Eccentric Music: Vagabond Swing’s Soundtrack to an Untimely Death

By Daniel Garrett

Vagabond Swing, Soundtrack to an Untimely Death
Recorded, mixed and mastered by Tony Daigle
Vagabond Swing, 2011

Vagabond Swing’s Soundtrack to an Untimely Death is beautiful, complex, crazy music, elegant and rough, serious and joking, a blend of jazz, rock, and other forms of music (I hear something Latinate: Spanish, Italian); and the album seems to have been inspired, at least partly, by a short invented story—noted in brief chapters on the album’s illustrated inside jacket—of a love found, lost, and murdered, ending in a tribute to Django Reinhardt.  I doubt that Vagabond Swing has much competition, as this is a very eccentric music.  The members of Vagabond Swing are Jessie Duplechain, Jon Stone, Hayden Talley, Roy Durand, Josh Leblanc, and someone named Weebor; and Soundtrack to an Untimely Death is a great—imaginative, passionate, unique—calling card.

I am not sure how closely music ever follows a story, but listening one can pick up in the lyrics and the shifting mood of the music different aspects of the story told on Soundtrack to an Untimely Death.  In the first part—‘Once Upon a Heist’—of “Chapter 1,” villainous horsemen attempt robbing a train; and the album begins with a beat with a bit of a thrash, a train whistle, a horn, and a howling voice.  The beat that takes over is quick and comic, and a self-dramatizing voice offers robbery instructions and threats (the voice brings to mind Tom Waits and NickCave; a voice with a raw punk grain).  The music has panoramic richness.  In the second part of the first chapter, the instrumental piece ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Couillon,’ the trumpet, sounding like more than one horn, augments a galloping beat, and the music has a chameleon intricacy, Spanish being one of its accents, with a lot of drama, drive, and energy.  The music sounds too complex to be improvised (I imagine the musicians must be reading music sheets to keep up).

The musical beginning of “Chapter 2” sounds intentionally pedestrian, as when convention or duty dictates behavior (it sounds like a bar scene, with one person giving in to the desire of another).  A voice says, “Put your hand on my knee” and “I’ll be the man that you want me to be.”  Then, there is recourse to a private space, and an erotic act takes place, followed by brassy music, in a movement or song called ‘Drop  Trou.’  How much does that have to do with the written story, in which a young woman, Daisy, is torn between two lovers, one a vagabond horseman-thief, and the other a farmer, whom she will marry and rear a son with, in the text of “Chapter 2”?  Daisy’s affection or attraction to the vagabond lasts, despite her family responsibilities.  For the second musical movement—‘Kampana/Merry Go Wrong’—of “Chapter 2,” there is clapping and a kind of circle-group beat that becomes heavy and shuffling, a trumpet, and, before long, an element of funk, a bit of psychedelia, then a rhythm that jazz patrons would recognize, and a flutter of notes before a tumult that ends in unified voices.

In “Chapter 3” (‘The Great Trick’), the thieving horsemen find Daisy, and her husband kills most of them, but not Daisy’s former flame; and the killing leaves Daisy unhappy in “Chapter 4” (‘Daisy and the Vagabond’).  Killing someone is, of course, the ultimate repudiation; a rejection of a person and of that person’s relation to oneself and the world: thought made (dead) flesh.  In ‘The Great Trick,’ is a large drum sound—it has a magnified echo—reminding me of 1970s rock, and there are slurred words, sounding drunken, a light interlude, then a bullet-like rhythm.  A woman whispers something, and a man admits, “I hear what I want to hear.”  There is a little gypsy music, and weird nature sounds.  The next movement (‘Daisy and the Vagabond’)  begins with what sounds like a contented voice (the farmer’s?) and a marching band, but then, “one day in my garden, I saw a sight not to see,” the kind of a man seen in dreams (a woman’s desire; a rival male’s fear).  There is an air of dramatic decision, of momentum.

There is more murder in the text of “Chapter 5” (‘Soundtrack to an Untimely Death’) when the farmer realizes Daisy is involved with the vagabond horseman.  Musically, there are little mandolin trills, a sad and soaring (possibly elegiac) trumpet, a dying flutter of notes, and a big drum sound, before a roaming man—now, the farmer—speaks of “my life spent running from my crime,” the murder of wife and lover, after beginning to believe his son is not his but that of the vagabond.  The music rumbles with renewed life, and the words suggest a return home, ending with a crowing bird and a ringing bell.

Although the previous music advanced the story to exile in the city and a return home, the text for “Chapter 6” notes that the father leaves his field for the city, and years later returns to the now grown son he had helped to rear, and there is—as with many fathers and sons in legend and myth—a bloody meeting between the two.  The album Soundtrack to an Untimely Death by Vagabond Swing, a band of multi-talented individuals, ends with a tribute to Django Reinhardt; a conclusion of trumpet, harmonic voices, and disparate rhythms—light, sultry, jazzy, eastern.  Indeed, keyboardist Weebor and guitarist Jessie Duplechain, violinist Jon Stone, upright bassist Hayden Talley, drummer Roy Durand, and trumpeter Josh Leblanc—with Duplechain, Stone, Durand, Leblanc, and Weebor doing vocal work—and the participation of Jamie Landry and Alex Brannon on cello, and other friends helping with sound effects, have produced in Soundtrack to an Untimely Death something imaginative, passionate, and unique.

DanielGarrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Garrett originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.”  He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth