Cult favorite octet Sidewalk Chalk is at it again with their latest album, Shoulder Season, comprised of nine never before recorded songs, each tracked during one of the band’s seven live performances across the United States. For those who might not be in the know, Sidewalk Chalk is the brainchild of eight creative minds invested in the hip-hop, jazz, and soul traditions of America’s golden age of music. Comprised of Rico Sisney (MC), Maggie Vagle (vocals), Charlie Coffeen (keys), Garrett McGinn (bass), Tyler Berg (drums), Jumaane Taylor (taps), David Ben-Porat (trombone), and the aptly-named Sam Trump (trumpet), the group produces a “jazz-hop” blend unlike any other on the modern scene. The collective takes an overarching retroflex throughout the record, delivering on promises of energetic live performances and a new dualist’s philosophy invoked into their songwriting that is a pleasure for both the ears and the mind to behold.
Where critically-acclaimed Leaves faltered, namely in terms of sameness of beats and choices of instrumentation, as well as occasionally languid bars being dropped by Sisney, Shoulder Season more than picks up the pace. Straight out of the gate, Sisney delivers a set of infectiously polysyllabic bars set against a strong beat produced by the band’s signature mix of jazz and hip-hop on opening track “Thin Line”, featuring a hefty rhythm supported by a strong bassline. The real moment where Sidewalk Chalk shows off their embracement for expanded horizons, however, begins on follow-up track “Don’t Cry”, which features an atmospheric, almost otherworldly synth machine that melds surprisingly well with an organic drum-based percussion mixed with the taps that Leaves had gotten listeners so well-acquainted with. The techno expansion continues in ballad “Blue” with some airy, translucent electronic keys and chimes being produced alongside a bombastic horn section that really drives the band’s vision for a dilated instrumental organization forward.
Arguably, Shoulder Season’s most seasoned moment comes from the racially-themed “Them, Us”. Sisney delivers the best bars of his career thus far on the track, becoming charged with an impassioned vigor that carries him like a true virtuoso of the rap scene, mixing emotion with technical prowess to such a fine degree that it wouldn’t be out of line to say that he could spit against the most well-known MCs in the business and hold his own, if not outright come out as the winner. The track is the best example of Sidewalk Chalk’s steps towards an overarching theme of duality for the record, and stands as a potent track that’s innovative to the scene from both a musical and lyrical sense. By all means, it stands with John Legend and Common’s “Glory” as songs from the scene that absolutely need to be heard, and wholly deserve the praise that they’re receiving.
The band also has a moment with the evocatively positive “FiveTWELVE”, featuring a set of beautiful cadences from Vagle before Sisney delivers bars just about as good as the aforementioned “Them, Us”. If casual listeners were to be guided towards any two tracks on Shoulder Season as the only two they’d ever pay audience to, these two would be it. The band plays with soulful funk influences on the final three tracks, “So Close”, “Paintbrush”, and “Vibration”, each of which are varying levels of great and memorable depending on who’s listening. The stars of the album are arguably stacked near the front of the record, but these tracks close things up in a way that is more innovative and simultaneously cohesive than any of their past two releases.