Cellars is Allene Norton’s synthpop solo project. Her latest album Phases (released by Manifesto and produced by L.A.’s own lionized weirdo Ariel Pink) is not just new, but refreshing and invigorating. Trying to describe the sound of Cellars is easiest if comparing it to obvious '80s influences such as Madonna and Prince. In fact, during her recent live set I saw at El Cid in L.A. two songs were covers: “Purple Rain” in honor of Prince’s passing, and Madonna’s “Like a Prayer." But digging deeper, there are also strong homages to Italo Disco and even a scent of Vaporwave. Melting this all together with vocals akin to a washed out, lo-fi, and demure Gwen Stefani, you have Cellars.
First track “Stircrazy” previews the rest of the album impeccably. It’s saturated and sweet, but distorted and fuzzy. It’s easy to imagine seeing palm trees passing overhead as a convertible zooms along Sunset Boulevard. A plane in the sky, arcing toward an unknown destination – but with Cellars’ stylization, we’re seeing and hearing all this on a small tv set and the antenna may not be bent the right way. Ariel Pink’s influence can be felt from this initial chapter as well -- the playfulness of the bass guitar on “Stircrazy” is a quintessential dip into Pink’s interest with '60s surf rock.
But ultimately this is Allene Norton’s album and rightfully so. By the second track, “Do You Miss Me?,” we’re spellbound. Cellars summons a bouncing Italo beat and sparkling synths as she coos the lyrics dripping with fructose.
“Still in Love," Phases’ first ballad, is overly sentimental but perfectly on purpose. As synth bells ring, and cold drums beat, Norton's warm but distant vocals pine over a philandering loved-one. She’s probably alone on a blue-lit stage somewhere, fog swirling around her as she somberly mourns the relationship.
Other standout tracks such as “Toys” and “I’m Feeling” might at first seems like a complete rip-off of True Blue Madonna, but that’s selling Cellars far too short. Cellars actually manages to take a classic sound associated with the Queen of Pop and re-imagine it into something just as immediate and thrilling. Those wishing that Madonna of yore had never left will find these tracks electrifying.
Critics might be tempted to lump Cellars in with the Synthwave movement that started in the late ‘00s and has continued into the ‘10s. The likenesses are apparent, and Synthwave does foster an electro familiarity synced with nostalgia for the 1980s. However, thanks to Norton’s gooey vocals, Cellars has far more humanity, and therefore Phases glows fabulous, warm, and especially lovely.
By Alexander Rose
Photograph courtesy of Manifesto Records