Charleston has blossomed into a popular music hub in the last 10 years. Sure, there have always been interesting tunes and artists coming out of the Lowcountry, but the scene is heading into the new decade with heightened momentum and clout, thanks to popular recording studios, venues, and artists. But, one thing seems to be missing from the formula many successful music scenes have established: honest and thoughtful criticism.
The music community is a tight-knit group with more friends working in tandem than enemies competing for attention. Behind closed doors, opinions are exchanged between artists in the hopes of making the best music possible; the omitted ingredient, though, is the outside perspective found in written critical analysis. It may hurt to read something negative about a local album or song, but many artists and writers for several South Carolina publications tend to think that it’s time for the scene to embrace criticism to better develop Holy City music.
Most news sources in the city cater to food, theater, and film reviews with varying degrees of controversy, but honest evaluations of the local music scene are scarce. But, that’s not always for lack of trying. Kalyn Oyer, editor of Charleston Scene with The Post and Courier, wrote reviews for her publication through 2018, but discontinued them after her coverage expanded to visual arts, theater, and events. Despite this, she admits that criticism is good for the music scene’s development.
“I believe we need more critics,” Oyer says. “Without criticism, it’s hard for a music or arts scene to grow. With criticism comes the opportunity for improvement and a chance for truly outstanding art to be put in the spotlight.”
The Charleston City Paper finds itself in a similar situation. In the past, our publication has printed album reviews, but they were often far from the critical analysis required to push an artist to a new height. The long-running “In the Jukebox” series featured brief song descriptions, with little criticism.
City Paper editor Sam Spence says that resources have been one of the biggest hurdles to clear for music criticism. “There’s so much creative energy around Charleston that many weeks we can’t even preview all the shows we want to, which unfortunately means that criticism falls by the wayside,” he says. “We’re certainly not afraid of ruffling feathers. Charleston City Paper has had award-winning writers tackling local restaurants and stage reviews for years, not to mention the opinion columns that run in every single issue.”
During his tenure as the music editor at Free Times in Columbia, Jordan Lawrence was known in Soda City for not pulling any punches in his music reviews; #BlameJordan began trending on Twitter, sometimes as a joke, among Columbia artists for a reason. But, Lawrence believes that backlash can be a sign that a publication is doing something right.
“I think it can be hard for an artist to see all the spots where they can grow or the new ideas they can introduce if they’re only being told what they want to hear about their work,” he says. “That’s one of the important roles in which criticism comes in: It shows an honest opinion that’s not their perspective on their work and those kinds of things give them another view on what they’re doing.”
Free Times has made a conscious attempt to “be more critical” since Lawrence became the managing editor in August 2019, he says. “A good honest critic will say things that an artist’s friends won’t, an artist’s peers won’t. Without good artist criticism, I think a lot of times what a musician or any artist will get into is a feedback loop in terms of the responses they’re getting and the opinions that are offered on their work.”
Extra Chill is possibly the most popular music outlet in Charleston that posts the occasional negative review. Founder and editor Chris Huber says that while he’s cautious about articles that are too glowing or harsh, reviews have become some of the most popular content on his website.
Their reviews are occasionally critical but rarely ruthless, usually written by local music fans who are quick to provide constructive criticism instead of brutal takedowns fit for Pitchfork.
Huber also believes that tasteful criticism is beneficial to artists, citing his October review of Whitehall’s recent single, “Learning to Dance.” In the article, he comments that Whitehall without their saxophonist, Pat Magwood, “is a little bit disappointing.”
“It’s not that they don’t sound good without the sax, but the sax did make their sound much more unique,” he adds in the review. Vocalist and guitarist Paddy McKiernan says that, while they don’t agree with the critique, they were happy to have the changing lineup acknowledged, and reached out to Huber to say that there were no hard feelings.
“They actually texted me and thanked me for being honest,” Huber recalls. “Stuff like that I guess just makes an artist think about what they’re making and if it can be better, instead of assuming that what they’re making is the best thing they could possibly make.”
