks such as the stunning “Vibrato” is often accompanied by a sinewy groove that speaks of endless hours spent in garages getting the band’s nuanced but thoroughly stripped-down trio sound together, as well as the band’s affinity with American roots music. Acetone may have preferred to follow the silent way, but they were the strong, silent types, which makes the contents of 1992 – 2001 resonate so strongly now.