Oceanography is the music project of Oakland, California-based singer-songwriter and guitarist Brian Kelly. I recently learned about him when he followed me on Twitter and reached out to me about his music, which I liked at first listen. Drawing from an eclectic mix of styles and genres such as alternative rock, garage, rock’n’roll, punk, folk and pop, and expressed though exquisite guitar work, intelligent lyrics and arresting, emotion-packed vocals that remind me at times of Bono, Adam Duritz of Counting Crows or Robert Smith of The Cure, Oceanography creates melodically beautiful and incredibly compelling songs. Why he’s not more well-known is a mystery to me, as he’s really good!
He released two EPs, the first in 2011 simply titled EP1, followed a year later by the excellent Parachutes of Plenty, receiving critical acclaim from numerous Bay Area music critics. Then, after a seven-year hiatus, he dropped his brilliant debut album Collier Canyon in 2019. Named after a winding road in the hills outside of Livermore, California, a small city east of Oakland where Kelly grew up, he was inspired to write the album after some life-changing events. He explains: “I had planned on moving to LA, but then everything took a turn for the worse. First I was laid off from my job, then my girlfriend (and bandmate) broke up with me. So instead, in my mid-30s, I moved back in with my mom. It was a depressing situation. When I needed to clear my head, I’d take a drive in the hills outside of town.”
For the production and recording of Collier Canyon, Oceanography consisted of Kelly on guitars, bass, synth and vocals, Brock Bowers on drums, and Scott Barwick on keyboards. The album was mixed by Peter Labberton and mastered by Mike Wells. Filled with melancholy but lovely songs about loss and a nostalgia for the past, the album is an outstanding work, and I highly recommend my readers check it out on one of the music streaming sites listed below.
One of the singles Kelly released from the album is “Rainbow Records”, a bittersweet song about missing someone with whom you once had a romantic relationship, but still haven’t gotten over. Back in the days when cassette tapes were popular, many of us would record songs we liked from the radio onto mix tapes we’d make on our portable tape recorders. With this in mind as he thinks back on his own breakup, Kelly wistfully laments: “I’m thinking of you now / I can’t put out the torch, it has to burn out on it’s own / So I pull out your old Maxell tapes and play some radio songs.” He recalls happier times, while quickly acknowledging they’re now gone forever with the passage of time: “I remember you in ’84 knocking it around to ‘Purple Rain’ in the record store / Playing songs we can’t afford, now the tipping point has tipped and our fountain of youth has turned to shit.“
Musically, “Rainbow Records” has a pleasing folk-rock vibe, but with a rather sorrowful undercurrent that makes for a surprisingly impactful track. Kelly’s guitar work is superb, starting off with a beautifully strummed acoustic guitar, over which he layers jangly electric guitar notes along with a humming bass line. Bowers beats the toe-tapping rhythm on drums while Barwick does a fine job with his subtle keyboards. Kelly’s fervent vocals have a strong vulnerability that nicely convey his feelings of heartache and longing expressed in the lyrics.
The terrific video he produced for the song shows a parade of old mix tapes, behind which is an ever-changing background of both real and surreal images, interspersed with footage of Kelly singing the song and playing his guitar.