The first somewhat critical article that Extra Chill posted was DJ Edwards’ review of punk band Anergy’s debut EP, Anergy Drink. The album received some moderate praise, some tepid song descriptions, and one critical segment where Edwards calls the EP’s final song a “disappointment.” The release garnered a three out of five, to which Anergy drummer Gabe Segarra says he was happy someone took the time to listen to his music.
“That is something that a lot of people don’t do,” he adds. “I could tell he actually listened to it because a lot of that stuff he said — it was spot on.”
“If he criticizes one song, that’s OK because it just means the compliments that he gives the other four are that much more meaningful to me,” says Segarra. “I’ve seen a lot of reviews of things where people don’t really seem like they’re trying to have any criticism. But, that one felt genuine to me. At least I know he’s being honest when he said he liked the other ones.”
When asked if criticism can help grow a music scene, Segarra believes that it can, “for the most part.”
“It definitely can be hard to take the criticism,” he says, “but at the same time, if you want to be a successful artist, you have to learn to take that criticism. If you ever get to a higher level than just local music, people are going to criticize you. It’s just the way it is and you have to learn to roll with the punches.”
There isn’t a field guide to review writing because, oddly enough, it’s an artform by itself. Composing a good review takes practice, thought, and care.
Oyer believes that readers shouldn’t always take a review at face value. “When done properly, a review serves as a guide to the album, noting peak moments and impressive techniques, and also places that might not have shined as brightly. In the end, it’s all an opinion,” she says.
Huber calls for nuance when writing a review. “If you trash Hootie & the Blowfish, it’s not going to ruin their career,” Huber notes. “You can trash a SUSTO album or bands that are already established, but when you have a lower-level band, you’ve got to keep in mind the context of the scene that you’re writing for.”
Lawrence’s opinion parallels Huber’s, saying that bands of differing statures should be critically evaluated differently. “There’s no point in saying X local act you haven’t heard of has their first album and here’s why it’s not good. That does nobody any favors,” he says. “But, if the Restoration comes out with an album that has problems, we’re going to talk about what those problems are because they’ve risen to that level. In a weird way, you have to earn the right to be negatively criticized.”
Whether that principle applies to Andrew Halley is debatable. Halley, previously the bassist and vocalist for popular local rock band SonderBlue, released his debut solo album Time Ghosts under the moniker JD Moon in October. Weeks later, the LP received arguably the harshest review a Charleston artist has seen from the local press in years.
“Time Ghosts lacks insufficient [sic] evidence proving any sort of proof that he could ‘front his own band,'” reviewer and former City Paper intern Matt Keady wrote for Extra Chill in November.
Huber recalls being apprehensive about the review, but posted it anyway. “That kind of blew up in my face,” he says. Several members of the Charleston music community approached him afterward to tell him that the review was too hard on Halley and was too personal.
Halley was initially “a little depressed” after reading the review, but says that there’s a lot of positivity that stemmed from it. “The amount of people that hit me up and said, ‘Hey, I love you, I love your music, you’ve helped me through a lot of hard times,’ stuff like that — it was really beautiful to see that,” he recalls. Halley says that he’s got about 14 songs written and ready to go for another album.
Keady tells the City Paper that, while he stands by the majority of the album review, he has reevaluated sections of it. “What I took away from this the most is to be a good guy who has high expectations for music, and not go for [an artist’s] neck,” he says. “There were some parts that I feel like I definitely could have taken out or some parts that I could have said in a much more realistic way.”
Despite the review, Halley believes that there should be more critical analysis in the local music scene. “Why not? It’s cool,” he says. “I think everyone’s entitled to their opinion. I think that any publicity is good publicity.”
If Halley can handle that, it’s a good sign that other artists can take some well-meaning constructive criticism.
If you are interested in writing thought-provoking reviews of local music, send your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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