The Hand in the Ocean
by Patrick Dunn
Call it what you want--indie folk, folk-rock, Americana--but banjo-driven hooks and plaintive country-influenced melodies are the pop music flavor of the moment, from Mumford & Sons to the Lumineers. Detroit band the Hand in the Ocean prefers the term "post-folk" for their take on that sound, acknowledging the group's distance from true traditional folk, yet the trio summons an authenticity much greater than its prepackaged radio counterparts. Since its formation in 2011, the group has slowly been making a name for itself in southeast Michigan with its simple but powerful rustic style.
The members of the Hand in the Ocean--vocalist Nate Tapling and guitar/banjo players Jordan Evans and Jeremy Dulac--are all former school friends in one way or another. Tapling and Evans met in high school and began collaborating under the moniker Bullfrog and the Dragon. Dulac joined the band while the three were attending Ferris State University, after which the group's name was changed to the slightly less confounding the Hand in the Ocean. Despite that pesky "folk" label, the players are drawn together by diverse musical influences ranging from indie rock to hardcore punk, along with some contemporary folk.
Onstage, the band presents an unassuming dynamic at first: Dulac and Evans almost fade into the background, handling the group's acoustic instrumental work with near detachment. But that's all just as well, because when Tapling opens his mouth it's doubtful you'll be paying much attention to anything else. Tapling's pleading, quavering vocal work has a go-for-broke emotional dynamic that's impossible to ignore, and it doesn't matter if there's a microphone to amplify it. The frontman's formidable pipes easily carry across a small room all on their own. Contorting his face with feeling and hunching his tall, stocky frame forward, Tapling sings each line like it's torn directly from the gut. Vocalists don't come much more impassioned--or committed--than this. And while Tapling commands the spotlight, Dulac and Evans contribute excellent, sometimes intricate work on the banjo and guitar,
lending the band's minor-key balladry its fundamental propulsive energy.
The band certainly deserves the comparison to Mumford & Sons and other smash-success folkies; Tapling's voice is an eerie dead ringer for Mumford frontman Marcus Mumford. But where Mumford can seem like a blow-dried, calculated industry attempt to play into the indie folk craze, the Hand in the Ocean feels guileless and earnest. The band's melancholy lyrics come from a place of sincere youthful uncertainty and worry, and each performance from Tapling feels like a genuine act of catharsis. After a handful of dates opening for fellow local folk acts like Match By Match, the Hand in the Ocean's members have certainly proven they've got chops. With a proper album and some headlining dates, it's not unthinkable that this band could garner the following to take "post-folk" to the top of the charts.
The Hand in the Ocean plays Woodruff's March 1 with Match By Match and the Finer Things.
[Originally published in March, 2013.]